“The basic mission hasn’t changed—you want students to learn”—David Goldman
It was late February when David Goldman noticed the online chatter about a potentially seismic shift coming to schools nationwide: The novel coronavirus could force a largescale move to online classes.
Goldman, the director of teaching, learning, and assessment at Rutgers University’s largest academic unit, the School of Arts and Sciences, quickly shared the information with his team, Eliza Blau and Jenevieve DeLosSantos, in the Office of Undergraduate Education.
“I told them we need to think about what this would look like if it happens,” Goldman said. “And then everything just gathered steam.”
Indeed, within weeks Rutgers cancelled in-person classes due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a policy which largely continues through the fall 2020 semester. Goldman, Blau, and DeLosSantos, known as the teaching and learning team, soon discovered that their mission promoting best teaching practices had taken on a new urgency.
Attendance at their virtual workshops and seminars swelled, as did requests for one-on-one and department-wide consultations. Professors—from physics to English to economics—sought expertise, guidance, and just plain moral support to manage the unprecedented switch from the classroom to the computer.
One of the first things Blau did before Spring Break was hold a faculty workshop on using the Sakai and Canvas learning management systems to communicate with students.
“We had nearly 100 in each session,” says Blau, an instructional design and technology specialist. “People continued to reach out to us through the semester with questions and concerns. They needed a way to wrap their heads around this, and to know that they can teach in this format and make it effective.”
With the demand escalating through the summer, the team created a two-week seminar on online education, and then added extra sessions to accommodate hundreds of faculty members. They also started new biweekly, live sessions for faculty to discuss their online teaching plans for the fall.
“The focus last March was very much on mastering the basic technology and doing that pivot on a dime,” Goldman said. “But toward the end of spring semester we wanted to steer the conversation toward creating online courses that have a community of inquiry feel, where students are coming together with faculty and connecting.”
That mission, he noted, is truly a mix of art and science.
The team has introduced faculty to the latest technology, such as Hypothes.is, which allows literature students to annotate texts together in real time. They’ve also spread the word about Zoom breakout rooms for dividing an online class into smaller groups.
But good teaching requires more than the right apps. Goldman’s team emphasizes building community in which interaction flows in multiple directions: between teacher and student; students and their classmates, and students and the content.
“Those are our three pillars,” Blau says. “And you have to intentionally build that interaction into your course.”
DeLosSantos, for example, gave her art history class the option of tuning in 20 minutes early, and then spent that time chatting and streaming songs that students requested, everything from The Beatles to the Chicago soundtrack.
“It became this community of people coming together, and that would trickle into our time together studying art,” said DeLosSantos, who is director of special pedagogic projects in OUE as well as an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Art History.
The rapport she built lasted beyond the semester. Some students continued to meet over the summer for weekly online art chats.
“Those moments of engagement made a huge difference, so much so that students continued to meet with me over the summer,” DeLosSantos said.
Faculty say the team has been helpful in myriad ways, from setting up workshops with outside vendors to having discussions about the philosophy of online education.
Brad Evans, a professor and undergraduate chair in the Department of English, said he learned how to face that most dreaded of issues: technological glitches during class.
“We all have had glitches in the last few months, and we will have them moving forward,” Evans said. “David’s point was that the same thing happens in Scott Hall and Murray when, say, the projector won’t turn on, or the lights won’t dim, or a helicopter lands at Johnson & Johnson making it impossible to hear for five minutes.
“You teach around the glitches, finding ways to make it work.”
Charles R. Keeton, dean of the SAS Honors Program, and a professor of physics and astronomy, praised the team’s approach.
“The pandemic has forced us to think about what makes for good teaching,” Keeton said. “The teaching and learning team has facilitated a number of thoughtful, stimulating discussions about pedagogy, with lessons that certainly apply to remote teaching but I hope will transcend the pandemic.”
Goldman noted that each member of his team brings a range of teaching experience and all three have taught at the university level.
“We can talk to faculty because we have been there,” Goldman said. “We care about teaching just like they do.”
That solidarity inspired DeLosSantos to start the online Tea and Teaching program, which meets Friday mornings and has drawn as many as 100 faculty members for informal discussions about remote instruction. DeLosSantos said she came up with the idea after reading about “trauma-informed pedagogy” which focuses on the need for empathy and flexibility when dealing with students affected by the pandemic.
“Nobody was doing that for the faculty, the instructors and the lecturers,” DeLosSantos said. “I felt strongly that we needed a trauma-informed space where people could come and talk and just be an informal low stress space.”