Active Learning Meets Social Distancing

I still remember my first encounter with WiFi in the classroom. It must have been 2003 or 2004. A guy in the front row of one of my composition classes googled something on his laptop one day in the middle of a discussion. (“To google” had not yet become a recognizable infinitive.) We were debating the dubious legalities of private beaches in the US. To this day, I recall the way my brain blew right out the top of my head when I noticed his laptop clearly didn’t have any wires coming out of it. How was he…? What did he…? It was my induction into the digital era.

50 Cent’s “In da Club” wafted from a nearby iPod.

Much has changed since then. Online learning has made monumental strides over the last decade. Students who take well-designed online courses with dedicated and experienced instructors can expect rigorous courses every megabyte as immersive as face-to-face learning environments. In the area of online writing instruction, or “OWI,” the teaching of writing has been elevated to something like an art form.

But for many faculty, the kairotic, happily unpredictable space of the pre-pandemic classroom is still the default mode of instruction. It’s where the magic happens. It’s where most of us began our teaching careers and honed our craft. And many are loathe to trade it in, especially for masks and social distancing in classrooms that are sure to look nothing like the ones we left in early spring. Some proponents of active learning strategies, myself included, are concerned that many teachers will revert to straight lecture in the face of physical distancing and masks.

(c) 2020 / University of Minnesota Center for Educational Innovation,

Things could get worse. In a harrowing essay published in Inside Higher Ed, Norman Clark imagines how the physically-distanced classroom might look a few weeks in. The portrait he paints is not for the faint of heart:

At the start of the semester 20 students were in the room, but six students have had some symptoms recently and are staying home and participating virtually. That number goes up every week. You heard a classmate say that one of their classes reached a point where nearly everyone was having to stay home because they were either sick or had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID, so the faculty member had finally moved to fully online.

You try to listen to your instructor give directions for the day. It’s a little challenging, since the mask muffles her voice. Then it comes time to work with your partner at the table. Sitting six feet apart and wearing a mask means you have to raise your voice to be heard — but so does everyone else in the room. After doing this for two earlier classes, your throat is pretty sore. This doesn’t help your anxiety, since you can’t help wondering if this might be a COVID symptom.

Even if Clark’s dire scenario doesn’t come to pass, there’s no denying that face-to-face, synchronous teaching has many affordances. When practiced by a skilled instructor, the tried-and-true strategies of active learning are pretty hard to beat. There’s the closeness that can develop within the classroom community, and the serendipitous “teaching moments” that arise seemingly out of nowhere in the give-and-take of regular, repeated interaction. Many faculty believe that face-to-face may not require the same degree of time, planning, and organization as online teaching, either; a few very good teachers I admire have built careers on flying by the seat of their pants. Some evidence has surfaced that excessive Zoom-ing can even be detrimental to your mental and physical health. (Who knew?)

Perhaps the most pressing advantage at this moment is that face-to-face feels familiar. In uncertain times, that counts for something. Indeed, there’s a palpable emotional element to the debate about how we should be teaching in Fall 2020 that’s hard to ignore. Proponents of a fully-online fall are making a lot of sense; in a 65-page article with the Nader-esque title, “Unsafe at Any Campus: Don’t Let Colleges Become the Next Cruise Ships, Nursing Homes, and Food Processing Plants,” law professors Peter Huang and Debra Austin make a compelling case for the lingering effects of anxiety on students’ performance. Like others, they are sounding an alarm that we don’t know what we’re getting into. It’s quite possible that we are polishing the brass on the Titanic.

On the other hand, there’s a growing recognition afoot that parents of K-12 children need the infrastructure–both psychic and material–that brick and mortar schooling provides perhaps as much as the kids need to be in school. Masha Gessen, writing in The New Yorker, beautifully articulates what I suspect many faculty feel in their bones:

Community is what students seek when they attend college in person. Sometimes that community is found at parties, but the meaning of collegiate social connections cannot be boiled down to drinking and fraternities. Young people attend college to learn how to think, and thinking is rarely accomplished in solitude. Thinking outside of any conversation—the sort in which it is possible to look your interlocutors in the eye, unmediated by a screen—is difficult beyond measure. Learning alone is nearly impossible. As the pandemic-era explosion of online reading groups illustrates, we need others to help us understand, to articulate and repeat ideas in ways that make them stick in the memory, and to stay engaged.

My own sense is that many college students feel the same way. This may help explain, at least in part, why so many universities around the US have opted for a guarded return to socially-distanced classrooms this fall, including my own.

For many faculty, the kairotic, happily unpredictable space of the pre-pandemic classroom is still the default. It’s where the magic happens.

In April 2020, I was struck reading a post on the WPA-L from John Duffy, Professor of English and the Francis O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame. In it, Duffy articulates a few of my own concerns about teaching writing–or doing anything, really, more than lecturing through a muffled mask–in a socially-distanced classroom:

I’m wondering about the conversations taking place where you teach about writing classes in the fall. The president of Notre Dame, where I teach, announced in a New York Times op-ed that we would be reopening this fall. His essay, which has been widely panned by the faculty, was short on details other than to say we would be testing, tracing, quarantining, wearing masks, and practicing social distancing.

I won’t go into all the problems I see with this plan, except to say that I don’t see how one teaches a writing course if students are spaced six feet apart and speaking to one another through masks. How do writing groups work in socially distanced classrooms? How do group assignments work? Paired work?

When we were told last semester that we’d be teaching online for the remainder of the spring term, I admit I dreaded it. I’d never used Zoom before (full disclosure: I’d never heard of Zoom before) and I’m far less familiar with Panopto, Padlet, huddle boards, and the rest than my colleagues. So I was not enthused, to put it mildly.

Those who see themselves as proponents of active learning will hear in Professor Duffy’s words a lament–and a nagging anxiety. How are teachers supposed to teach in these conditions? What am I to do with a careers’ worth of tips and tricks if all of them require me to be in a pre-pandemic, non-socially distanced classroom to work?

In the rest of this post, I begin laying out several concrete strategies for active learning in socially-distanced classrooms based on some of the more common arrangements I’ve yet seen. Clemson University’s Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation has provided a series of handouts that model every possible instructional arrangement, ranging from traditional face-to-face to blended synchronous and asynchronous to fully asynchronous online and everything in between. There’s even an “instructional playbook” for Fall 2020. (It’s Clemson, so naturally there’s a corny football reference.)

(c) 2020 / eLearning Industry,

Based on my own reading and conversations I’ve had with faculty, my sense is that most of the consternation has to do with the blended synchronous/asynchronous or “HyFlex” model of in-person instruction, which looks something like this:

(c) 2020 / Clemson University OTEI

The green people on the left represent all of your students. They are shown preparing for class by (presumably) reading, watching videos, taking notes, writing response papers, engaging in discussions, meeting with colleagues–basically, anything that one would assign as “homework” or preparation for the next class meeting. (Though, as I explain below, this is probably a good time to re-think all of your materials from pre-pandemic days; if March taught us anything, it’s that instructions about important matters need to be communicated clearly and effectively.)

As we move to the right, the black and purple icons represent what a typical class session might look like; the blue icon is the instructor. Some of the students are there with you in the classroom and everyone is physically distanced; in a few cases, the instructor may be at home. The rest of the students are attending class synchronously via the course conferencing platform (Zoom at my institution). Students in class and at home are also, ideally, linked via the LMS (that’s Canvas at IU) and powerful, reliable WiFi. As such, theoretically, everyone is able to seamlessly interact with everybody else, synchronously and asynchronously, digitally and face-to-face.

Is it live? No, it’s an asynchronous blended nonfat white mocha caramel macchiato.

Strategies for Virtual, In-person Collaboration

First, if you’re teaching in the blended synchronous/flipped classroom format, as I am, I think it makes sense to start by asking yourself some difficult questions about your course and course material. How can you reframe your courses around how best to use the in-person time you do have together? What sorts of activities can students best do on their own, asynchronously or synchronously? What sorts of things should you be doing when you get together? What is the best use of your and the students’ time? How can you bridge the LMS space with the classroom space?

In this scenario, students and the instructor meet in a physical classroom with social distancing. Depending on the number of students enrolled, some may be following along at home via Zoom, WebEx, or other conferencing platform. As many have already noted, with masks and social distancing measures, traditional in-class activities will be a challenge and students with accessibility issues may be unduly disadvantaged.

This may seem like common sense, but it’s good advice. Whether online or face-to-face, “Live session time should be saved for elements that benefit from social interaction,” according to Patti Shank, founder of Learning Peaks, LLC and an international expert on eLearning. Have a clear plan for how to use live session time with students, regardless of if you’re in the physical classroom or online. Make an effort to show students that you notice and care about their willingness to come to class during a pandemic and reward them with your undivided attention.  

However, don’t make the entire class about pandemic teaching.

This will be a balancing act. On the one hand, as a caring instructor, you want to acknowledge the world-historical nature of what we’re all going through with COVID-19. On the other hand, there’s much work to do. And I think there is a danger in allowing the class to become a daily summit on pandemic teaching and how much it sucks. Plan on spending the first several weeks dealing with student complaints and taking everything in stride while letting students know that this class is (a) rigorous and (b) as students they will be expected to make a good faith effort to attend class and prepare.

Many students in Fall 2020 will have issues getting to campus. Don’t be unreasonable about attendance or other issues that students will have a hard time controlling, but save your more rigorous expectations for those elements that students can control. In other words, if you’re a stickler that students have completed all of the readings before class and taken good notes on what they’ve read, set it up this way in Canvas and ask students to complete it before the next class.

In-Class, Student-to-Student Video Conferencing and Chat Tools

There are many great, mostly free tools to use for in-class collaboration. Students can also form groups and use their own laptops or mobile devices with Canvas or Zoom to collaborate and communicate with each other from across the classroom or with students outside of class who are unable to attend, then appoint someone to share the results with the class. (Note that this may not work as well with a high number of students as it can overload the WiFi capacity in the room and there can be unpleasant audio feedback when multiple students are talking or forget to mute their microphones.) Also, the use of masks may hinder their voices. Therefore, instead of students engaging in potentially distracting verbal video conference discussions during the group work, they can use the chat tools from Canvas or Zoom to carry out their in-class conversations.

In a writing class, this is a real boon because students need to be doing a lot of writing anyway. Try to set up these moments in class where students are effectively pulling double-duty: they are preparing for class and learning the course material at the same time. Physical, in-person class time should be the icing on the cake, used for those few human experiences that can’t readily be replicated online.

There are free whiteboard apps like Awwapp and Limnu that are useful in classroom settings for physically-distanced collaboration. Google Docs and Padlet are also wonderful tools for collaborative work in the classroom, especially writing and sharing ideas.

The chat feature on Zoom, WebEx, and similar video conferencing platforms has been used to great effect by teachers and students alike. Savvy teachers have set up assignments during class conversations and lectures that allow students to use the chat feature as a “back channel” for questions, conversations, notes, interesting comments, etc. With a little preparation and foresight, even something as stodgy as a lecture or a collaborative class reading can be enlivened with some carefully placed backchannel convo. This may require setting up pre-assigned student groups at the beginning of the course and helping them set up Zoom ahead of time for each group. If an at-risk student or one in isolation from quarantine is unable to attend class, they can join a virtual in class collaboration and/or in-class video conferencing session from home.

(c) 2020 / Indiana University “How IU Will Be Teaching Classes,”

Face-to-Face, Non-Technology Options

The majority of classrooms on my campus are equipped with multiple whiteboards that can be used as a way for students to make individual contributions to a team project. Flip charts and over-sized sticky notes can also be used to facilitate group discussion in a physically-distanced classroom. Students can write down ideas and thoughts on sticky notes and post them to a space for their group on a white board and then one member can photograph them with their phone and send to the group to have and discuss. Small portable whiteboards could also allow students to complete individual work that they can hold up for their group members to see across the 6 feet of physical distance.

In the more temperate months of September and October, classes may be held outside; walking with students while discussing course content has been shown to improve student retention of key ideas and boost energy and endorphins.

In the writing classroom, there are many such active learning strategies and ideas for building community virtually–way more than I can list here–so I will add a few quick ones and then get to work on a longer post that discusses physically-distanced active learning in the writing classroom specifically:

  1. Have students critique each other’s writing by sharing documents on a projector screen and allow students to take it paragraph by paragraph in a classwide critique (be sure to get students’ permission for this first).
  2. Divide an essay, article, or book chapter into chunks, then have students in class and at home annotated the reading together in real-time using the chat function on Zoom for “backchannel” communication.
  3. Peer review and classwide workshops can all be accomplished via Zoom, WebEx, or other conferencing platform.
  4. Set up weekly Zoom office hours with students to talk through project ideas and works-in-progress.
  5. Send out weekly video announcements to your students–even in your face-to-face classes–in order to establish and maintain rapport.
  6. Get used to the idea that “good teaching” might look a bit different than in the pre-pandemic classroom. Don’t assume that you “do your best work” in the physical classroom space. Many of us can put on a good show for students, but is that learning? Get used to spending a lot more time in Canvas preparing and setting things up than in the past.
  7. Get used to the idea that you’re going to get stumped in front of your class and that’s not the end of the world.

On the First Day of Class

Even in “normal” times, the first day of class is a key moment in the semester. It’s your first chance to make a good impression; it’s also where students begin to get a feel for the course material and you, the instructor. Having your syllabus and other major course documents uploaded to the LMS well ahead of time–and then signaling to students how to access it a week or two before class begins–can prevent having to go through the time-honored ritual of handing out a paper syllabus (elegantly professorial and “vintage,” but ultimately wasteful both of time and paper). Regular announcements and check-ins via your LMS are also a great way to begin to establish rapport with your classes even before you meet for the first time. If you have the time and inclination, you can put together a fancy weekly outline in Canvas or Adobe Spark that looks as if it was professionally done.

But if you don’t have time for something like this, a good old fashioned list in plain text will work just fine. The information itself is important, naturally; the contact and the way it is communicated is just slightly more so. Send out regular updates to your students, let them know that you are there and listening. Be organized, have a sense of humor, and be prepared for anything. My next post will detail some of the ideas I’ve briefly touched on here in further detail. Thanks for reading! [PGC]

Photo by Adrianna Calvo on

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