On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, instructors at the University of Michigan were told that they had a four-day weekend to convert all of their classes from in-person to virtual.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” said Professor Stephen A. Berrey, U-M History’s then-director of undergraduate studies. “It felt like such a blur, because everything seemed to be happening so quickly. I mean, you want us to do all that over a weekend?”
It was a near-impossible ask during a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.
Less than a week before, U-M President Mark S. Schlissel wrote to the university body that no cases of the COVID-19 virus had yet been diagnosed in the state of Michigan, and that the university was
“proceeding with most scheduled events, classes and operations, including athletic events.” Five days later the first two cases were diagnosed in Wayne and Oakland counties, and in response Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency.
By March 11, classes for that Thursday and Friday had been cancelled, and the rest of the semester was to be virtual. Two days later, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) implemented remote work practices for staff, starting the following week. All commencement ceremonies were cancelled, and students were encouraged to move home.
While the faculty, staff, and students of the History Department dealt with immediate personal challenges of trying to stay safe and protect family and friends, the work of wrapping up the Winter
2021 semester remained.
“Everything shifted to trying to get through that semester without sacrificing your pedagogical goals, but also being really attuned to students’ needs,” Berrey explained.
Graduate student instructors found themselves in similar situations, often further complicated by their own studies. PhD candidate Pragya Kaul was the just the second person in her cohort to take her preliminary exams via videoconference. “At one point I could see none of my faculty. Kira Thurman had to come in on the phone. And that’s how I also had to have my ‘Congratulations, you passed’ delivered to me,” she recalled.
During this moment of triage, department leadership began to think ahead to what fall was going to look like and how best to prepare.
“Most of us were completely exhausted and just trying to get to the end of the term,” Berrey said, “but [Department Chair Jay Cook] proposed that we put something together over the summer to help
instructors in the fall, and involve graduate students.”
The project was to be a collaborative effort between faculty, graduate students, and staff. The graduate students would be paid for their efforts as a means of providing some financial
assistance during lockdown, when other sources of income were precarious at best.
Two faculty, eleven graduate students, and two staff members were brought on board and began work on the Digital Instruction Resources for Teaching initiative. At the outset the main goal
was to develop a portfolio of digital instruction best practices for use by U-M History faculty and graduate student instructors. The History Department put forth its own funding for the project with
assistance from LSA and Rackham Graduate School.
During the four-day transition to virtual classrooms in March, LSA distributed their collection of resources and guidelines for remote teaching. U-M’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching
(CRLT) promoted their “Teaching with Technology” materials and offered consultations. And every day across the nation there were more stories of universities and schools of all levels transitioning
and adapting to the new reality.
“Most faculty were just overwhelmed by the sheer amount of suggestions and information coming out,” said Professor John Carson, who joined Berrey on the team. “Having teams go through this avalanche of information and begin to sort it and pick out the stuff that seems really important was a huge plus.”
By the first week of June, the graduate students had been hired. They divided into groups and got to work creating several guides on digital pedagogy topics.
The students were from a variety of cohorts and disciplines, and brought their diverse experiences to the project.
“We all had sort of different approaches to teaching in general based on who we had taught for before,” recalled graduate student Zoe Waldman. “It was a good opportunity to learn from each other.”
Prior to creating their own materials, the students first dove into existing resources. Berrey described the process as, “in many respects, a very traditional kind of research project in which you start by collecting tons and tons of information, and then putting it together into something manageable and useful.”
Part of the early research involved a presentation by Professor LaKisha Simmons, who had been teaching online that spring. Simmons discussed a digital citizenship pledge she introduced her students to in order to create a more positive online community.
Building healthy online communities and paying attention to students’ well-being became strong themes of the project.
Waldman’s group worked on guides for just these issues. “How do you incorporate routine, but also switch things up enough to make the very impersonal—sometimes faceless—Zoom feel warm and
allow a variety of comfort levels to thrive?” said Waldman.
One of the most important ways, they found, was to start by addressing issues of inequity. The timing of the project coincided with the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the globe.
In an effort to directly address these issues, the team conducted research, consulted with CRLT staff, and built a guide on “Teaching for Equity and Inclusion.” It included suggestions for naming and
introductions (including using preferred pronouns), regular check-ins and proactive outreach, and teaching difficult or traumatic material.
The team also explored how technology and online tools could build stronger classroom communities.
The guides provided indepth instructions on how to use Perusall, for example, an e-reader platform that allows students to collaboratively annotate course materials and faculty to track and grade the annotations.
Often people view historians as looking back, not forward, and so the irony of engaging with these state-of-the-art technologies was not lost on the group. But they made sure to focus on history-specific pedagogy and methodologies.
“Historical thinking is a really hard thing to teach,” Kaul, who joined the team, explained. “It comes from conversation and learning what questions to ask.”
She was optimistic about how some online, collaborative platforms can be uniquely helpful in this effort. “You can have students pull things up, highlight things, and see what they’re doing. That’s not
as easy to do when you just let them go home and do it on their own. Also things like Google Drive, Google Docs, can actually help improve students’ writing,” she said.
Additionally, many of the source materials historians rely on were becoming more accessible.
Waldman explained that in history classrooms, “There’s going to be, across the board, some form of writing assignment that requires use of primary and secondary sources. So we learned about libraries and archives putting up their resources online and brought those all together so instructors had them all in one place.”
Carson also utilized digital archives in his classroom. “We had to adapt to doing archives digitally, but we had a lot of connections with people at the Bentley [Historical Library] and the Clements [Library], which helped.”
One of the most successful resources to come from the Digital Instruction Resources for Teaching project was a Canvas template for remote courses.
Canvas is the online course management system used by instructors to share syllabi, assignments, readings, and videos—it even has class discussion boards and grading capability. Functions that once seemed ill-suited for in-person instruction were suddenly essential for remote classrooms.
“What I wanted to do was make a template that everybody could use and adopt,” said Kaul. “We recognized how useful the sample syllabi were going to be, and decided that a similar Canvas model
would be just as—if not more—useful.” All instructors had to do was swap in their own course information into the template.
In their model, Kaul and the team again emphasized the need to pay attention to students’ well-being. “We included a sample survey at the start to see accessibility needs, and a midterm checkin that we built into the course as well,” said Kaul.
Berrey and Carson both utilized the Canvas site for their own classes. “It was kind of amazing,” Berrey said. “I was like, this really feels so much more comfortable. There’s a plan here.”
With the Fall 2021 semester quickly approaching, it became clear to Berrey that the project needed to extend beyond the guides to provide more direct support. “There’s only so much you could do over the summer. And there’s only so much you can anticipate. And we realized that it might make sense to have a couple team members continue on as liaisons,” he said.
Kaul and Waldman were selected to serve as digital pedagogy liaisons for the 2021-22 academic year.
In their interactions with faculty and GSIs, both students found that all the hard work done over the summer had indeed helped many prepare. “The instructors were a lot more confident because
we, as a team, had already broken down the components of online learning or hybrid learning,” said Waldman.
Waldman also recalled some of the positive feedback they received during their time as liaisons.
“Instructors would give us feedback saying, I’ve implemented this new note-taking task, and my students, who might be in another state or another country, know when it’s their turn to write
because the conversation is in a Google Doc and they can see it unfolding live and feel like they’re part of the class,” she said.
Although instructors are no longer in crisis mode when it comes to virtual instruction, and classes have largely returned in-person, the lessons learned by the Digital Instruction Resources Team will not be lost. Digital pedagogy, in general, is not going away any time soon.
“At the end of the day, all of this is about good pedagogy. Whatever it is that you’re taking away, if it improves the classroom experience and improves your teaching, that’s the most important thing,” Kaul said.
Reflecting on how the project impacted members of the department, Berrey considered the importance of accessibility in the classroom. “I think it’s gotten us to think even more about who
is in the room, who are the people in our classroom, and what are their particular needs. I think we were also more attentive than we have been necessarily in the past to student mental health and to
our own mental health.”
Waldman also emphasized the importance of “developing a culture of collaboration, community building, and accessibility assessment in the online realm.”
Moving forward, the History Department will continue striving to fulfill these pedagogical necessities in the digital era. This past year was, if anything, a stark reminder of the social inequities that can often reveal themselves in the classroom. By spending a summer on research and development of digital teaching techniques, the students and faculty involved in the project made a real difference
in countering those very problems. But the work isn’t done.
Berrey, who continues to think about ways to move forward with the project, reflected on the past year. “It certainly was a reminder that the people in this department value teaching and value the undergraduate mission in particular. That’s the one thing that was clear from the beginning is that we were taking that mission seriously.”
DIGITAL INSTRUCTION RESOURCES FOR TEACHING
SUMMER 2020 TEAM
Graduate Students: Haley Bowen, Cristian Capotescu, Alexander Clayton, John Finkelberg, Allie Goodman, Pragya Kaul, Fusheng Luo, Chao Ren, Mano Sakayan, Lediona Shahollari, Zoe Waldman
Faculty: John Carson, Stephen A. Berrey
Staff: Elizabeth Collins, Gregory Parker