Updated: Sep 22
The COVID-19 pandemic reignited the debate on teaching modalities among teaching faculty, students, and parents around the world. It’s been almost 20 months since the pandemic forced schools and universities to transition to online learning, and each institution has had its fair share of triumphs and setbacks along the way. With an increasing number of students returning to brick and mortar classrooms in the Fall 2021 semester, I decided to sit down 1:1 with Bob Ertischek, J.D. to learn more about his experience with face to face learning as a former educator and how Yellowdig can be best used in this modality.
Bob Ertischek, J.D., is the Senior Academic Liaison at Yellowdig, and works with our partners to share Yellowdig best practices and pedagogy. He received his Bachelor’s degree from University at Buffalo and his Juris Doctor degree from Temple University in Philadelphia. Prior to coming to Yellowdig, Bob founded and led Profology, a professional development community for higher education instructors. He also taught political science for over a decade at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York and worked at Rochester Institute of Technology as an instructional technologist/faculty developer where he evaluated educational technology and worked with faculty members to use online tools to increase engagement in their courses. Before transitioning to higher education, Bob practiced law in Rochester, New York.
Q:Since you taught face to face classes for over a decade, could you walk us through your experience with this modality?
A: Overall, I really enjoyed teaching face to face classes. For context, I was mostly teaching American government-related courses. I loved being physically present in the classroom, connecting with my students, learning from them, and sharing the course with them. I certainly valued being involved in helping students and interacting with them regularly, as I was able to build and nurture relationships that I still have and cherish to this day.
The thing that I always struggled with in a face to face classroom is the time I had at hand for deeper conversations and real-time feedback (both from and to students). Most face to face classes are either 50 minutes long, three times a week, or an hour and 20 minutes long, twice a week. Thus, it was hard to get everybody involved in conversations within this limited time frame. On top of that, in face to face learning, instructors tend to be the “sage on the stage” or the central figure in the classroom. Students are always trying to impress them or painting everything they say to be something the instructor would approve of. This results in less student agency and less ability for students to share what’s important to them and voice their perspectives. That’s why I looked for ways to increase opportunities for them to be engaged with the material and to communicate with their peers in and out of the classroom.
In the early days of the internet, I started by using online tools such as AOL instant messenger to try to increase opportunities for students to more fully engage in my courses. I also used these tools in class while teaching live, so all students could type in their responses in real-time. This technique also allowed me to hear from everybody as opposed to only hearing from the students raising their hands in the front row. As time went on, I tried other tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and a bunch of other tools outside of the LMS such as various blogging platforms. These platforms came with their own set of problems since they weren’t designed for classroom use. Also, I was never really comfortable asking students to add me on any social media platform, not to mention that none of these platforms give insights on students' activity or performance.
Ultimately, I loved teaching face to face classes ,and I sometimes miss being in the classroom. I do, however, believe that we as instructors can do much more to get all the students involved as opposed to limiting the course engagement to that limited number of students who are able to contribute during live classroom time.
Q: What are the main benefits of face to face learning? Are there any challenges?
A: Besides what I have already touched on, face to face learning has a lot of benefits. To name a few, face to face learning gives instructors the power to control the room by focusing and channeling the conversation. Also, instructors get to meet their students in-person and sometimes connect with them on a more personal level. Moreover, face to face learning provides some real-time feedback which can help the instructor adjust to meet the needs of the students.
As for the challenges, face to face classes can be rushed, concentrated in content, limited in time, and as I mentioned earlier, the conversation, if any, does not typically get distributed equally among students in the classroom. Unmotivated or less outgoing students will not typically participate, while motivated and confident students compete against each other to be heard.
In many cases, students have no real agency, as everyone is responding to what the instructor wants them to talk about at that particular time. Also, some students are socially anxious or introverted and are not comfortable with speaking in front of a large number of people. Not to mention students that might not be as comfortable with speaking in front of the entire class since the conversation might be taking place in their second or third language.
Q: How important is it to add an asynchronous element to your face to face class?
A: Adding an asynchronous element to a face to face class can make a big difference, as it could amplify the benefits of teaching face to face. An online community-building platform like Yellowdig gives students a chance to share their thoughts outside of structured class time. For instance, in a political science course, real-world activities related to the course topics happen every day. With an asynchronous course community, all students are given the opportunity to share those real-world events related to what they’re learning in class, allowing them to start to see how the more abstract concepts of what they learned in class really apply. They will also learn from each other by sharing their unique perspectives with their peers.
Consider that when a relevant real-world event happens during the course, even after the class has moved on to a new subject matter, students still have a ability to discuss what this event means and tie it back to what they’ve learned, showing the topic’s real relevance and relation to the course concepts as well as their own lives.
Finally, an asynchronous layer lowers the pressure on students to answer things right away, allowing them to fully form and carefully articulate their thoughts before contributing to the conversation. This can result in a much higher quality conversation extended beyond classroom hours. It can also allow those quieter students or non-native speakers to find their voice.
Q: How can instructors best utilize Yellowdig for face to face learning?
A: My advice for instructors is to use Yellowdig as a synergistic social tool that helps facilitate the conversation. I’d encourage instructors to bring Yellowdig conversations into the classroom, and vice versa, extending the classroom conversations into their Yellowdig Community.
Another great use for face to face classes is to use Yellowdig as a place for students to ask and answer each other’s questions.This is really a great advantage for instructors as well as another great learning opportunity for students. When an instructor directs students to ask all of their course related questions in Yellowdig, they get the immediate benefit of not having to answer all those student emails, often replying with “it’s in the syllabus!” Students can feel comfortable asking questions that they might otherwise be uncomfortable asking in class by using Yellowdig’s anonymous posting feature. Beyond that though, think about what happens when a student tries to answer another student’s question about course concepts. That answering student has to first think that they understand the question, then that they know the answer to the question, and then finally and most importantly, that student has to figure out how to clearly articulate that answer to their peers. This is really a wonderful learning opportunity for the student who makes that attempt to answer the question. Still, even after this exercise, students want to know what the “instructor approved” answer is. Yellowdig enables this without the instructor having to write a single word. After giving students the time to answer a particular question, the instructor can go in, review the student responses and award a “verified response” accolade with a single mouse click, letting students know which response they should rely upon.
Also, one thing I really love about Yellowdig is that it allows the instructor to use the conversations and Yellowdig data to inform their teaching and make real-time adjustments to their class. If an instructor sees that students are avoiding a certain topic, maybe they don’t understand it and you need to cover it more. If students are asking a number of questions from something you covered a few weeks ago, maybe take a little class time to readdress that concept. As far as a participation grade goes Yellowdig gives both students and instructors a fairer assessment of their performance since everyone is compelled to participate. It eliminates the subjectivity in awarding the participation grade which tends to be tricky, especially in face to face setting.
Lastly, and most importantly, using Yellowdig won’t be a slog for the instructor or the students. It should be engaging and maybe even fun to learn and benefit from being part of a virtual learning community.
Q: What is your message to instructors that are transitioning back to face to face learning?
A: I think the pandemic was a learning experience for all of us. Remote learning put us all into situations that were new to us, some of us were better prepared, and some of us were better supported than others. I am very thankful that many of the instructors who used Yellowdig ended up with results where their students learned and didn't feel as isolated as some of their peers who didn't have that opportunity. Like I said before, I don't see a huge difference in the pedagogical use of Yellowdig in one modality versus the other. If instructors used it in online classes and got good results, I would certainly want to recommend continued use in face to face classes as well.
As Bob mentioned, having an asynchronous element is an essential part of your course regardless of the modality. Transitioning back to face to face learning does not eliminate the students’ need to continue the conversation and expand on the topics discussed in class after class hours, and that’s where Yellowdig can help your students achieve academic excellence while increasing their engagement and retention rates.