When COVID-19 made its way to the United States, the education system was thrown for a loop. Educators nationwide scrambled to find solutions to get them through the 2020 spring semester, and then had to prepare for the uncertainty of the following academic year. Fortunately, Boston College had the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) to lean on. Beginning in March, the group set out to prepare not only for the immediate transition to remote learning but also for a longer-term shift in pedagogy.
Before BC moved online for the semester, the CTE’s role was to provide technical support for in-person classrooms. In March, they pivoted their resources and knowledge entirely to assist professors in the transition to online learning. The first few weeks were the most challenging, Kim Humphrey, the instructional designer for the CTE, said.
“At first it was wild,” Humphrey said. “We had 120 folks, showing up to our sessions for like an hour and a half to just ask every question they’ve ever had about Zoom.”
Stacy Grooters, the current executive director of the CTE, also said that the unprecedented month created a heightened demand the CTE was not used to.
“In the past, we probably would have said ‘Hey, let’s just sit down together for an hour and we’ll walk you through this,’ but with such a large-scale demand this year, we had to get creative pretty early in the process,” she said.
Grooters has spent six years at the center and two as director, but this year’s unforeseen challenges changed her role drastically, she said.
When she was hired, the CTE was fairly new, although it already had a strong foundation due to the work of its predecessor, Instructional Design and eTeaching Services, she said.
“It was about a year old when I got here and so I came into a relatively new position which was the director of faculty programs,” Grooters said. “My job was to create programs and other opportunities for faculty and graduate students to come together to think about teaching and support each other in their development as educators.”
Along with the work Grooters and her team were doing to help faculty development, the CTE was also in charge of supporting educational technology, including making sure Canvas was working and all other in-class technology was fully functional. Prior to the pandemic, her team worked only with minimal forms of online education, Grooters said.
Around the time Grooters was promoted to director, the support for online education section split off and created its own department, now called the Center for Digital Innovation and Learning (CDIL).
To adapt to the sudden transition to online learning, the CTE had to quickly narrow in on two main platforms—Zoom and Canvas. While Canvas has been a part of BC learning for a while, Zoom was new to the majority of professors.
Sarah Castricum, the assistant director of faculty programs at the center, noted the challenge of helping professors who are used to classroom-based learning adjust to the new technology-based environment.
“As a result, there are many faculty who do things like smaller seminars where it’s all about the discussion, and technology is maybe not going to have such a natural fit there … so there’s a kind of particular work to do in that space with the enforcement of using technology,” Castricum said.
In help sessions, the center taught faculty how to incorporate Zoom and Canvas into their curricula. During the first few weeks, it became clear that the center needed to be flexible, Grooters said.
“We had to be able to tailor our services for people at very different levels of comfort when it comes to technology,” Grooters said. “For example some [professors] need an entire workshop on how to use Canvas functions such as the gradebook while some people just need a few little tweaks, because they’re pretty comfortable and just want to learn how to use an advanced setting to make their lives a bit easier.”
In addition to helping professors gain proficiency and comfort with these platforms, the center provided feedback for faculty on their specific ideas of how they wanted to teach remotely.
“A lot of what any faculty member is trying to figure out is particular to their own teaching and their own way of using the technology,” Castricum said. “That’s why it’s so important to us to provide chances to hear their questions and help professors work through specifically what they need to learn in order to teach effectively.”
In the past, this feedback was communicated by the CTE through programs such as a series of monthly lunches for junior faculty members, in-person one-on-one meetings with the CTE staff, and a teaching retreat held twice a year—but with the pandemic, the center had to adjust.
“We’ve been able to take many of the aspects of our programming and move them online, but we’ve also needed to make some shifts like the fact that the teaching retreat has been canceled,” Castricum said.
Despite this, the CTE has looked for silver linings, Castricum said.
“We can’t do [the retreat] because it’s way too logistically challenging, but on the other hand, that frees up time to do some things that we need to focus on much more such as technological support for teachers,” Castricum said.
One of the CTE’s biggest challenges was the fact that there was minimal precedent for what it would mean to teach a synchronous Zoom course, Grooters said.
“There was really very little out there we could turn to and say ‘Oh, here’s this pedagogy that’s already been developed and tested and people know how to do it,’” Grooters said. “We spent this summer basically inventing new ways of teaching that work in an online setting.”
To alleviate the soaring demand for their services over the summer, the CTE took on more graduate student assistants, who have been crucial during these strange times, Francesca Minonne, the assistant director for graduate student programs said.
Before COVID-19, she managed five graduate assistants, but after receiving extra funding last spring, she was able to hire more.
While they were still on campus last spring, these graduate assistants were on around-the-clock calls, taking care of any questions about Canvas or Zoom as professors struggled to adapt, Minnone said. They were also in charge of co-facilitating the initial online workshops for faculty that allowed for a smoother transition into the following school year.
With the entire BC community adapting to the new normal together, the CTE’s ability to implement the most efficient use of technology eased the difficulties professors faced when their concept of teaching and learning changed drastically.
“When it started it was really about getting folks up to date and then just the basics of how to use the technology,” Humphrey said. “Now it is really trying to think about teaching right rather than the technology we’re going to use to get that done. A lot of it is shifting to be slightly more philosophical conversations about what it means to do the central work of teaching.”
While the CTE has been instrumental in providing support to professors, the staff stresses that the ability for students to return to campus and resume classes was a large team effort.
“You can’t tell the story of the COVID transition period without talking about the CTE, CDIL, and ITS [Information Technology Services] … we supported folks hand in hand,” Grooters said. “Student Services did amazing things with scheduling and making sure all of that worked, but I think in terms of supporting faculty and making sure they were ready to step into their classrooms, whether they were real or virtual, the CTE, CDIL, and ITS worked really closely to make sure that the faculty were ready for that.”
For the spring semester, the systems that the CTE put into place will look the same, with some small changes based on the responses and feedback they have received from faculty.
“The work that we do is a combination of sort of looking ahead and anticipating what faculty are going to need while at the same time being responsive to what we are hearing,” Castricum said.
To help incorporate feedback from professors into future plans for the CTE, the center
set up a series of roundtable discussions to hear feedback from professors about how the spring semester last year went. These sections ran from October to December and will continue into the spring semester.
Each roundtable focuses on a different topic—there was a pre-election teaching check-in in late October. Other topics have been “Exploring Anti-Racist Pedagogies” and “Learning Together in Community,” and their most recent roundtable, which took place on Jan. 21, aimed to help professors run lab sciences during the pandemic.
“Our goal is to have a couple of faculty members who have explored some aspect of a certain topic and come in and talk for a bit to kind of prime the pump and put some suggestions on the table, just out of the things they’ve tried to kind of open a conversation about it and other faculty are able to share their ideas as well,” Castricum said.
The CTE’s expertise can’t stand alone—engaging with and hearing from faculty members is crucial, Grooters said.
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s a lot that we’ve heard yet that surprised us,” she said. “We knew it was going to be hard … I think it’s more that I’m just really excited to hear from faculty about what solutions they’ve discovered. And that’s where we need the creativity of the faculty … to hear, ‘Oh I figured this out.’”
Photos Courtesy of Stacy Grooters