One lecturer proves online learning can be a success with a little creativity

UVM's Susan Whitman says instructors 'have to teach differently' in the virtual space, especially when asynchronous.
Susan Whitman

In 1994, Susan Whitman received a package in the mail: it was a 12-week lecture series of VHS tapes for a university course on biochemistry, her very first experience with “asynchronous” learning.

That almost-forgotten memory—Whitman has since been a physician assistant, board certified wellness coach and instructor—flashed in front of her during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the classes she has taught in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at the University of Vermont that have gone remote, one has been asynchronous: “Intro to Integrative Health.”

“We never met in person,” Whitman says. “At the end of last semester, I said, I think I’m horrible at everything that I do right now. I don’t know if anyone’s learning anything. But then I said, wait, maybe I am doing something OK.”

Indeed, she was. Despite not having internet at her home, she managed at times to teach that course from the community kitchen she started and later from her minivan after she came down with COVID-like symptoms. She used her phone to be more engaging, a strategy forged from her own children’s experiences with online learning. Her energy and the impact the class had on students earned her the university’s 2021 Prelock Award for online course instruction.

“My kids were in the midst of online learning, and I was watching what worked and what didn’t work with them,” Whitman says, noting the TED talks and scientific articles they were given. “One of the teachers was out there with his cell phone, taking video and saying, ‘I discovered the Easter Bunny.’ It was fun and engaging. So I start every week of this class with me holding my phone and just talking about what the week is going to be like in a five-minute video. I have been outside. I have been in my car. So many students on the evaluations were saying, I felt like you were there. I felt like you were a part of the class.”

Despite the lack of real-time connection, Whitman was reaching students in part because of her delivery—she was not simply lecturing to them—and in part because her course encompassed and embraced self-care, something desperately needed during this time.

“Every week, I was introducing big topics like healthcare policy, but also nature therapy and art therapy,” she says. “For their homework, I’d say, ‘Go outside for 20 minutes without your cell phone and just experience nature. Write about it in your journal.’ And I would respond every week to their entries,’Tell me what’s going on in your life, what you thought about the therapies that we did and what you’re doing for your own self-care.’ Students were talking about relationship problems, eating disorders and all sorts of things. I don’t think they would have had those conversations with me in person, but they did since it was this almost anonymous journal. I had people writing that this was their favorite class they’d ever taken at the university. And I was like, wow.”

Flipping the switch on learning

Whitman’s journey with online instruction didn’t happen with a snap decision from UVM to pivot to virtual learning. She helped develop the university’s Integrative Health and Wellness Coaching Program in 2019, and UVM prophetically asked that it be accessible beyond campus. So Whitman got to work, spending every week that fall learning how to teach effectively online through its Center for Teaching and Learning.

“Little did I know how much that was going to help me,” she says. “UVM is wonderfully supportive. They offer workshops all the time and self-paced modules. So when the pandemic hit, I was able to pivot basically overnight.”

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One of the lessons she learned was how to structure her courses for more effective communication and comprehension. “One of the biggest things they teach is backwards course design,” she says. “What do I want people to leave with? How am I going to assess that they know that? How do I design projects to lead up to that outcome? I was doing a lot of flipped classroom things where everything that they were ‘learning’ was already presented online in some sort of format, through podcasts or lectures. Then they would come to class and practice it together.”

Another is that in her synchronous classes, she commands students’ attention. “We do ask that the students have their cameras on as much as possible,” she says. “But I also try to engage them as much as possible. I rarely lecture at people. I always start with something engaging as an icebreaker—show me one thing that’s red in your office right now. We’ll get up and move. I send them into breakout rooms with three people and they practice with each other. I am literally borrowing things, probably from middle school.”

While admitting she really enjoys parts of the online environment—“People can be sometimes a little bit more vulnerable and comfortable in this type of situation,” she notes—she understands and witnessed firsthand all of its challenges, especially for lecturers. They are many, Whitman says, from course format to accessibility and technology issues to the painful pivot to hybrid and trying to keep tabs on those who are virtual and those in person at the same time.

“I think it’s hard to pivot a class that’s already entrenched, that is taught in person,” she says. “You can’t just take your curriculum and put it in an online format; it’s not going to work. It’s not going to be engaging. The energy is different in an online classroom. You have to be a different kind of person. You have to teach differently.”

Technology can also be a struggle, as she found out when she was off the grid. She recently had 15 power poles installed at her home so she could get internet. There are barriers on many campuses, too.

“We have some rooms that are great, and some rooms where it’s not,” Whitman says. “One of the ones we were in had built-in panels in the ceiling that were microphones and speakers. When that works, it’s perfect. But sometimes I’ll get in there and my laptop won’t speak to the computer.”

Of course, for all the limitations, there are some really cool elements, like chatboxes and the nature of asynchronous learning that allows for so much flexibility for students. Whitman also notes her own development. “I’m a professor, and I’m a tech person. I can make websites and I can code.”

She says the right balance of in-person learning with online—just not in a hybrid format—can really be a sweet spot for universities. “The more options that we can have for everyone to be able to find what works for them, the better,” she says. “All I want my students to walk away saying is, wow, that was really cool. I learned something about myself. I learned something about the world. And I walk away a little bit more inspired to make a change somewhere.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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