Scholars at Work

Virtual Pedagogies: Affordances

The silhouette of a person walks from a chalkboard onto an electronic tablet



"The transition to remote learning has provided space to slow down, step back and reevaluate what I value most in the course I am teaching."

Welcome to Virtual Pedagogies, a regular series in which we ask UW faculty to share their experiences with a particular aspect of teaching online. While there have been a lot of resources that walk through the technicalities of remote teaching, we were hoping to create a space where faculty can share pedagogical approaches. As we’ve all learned quite quickly, what worked in the classroom, doesn’t necessarily work in Zoom.

The theme of our first installment is “Affordances.” We’ve heard a lot of talk about the difficulties of transitioning to remote learning. But what are some of the affordances or advantages? We asked several Simpson Center-affiliated scholars what activities, approaches, and assignments they were using in their remote classrooms or through digital technologies that they wouldn’t have been able to use in traditional classrooms. Here’s how they answered:

Annie Dwyer, Assistant Program Director for Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics and CHID Lecturer:

Admittedly, I am a technophobe. I am embarrassingly inept, in fact. I can only turn on my office PC thanks to the kindness of Sarah Faulk, the Simpson Center’s fearless Administrative Assistant.

Still, the transition to remote teaching and learning has been a gift I’ve guiltily appreciated in the midst of the extensive suffering wrought by COVID-19. As a university instructor and part-time administrator, I am incredibly lucky. I don’t have to wear pants. My temperament inclines me to feel not that I can’t leave my home, but that I no longer have to leave my home. One day, when I was teaching a long class, I made a strawberry banana smoothie during a 5-minute break. This is an experience you can only have when teaching online. 

Also, there is whiteboard. There is screen share. The annotation features of Zoom Pro are great for demonstrating close reading. You can give important points a heart emoji, which is something that you could not do in a traditional classroom, for sure. It’s a wonderful way to convey, in Gen. Z argot, what will be on the next test.

My next favorite feature is spotlight, a virtual laser pointer that can dart and eddy across the screen at your command. So basically, it’s a colorful cursor. When I use it, though, I imagine I am playing with my students’ cats. My dream would be for one to pounce. Even if I am never so lucky, gone is the streaky whiteboard. Gone is the dry-erase marker that runs out mid-lesson. You can make thick lines, thin lines, arrows! You can write on the “board” with Bodoni MT Condensed font (for example). You can make actual scare quotes instead of gesticulating stupidly. You can even make shapes! By the end of my first remote class, the syllabus I had annotated through screen share looked like it was sprinkled in hieroglyphs (I got a little carried away with shape-based emphatics, in particular). By comparison, though, I’m sure the content of the syllabus itself appeared incredibly clear.

In short, there are a lot of great things about remote teaching, from personal to pedagogical. Just look on the bright side *heart emoji*.

C.R. Grimmer, Former Mellon Summer Fellow in Public Scholarship, Assistant Director of Digital Pedagogies (Expository Writing Program) and English Lecturer:

During COVID-19, I have taken on a variety of new roles that have shown me just how quickly, when pushed, we can collaborate and share resources in education and research settings. As someone who also works at the intersections of disability studies, public scholarship, and digital humanities, it is exciting to see how many folx are not just realizing they might make their classrooms more accessible, but actually have a genuine desire to do so. I’ve been serving as Assistant Director (AD) of Digital Pedagogy in the English Department and Expository Writing Program, for instance. The position allowed me to carve out time to learn more about what resources faculty and students need to make their online classrooms accessible. This has ranged from developing hyperlinked resource syllabus addendums so that instructors are not scrambling to find the resources students need, to making how-to videos on Zoom and Canvas, to meeting with ASE’s, Faculty, and Part-time Lecturers so we can brainstorm how to adapt their courses.

What has stood out to me in this experience is how willing each group has been to collaborate, communicate new strategies, and make sure students have access to class without undue duress. I believe I have been unusually fortunate that during this time, then, I have felt less isolated in my work than usual; I find the collaborative desire for accessible classrooms inspiring and do believe one of the key affordances to this transition to online learning is how we are all pushed to work together in order to create successful digital learning environments, whether that’s a department page on resources for students needing food and housing security or lesson plans that reduce screen time while increasing student engagement.

Julian Barr, Former Mellon Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in Geography:

The transition to remote learning has provided space to slow down, step back and reevaluate what I value most in the course I am teaching, as well as giving students space to navigate this moment in their own way. My overall approach is giving students the content for every week and allowing them to set their own schedules and work through the best approach for them and their current lives. In planning the course, I decided to cut back and focus on the core concepts and skills that I value the most and have students apply those concepts in a weekly discussion board post. Every week, the discussions become a bit more complex than they would be in a traditional class. That’s largely because it is so difficult to get everyone within traditional classes to speak and share their perspectives. Remote learning easily makes that possible as students engage in an online message board. Furthermore, I also ask students to take on more independent and critical thinking with the expectation that assessment is based on completion only. It's important to note that the norms and expectations are set before discussions begin and I ensure students feel safe and supported to share. While not ideal, I do think there are ways to make remote learning work exciting for students and bring some normalcy in a moment of uncertainty.