Teach with a Flexible Approach

The start of each semester brings anticipation and excitement. It is also a useful time to access and evaluate our teaching practice. The Teaching with Technology Editorial staff had a conversation with Annette McNamara (ATSS), Senenge Andzenge (CEI), and Yelena Yan (ATSS), University of Minnesota instructional design and support experts, who have been investigating flexibility as an approach that can help instructors and students adapt to an ever-evolving learning environment.

Left to Right, Annette McNamara, Senenge Andzenge, Yelena Yan

The Conversation

What is meant by flexible teaching?

Our three experts had a meaningful conversation, which started by asserting what flexibility is not. Yelena Yan explains that “Flexible teaching is not an instructional modality. Rather, it is an approach. Flexibility needs to apply to all modalities. Whatever format you choose (In-person, Blended, Remote-Instruction, Online), you need to be flexible. It is an approach to design, pedagogy, and teaching regardless of modality.” 

Practically, it means planning for the unexpected. Senenge Andzenge emphasizes that flexibility is a “readiness to adjust to whatever happens. For example, have a plan in place in the event that you can’t meet face to face, or in the event that some students can’t meet face to face.”

How do I plan for flexibility?

Annette McNamara suggests you ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How can I be flexible with the content or the learning materials that I have in the course?
  2. Can I be flexible with some of my course assessments?
  3. How can I provide some student choice with content, assessments or activities?
  4. How might my class be flexible over time and space, taking into consideration synchronous and asynchronous opportunities? 
  5. What tools and technologies can support my efforts?

What are some practices I can put into effect?

Senenge Andzenge encourages instructors to lay ground rules. Discuss with students, how as a class you will: 

  • communicate with each other, 
  • give and receive feedback, 
  • submit assignments, and
  • access course content.

Don’t rely on the fact that you’ve added information to your syllabus.

Annette added that consistency is key. Be consistent in: 

  • the language used to describe elements of the course; 
  • ideas developed in the course; and 
  • logistics that govern the course.

Where do I start?

Annette offered two pieces of advice for instructors. 

First, think carefully about the synchronous and asynchronous components of your class. Identify asynchronous opportunities as this provides you and your students with the flexibility you may need. Asynchronous work should be designed to enrich the synchronous time together. Then ask yourself, when and why does the class need to meet synchronously, whether in a classroom or in a Zoom meeting? What interaction do you envision? 

Second, start small! Annette suggests choosing one thing to address. For example, choose one of your assessments and create alternatives to doing it all synchronously. Break it into stages: 

  1. Have students accomplish pre-work in the Canvas course site.
  2. Come together on Zoom or in the classroom to have an interaction that is critical for problem-solving.

Annette reminds us, “if you think about student-centered learning, inclusive learning, and inclusive course design then you are thinking about how to provide students with choices, and at the end of the day, that's flexibility. You're allowing students some flexibility.

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