Assessing the Block Plan’s Role in Adapting to Online Teaching

Many Colorado College faculty members credit CC's Block Plan format for easing the switch to online learning during the Coronavirus pandemic. They also found that although remote teaching is different from the traditional classroom environment, it can be both stimulating and productive. Just before Spring Break 2020, Colorado College made the decision to move Block 7 courses online, and later Block 8 courses also were moved online as the Coronavirus spread. Members of CC's ITS department worked with faculty members to help ease the transition to online learning, and this collaboration led to some valuable learning experiences. Here are the stories of some CC faculty members.

Professor of History Tip Ragan was surprised at the conclusion of his online Block 8 class, Encountering the Past: Sorcery, Magic, and Devilry: The History of Witchcraft, not to have felt a greater difference between teaching in person and online. He would have preferred to teach the class in person and felt badly for students who were missing their on-campus friendships and activities. However, in terms of the class, the students were able to develop a strong sense of expertise in the material under investigation, and Ragan was particularly appreciative of how the Block Plan helped to build a feeling of connectedness that developed during the course.

The class was offered only on a pass/no pass basis, Ragan says, so that the emphasis could be centered on the collective joy of learning. He divided the students into three discussion sections, "Witches," "Sorcerers," and "Magicians," and met with each section every day. By opening the Zoom window 30 minutes before class, students had the opportunity to check in with each other and socialize, before being joined by Ragan at the beginning of class.

"In these smaller discussion sessions, we were able to delve quickly into the material, and to bond as an engaged community of scholars," he says. "We built a sense of trust among ourselves, a sense of real possibility. The Block Plan schedule, providing regularity to our schedules every day, enabled us to build a sense of continuity and connection," he says.

Each discussion group was further divided into four subgroups, "Broomsticks," "Potions," "Wands," and "Familiars," and each of these twelve groups worked on a collaborative assignment. Ragan says the group project required students to pitch an idea for a movie or documentary that was based on their knowledge of some aspect of the history of witchcraft - and that the presentations were spectacularly good. "A wonderful byproduct of this group assignment was the way students were drawn out of their sense of isolation as they forged new relationships with their classmates," he says.

The course readings were quite demanding, Ragan admits. "But with the focus provided by block learning, we built every day on the central questions under investigation, and it was a real joy to see students make the material their own. The result was a sense of scholarly growth as well as an affirmation of their daily lives."

One of the greatest surprises? "Even though our meetings took place online, I got to know the individual students very well. And I enjoyed the fact that each section had its own dynamic, its own personality," he says."

Ragan was gratified that overall participation from the students was generally quite high. In-person classes can at times lead a handful of people to dominate the conversation, requiring a fair amount of moderation from the professor. The Zoom format, in contrast, seemed to Ragan to flatten that uneven curve, with shyer students participating on a more equal footing with their more extroverted classmates.

"I know there's a prejudice against online teaching, but honestly, this was one of the most valuable teaching experiences I have had in my long career," he says. "Everyone had been through a very stressful time together. In typical CC way, the students were nurturing and caring. Everyone tried to look out for everyone else," he says. "The students were even trying to look out for me."

Associate Professor of Philosophy Dennis McEnnerney taught Blocks 7 and 8 online this spring, saying he went into it with some trepidation, but "it wasn't that bad." The History of Western Political Thought classes were linked, but could be taken separately, with Ancient Greek and Roman Political Philosophy offered Block 7 and Modern Political Philosophy offered Block 8.

McEnnerney opened the Zoom course by asking students to make short videos about where they were and to introduce themselves. They did, often introducing their pets as well. As to where they were, students occasionally offered some variation of "Well, I'm in my bedroom, and here it is," giving the class a tour of their room. The introductions of themselves, their pets, and surroundings were often amusing, allowing the class to get to know one another, McEnnerney says.

Having students spread across all time zones of the lower 48 states and an international student made the 10:30 a.m. MDT start of class a challenge for some, but the students were committed to the synchronous Zoom-based class. Having the class meet synchronously, or all at the same time, was important to McEnnerney for the ongoing discussions, sense of connectedness, and "classroom feel" it provided.

McEnnerney gave the students a suggested daily schedule, in which most submitted short comments on the readings during the morning before the Zoom meeting, then met for a little over two hours, and finally began reading for the next day in the afternoon (Mountain Time) or, as the case for students further east, they began the readings in the evening. "We had full days with big chunks of reading, but the students appreciated it," he says. He noted some students commented they grateful for the amount of coursework, saying "It's really good for me to have this focus on."

"The students wanted to write serious essays; do something productive," McEnnerney says. On a four-page assignment in which they only needed to summarize the readings and discussions effectively, some students submitted in-depth six- or seven-page analytical papers. "They really wanted to do more; they wanted to tackle the problems of the world. I was quite surprised by the amount of work they wanted to do," he says.

McEnnerney also had two transfer students in his Block 7 and 8 classes. "They said they were very happy to be at a block school, with its structure and stability, talking with classmates every day." One student commented that a friend attending a semester school had eight hours of Zoom each Wednesday and then nothing scheduled for the rest of the week. The student in McEnnerney's class said he really appreciated how the daily rhythm of the block helped him to be productive and engaged.

But the Zoom courses are not without their inherent peculiarities. One of McEnnerney's advisees, who was taking a course with another professor on Freud, told him it was strange and funny to be studying Freud's theories of family and sexual dynamics while sitting on her childhood bed, with her little brother bugging her, and her parents in the hallway.

Online classes don't mean the end of creativity, intellectual challenge, and community, says Associate Professor of English Re Evitt, who taught History of the English Language: Power and Society in Language Change online during Block 7. But it does mean looking for them in different ways, she says.

The 14 students in her class explored language change from Old English to Middle English to Contemporary English with an emphasis on the development and impact of "global Englishes": how English developed in parts of the world that England colonized, the different forms the language took, and how it became a tool both to exert and resist power.

The Zoom platform made it very clear that the students had individual lives, challenges, demands, and circumstances, Evitt says. Like McEnnerney, she had students across the continental United States and in Hawaii. "You have to be empathic with that. They're juggling being in their family spaces. On the screen you're seeing the 14 people as discrete individuals, and their lives outside the classroom now are right there, in the classroom space. It was very clear, very fast, that we need to adapt to support each other as much as possible," she says.

"It was a brand-new slate, and we made the rules together. We had fun establishing parameters and creating a dynamic syllabus. It was a virtual syllabus; one the students contributed to and changed, that we built through consensus," she says.

Evitt adjusted to the Zoom platform, learning to use body language, lean into the screen, gesture with her hands, and use other such visual cues to actively engage with the students. "And the students were great, creatively using the Zoom platform," she says. One student had the bridge of the Starship Enterprise as a Zoom background, another the Shire; another helped Evitt explain the concept of a Mobius strip (a surface with only one side when embedded in three-dimensional Euclidean space and only one boundary curve; the visual aid was helpful). To further connect it to the Green Knight in the 14th-century Arthurian poem they were reading, the student displayed a green Mobius strip.

"They know a lot more about digital platforms; they have been digital their entire lives," Evitt says. The students' greater familiarity with technology helped break down some of the power dynamics inherent in professor-student relationships, she says. Evitt tried to be blunt about awkward technology glitches and welcomed learning from the students daily. She regularly asked, "What's working? What's not? What would you like me to change?"

One of the assignments the students were given was to research a topic they would like to know more about. "They looked at all corners of the Internet for information," she says, discovering all sorts of online resources. "They were really innovative in what they imagined," Evitt says. "The discussion thread responses were amazing, and the students had thoughtful exchanges with each other."

The expectation of commitment that the Block Plan fosters means that Colorado College students go into a space of learning with a sustained commitment to the exchange of ideas, Evitt says. "That makes our students better prepared for intellectual engagement, whether it's in person or online. That's what's distinct about the Block Plan; our students are not trained to be shallow thinkers, but encouraged to have sustained, intense intellectual discussions - and the compressed online class space can take advantage of that.

"The class worked hard to overcome a sense of displacement and build community, and they produced effective work together," she says. "They had a lot of courage and heart, and I'm very grateful for them."

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