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The Elephant in the Room: How an NYU Professor Turned COVID-19 Into a Learning Opportunity

Written by Molly Forman on Apr 27, 2020

Related content: Graduate Programs, Digital Education

One of the unfortunate effects of COVID-19 is that it has uprooted the lives of many higher education students. And while it’s impossible to sweep the crisis under the rug, many instructors are eager to find ways to continue teaching—so students can continue learning, even as the situation continues to unfold. With that in mind, Counseling@NYU Adjunct Professor Tim Conrad, Ph.D., is proactively looking for ways to help instructors better support students through this time.

Tim has spent the last four decades teaching students of all ages. Since 2018, he’s taught in an online counseling master’s program from NYU Steinhardt, powered by 2U, Inc. As he continues to navigate the challenges presented by COVID-19, Tim is dreaming up new solutions to confront the situation head-on and create valuable learning opportunities and career lessons for his students. Here’s how he’s using this opportunity to keep students learning.

Yin and yang: Balancing technology and pedagogy

For Tim, online teaching is a yin-and-yang balance between technology and pedagogy. “It was a big jump for me to go from hybrid instruction to fully online,” he said.

From the beginning, he took advantage of 2U’s instructor modules, faculty resources, and ongoing individual coaching. Each week, Tim tackled a new skill. Then, he’d record himself using the skill—whether that was a new technology or teaching method—and play back the footage to his 2U coaching team.

“Learning the technology piece was really important for me to engage students and make sure they weren’t falling asleep in my class,” he said. “One of my coaches Marylynne Lawson always asks me, ‘Have you thought of doing it this way?’ From using breakout rooms to using annotations where students can comment on the screen, I’ve learned a ton of new ways to make tech effective.”

All of these tech tools enable a deeper level of connection that he didn’t see in his on-site classes at NYU—and one that’s especially needed during this time of coronavirus isolation.

Building the best and brightest: Enriching faculty to better serve students

Tim has had the opportunity to contribute some ideas of his own to 2U’s Faculty Enrichment Seminars to help other instructors better serve their students.

One of his ideas is the concept of how to be online without being over the line. “As a digital instructor, you need to be conscious that you’re using a public medium,” he said. “Engage students—and have them come back eager to dive into their degrees. But make sure you’re reaching out to them appropriately and keeping them safe.” He stresses the importance of highlighting security features and privacy settings on platforms like Zoom as a digital self-defense mechanism.

Tim also shared the idea of helping students learn the same tools instructors use to keep them engaged. “I make sure my students feel comfortable making annotations, sharing their screens, and presenting,” he said. He’s also doing his part to promote self-care. “With the COVID-19 outbreak, I’m teaching coping strategies: listening to music, using polls, and asking students about one good thing that happened in the past week. These strategies build a positive contagion effect each week.”

The elephant in the room: Creating a forum for honest dialogue

“Right now, students need more time to process things and deal with changes,” Tim said. One of the ways he’s helping them confront the uncertainty is a counseling concept known as “the elephant in the room.”

“The elephant refers to an idea that everyone is thinking and no one is saying aloud,” Tim said. “I began showing a picture of a pink elephant at the beginning of each class session and let students chime in. My class is worried about graduating on time, about not being at their placement sites. We talk about what steps they’re taking personally and professionally, and I make the elephant smaller each week as it compounds.”

Tim also uses an exercise that gets students to say what they don’t know about the current situation—and what they do know. Taking the extra time to verbalize thoughts and feelings and check in has paid off in dividends, bringing students welcome clarity and even relief.

Updating the playbook: Creating new best practices for the new normal

With all of the ongoing transitions, Tim emphasizes that there are low, medium, and high-tech options available to help instructors reach students. His low-tech method? “Take down insights on how students are feeling with a pen and paper while you’re in a Zoom class, then take a photo and send it to yourself later on,” he said.

Some medium-tech ideas include posting positive affirmations and ways to move forward on “walls”—a feature of 2U’s learning management system (LMS) Atrio. “Private messaging with students is a great way to check on students who aren’t comfortable raising their hand in class,” he said. “The chat feature also makes it easier for them to come to you with issues.”

A high-tech way to keep students engaged and support them is to create encouragement and accountability videos and share them with students, whether via email or on a virtual “wall.”

Though there’s currently a lot of uncertainty, “the mode students are learning in right now is getting them more career-ready,” Tim said. “This virtual learning experience will make our students great professionals.”

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