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Professional Development in a Pandemic – Part 1

Although higher education faculty had to adapt to new technologies on the fly, those who did so successfully often came from institutions that collected their feedback and adapted content, activities and modalities according to what they had learned.

From K-12 to higher education, instructors did their best to keep students afloat as they themselves struggled to tread water when schools, colleges and universities closed their doors and opened online platforms in response to COVID-19 in spring 2020. Now we reflect on what proved helpful to support faculty and staff during the pandemic and what likely will prove helpful once we’re on the other side.

This is part one of a two-part series based on the experience of the University of Wisconsin System Math Initiative, which has developed structural and instructional strategies to support equitable student success in gateway mathematics since 2018. This series will concentrate on the instructional strategies developed to support student success. Prior to spring 2020, professional development largely had been in person. Since spring 2020, all Math Initiative professional development has been online and we focus on those experiences here.

Discipline-Specific Professional Development Provides Tools for Today Versus a Distant Tomorrow

If you’re drowning, you don’t want swimming lessons—you want a life preserver.

Faculty and staff—reeling from the same pandemic realities as those hitting their students—didn’t have time or energy to swallow a firehose of information from well-intentioned sources sharing best practices for developing and delivering online courses. 

Instructors know how to develop learning outcomes, course outlines and syllabi, whether for in-person or online education. Given a sudden shift to remote teaching and learning, what they needed to learn and learn quickly was more along the lines of how to recreate an in-person paired student whiteboard math activity in the remote environment. And they didn’t want to listen to the pros and cons of a dozen interactive digital whiteboards; they wanted curated resources. If peers were having success with Google Jamboard, that’s what they wanted to see demonstrated–and demonstrated in a context such as college-level algebra rather than humanities.

This is not to denigrate broadly focused online teaching and learning resources, which can inform curricular design and pedagogical improvements when instructors have a greater capacity for swimming lessons.

Platform Alignment Reaps Multiple Benefits for Instructors and Students

Out of necessity in June 2020, we turned a two-day in-person workshop into a series of virtual sessions spread over two weeks. The structure included pre-work for each session, the live sessions and discussion boards, survey at the end of each session, facilitators’ responses to participants’ lingering questions posted in a “parking lot” space, posting of the recording and slide deck—all within the learning management system (LMS) used by our institutions.

While instructors’ comfort levels with an LMS will vary, they have a knowledge base on which to build skills in exploring new functions or incorporating tools compatible with that system. Given that an LMS is campus-wide, facilitating consistent use also would reduce students’ need to negotiate multiple platforms from their 7:45 Zoom class, to their 9:55 Google hangout and their 12:05 Skype session. 

Perhaps equally important, instructors who receive professional development via their LMS can experience it from a student’s point of view. They learn which browser works best through asking and responding to questions, sharing notes and moving from one breakout room to another then back to the main room. They feel the fatigue students experience when one too many tools is thrown at them. They appreciate instructors’ consistency in, for example, where they post assignments. They experience first-hand the flexibility of asynchronous activities and the community-building facilitated through synchronous group work. They also experience the glitches that could derail some students.

As one instructor concluded after one of our early sessions: “I experienced the frustration of using new technology for the first time and having times when it didn’t seem to work properly. I also experienced cognitive overload. These will both help me relate to student experiences in the future and help me plan to leave space for this sort of thing in my classes.”

Responsive Professional Development Allows Facilitators to Tailor Content and Delivery

Comments like these from each post-session survey helped facilitators tune their subsequent sessions to better meet participants’ needs. Other components of the virtual workshop structure also helped, such as the open invitation for participants to post lingering questions in a “parking lot” for that day, which facilitators then answered. A daily debriefing among facilitators allowed for just-in-time tuning of content and activities at the next session.

Responsive design, however, began even before the initial workshop session. Facilitators included pre-work for multiple reasons. A survey helped workshop facilitators better tailor sessions to meet participants’ needs. The survey asked whether registrants had participated in a prior Math Initiative workshop active learning session, what courses they typically teach, the modality they expected for the next term and specific ideas around active learning and equitable instructional practices they would like presenters to address. Other pre-work helped familiarize registrants with the facilitators and engage them with the first session topic. For this purpose, they watched Nate Brown’s “The Math People Myth” Ted Talk and the active learning track presenters’ brief video introductions (one example) in which they shared a math myth that had applied to them and then registrants were invited to reflect on the math people myth via a discussion board.

The June workshop set the stage for additional professional development focused on active learning strategies over the following year.

Scaffolding Professional Development and Offering Various Modalities Further Adds Value

Facilitators used the LMS to notify participants about virtual office hours that began with drop-in sessions from late June to early July. Facilitators sought further feedback from peers exploring active learning tools and strategies to incorporate in their fall 2020 semester courses: They invited participants to up-vote by “liking” previous discussion board posts that expressed worries they shared, and also invited them to submit a sentence describing anything they felt was missing. Based on that feedback, they focused subsequent July and August virtual office hours on active learning in the socially distanced face-to-face environment, synchronous and asynchronous online environments, assessment strategies and logistics, and building community and setting expectations.

Once the fall 2020 semester was underway, they invited participants to two final office hours in September and October to share their successes and challenges in online, hybrid and face-to-face mathematics instruction.

Conducted through the LMS, all virtual office hours focused on just-in-time support requested by participants. We paused professional development as our math faculty and staff faced many challenges throughout the fall 2020 semester—and, based on what came next, we recognized that they had risen to the challenges.

We circled back in December to invite our math faculty and staff to share their fall 2020 experiences with building community in the classroom and incorporating active learning strategies. This would be for a January 2021 “Showoff/Showdown” providing an opportunity to keep the mathematics teaching community of practice active. We were pleased to receive a flurry of exciting proposals that filled our available time slots for a dozen presenters.

Clearly, mathematics faculty and instructors had progressed beyond needing life preservers and instead had reached the point where they could share successes and lessons learned with peers. That will be the focus of part two of this series.


The University of Wisconsin System Math Initiative is supported in part by Ascendium Education Group, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to helping people reach education and career goals that matter to them.

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