This post originally appeared on Coursera’s blog on Feb. 12, 2021, and is republished here with permission. 

The pandemic has accelerated the global need for online learning. In the short term, educators mitigated disruption of campus closures by moving their courses, assessments, and even graduation ceremonies online.

In many educational settings, the focus has shifted to adaptability—how can we design courses that withstand all kinds of changes, including a pandemic?

It has never been more critical to build resilience into teaching.

Dr. Rebecca Quintana is the learning experience design lead at the University of Michigan and teaches the popular online course on Coursera called Resilient Teaching Through Times of Crisis and Change.

As part of Coursera’s Bold & Innovative Educator Series, Dr. Rebecca Quintana recently presented key strategies for building resilient courses in times of situational and environmental change. Watch the webinar here and read on for a Q&A with Dr. Quintana as she elaborates on what resilient teaching really means in these remote learning times.

Dr. Quintana, how do you define resilient teaching?

Resilience is the ability to spring back to your original shape, and that applies to teaching in a big way. As we grow our understanding of resilience within the context of education, we can draw inspiration from different fields and consider how they include resilience within their design processes. For example, we may think of how architects build and plan neighborhoods to remain structurally sound, despite turbulent events. If we think of other sectors’ responsiveness to times of crisis, we can think of resilient teaching like this:

Resilient teaching is the ability to facilitate learning, designed to be adaptable, to fluctuating conditions and disruptions. It is a teaching ability that can be seen as an outcome of a design approach that attends to the relationship between learning goals and activities and the environment in which they are situated.

How can we design resilient courses?

The instructional design model called “Backward Design” starts by identifying desired results or specific learning outcomes that are action-oriented and measurable. The next part of the model is determining the acceptable evidence of learning. We need students to demonstrate that they’ve achieved those learning goals. Finally, we think about how those students will build those skills through learning experiences and instructional materials.

The next step is looking at supporting the different interactions in these courses, including human interactions. It means that courses need to create opportunities for social interaction, both online and face-to-face, to facilitate discussions among students. For student-instructor interactions, this includes feedback through formative and summative assessments and other interactions.

With resilient design, we develop course plans that still support these interactions, even if our learning environments change. As we saw with the pandemic, these changes can happen suddenly—possibly even during a semester or in the middle of a course. Resilient teaching considers how new learning environments may require different ways of supporting interactions that we want to facilitate among teachers, students, content, and tools.

What are the main principles for building a resilient teaching plan?

The first principle is to design for extensibility. We need to think about the immediate instructional context and our anticipated future instructional contexts. What is the most basic version of the course, and how might I want to add or change it in the future?

Next is to design for flexibility, where we consider the variability that exists across different instructional environments. It means cultivating strategies to respond to potential changes. We start by identifying the primary method of facilitating desired interaction, such as through a lecture or labs. Then, we consider how this method would change depending on if the situational factors were to change. We need to identify alternative approaches to facilitate desired interactions successfully.

Finally, we need to design with redundancy in mind, where we take a proactive approach. As educators, we create course elements that could perform similar operations, such as offering live lectures and offering slides with detailed lecture notes or even scripts. We are working to minimize the dependency on specific tools or activities so that if we lost those features, the classes would still work.

What’s the best way to administer assessments online?

My thinking has evolved a lot when it comes to grading; specifically, I am becoming an advocate for a specifications grading approach, which has shown to help students and instructors focus on course learning goals first and foremost in online settings. It doesn’t mean lowering standards but instead creating a clear set of criteria for projects so that students don’t need to guess how to earn an A.

It’s clear we need to think about assessments differently in an online environment. High-stakes exams may not be the answer. Instructors may need to provide for more open-ended assessment tasks and even open-book exams to allow students to engage on their own time. Creating these opportunities can also more accurately mirror the real world we live in; it isn’t very often that employees need to sit down to write a test or eliminate available sources of information needed to complete a task.

For example, a typical grading assignment at the end of a term is to write a paper, but this is only one way that students can demonstrate their learning about a topic. There may be other options available that can still address the main criteria of the assignment, but may suit their learning style better in an online environment. We’ve used tools like VoiceThread, for example, where students create a slide presentation with audio to demonstrate their understanding of a topic, allowing interaction from the instructor and other students. Other times, students have created podcasts, which have been particularly effective for evaluating course materials.

What is one of your biggest takeaways from teaching during the pandemic?

Instructors have become more present with their students’ needs, staying closely in tune with what they’re facing during this challenging time. The pandemic has shown me how important it is to take the time to be there for my students and create space for informal interactions. Touchpoints outside of class, like an email reminder to take a break, are also important. Don’t worry about over-communicating; students generally appreciate these efforts.

We can still be human and vulnerable in online settings, perhaps even more so.

Online learning allows for some students to participate more easily. During live lectures, we see students making comments in the chat functions. Many of these individuals have never spoken up in the class before; it’s clear that, for many, a virtual environment makes them feel comfortable expressing themselves.

This openness could have a very positive effect on learning environments—and in the end, our goal as educators is always to provide the best learning experience possible to our students. That is really what resilient teaching is all about: helping students learn, regardless of the circumstances and challenges that may—and will—come our way.