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Pivot Toward New Possibilities - COVID drives Leeds instructor to innovative teaching practices

Imagine this: You’re accustomed to teaching 30 MBA students in-person, seminar-style. Your leadership course is both interactive and engaging, and you’ve always received high satisfaction ratings from your students. You’re suddenly informed that your established course will be taught remotely in response to COVID-19 and will have 90 students. That’s the challenge Doug Bennett, Instructor in the Organizational Leadership and Information Analytics Department of the Leeds School of Business, faced in spring 2021.

Doug’s leadership course already had a lot going for it:

  • A high degree of interaction--with the instructor, with the course content/materials, and between students.
  • Instructor-created video content for pre-class viewing (e.g., short lectures, interviews), to encourage more meaningful in-class discussions.
  • A variety of learning activities and assessments, which provided opportunities for informal and formal feedback throughout the term.

While these teaching strategies had worked extremely well in the past, Doug knew he would need to rethink the in-class activities and course assignments to optimize remote student engagement. Also of concern was his and his TAs’ becoming overwhelmed with grading and providing timely feedback.

Enter Dr. Tracy Jennings, Faculty Director of Distance and Online Programs at Leeds School of Business, who immediately connected Doug with the Academic Technology Design Team (ATDT). Tracy had previously worked with one of the ATDT’s Learning Experience Designers, Doris Cheung, to pilot hybrid courses in the Leeds School of Business Evening MBA Program, which launched with great success. After hearing about Doug’s course, his teaching style, and the upcoming challenges, Doris proposed creative yet practicable approaches to help him accomplish his teaching goals.


Engage students asynchronously

Rather than spending valuable class time with 90+ introductions, leveraging a technology such as VoiceThread makes it possible for everyone to get to know each other outside of the classroom. This activity/assignment can help create a welcoming, inclusive learning environment and foster professional networks, both of which are particularly important to MBAs.

Doug planned to record and upload his own introduction to his Canvas course and ask his TAs to do the same. (Integrating VoiceThread with Canvas makes access seamless for the students.) His intro would invite students to try it as well, sharing something about themselves and encouraging them to respond to their classmates. The beauty of VoiceThread is that students can record themselves and view their classmates’ recordings at their convenience, and they can ask each other questions by leaving text, video, or audio comments. 

VoiceThread can also be used for video assignments in place of some written assignments. This gives students a chance to learn how to present their works in a different format and have as many takes as they wish to convey their ideas. The recordings could be shared with classmates, who could view them on their own time and learn from each other. With the right guidance, students could also learn how to give constructive feedback to peers, an invaluable skill for everyone--not just those learning to lead, to develop.

Shake up class time to sustain learning  

Each class session was scheduled for 2.5 hours--too long for anyone to give, or sit through, a lecture. Wisely, Doug had already planned to “flip” his class and have students review video content beforehand, with in-class time reserved for activities designed to stimulate curiosity:

  • Explore course topics more deeply. Aside from gauging students’ understanding and clarifying concepts, Doug could lead the students along fascinating pathways.
  • Invite six or seven captivating guest speakers throughout the term to share their insights and experiences related to specific leadership topics.
  • Facilitate TA-led, smaller-group discussions using Zoom Breakout rooms with the instructor floating between to add thought-provoking questions. Breaking the class into smaller groups helps increase the likelihood of active student participation and more meaningful dialogue.

While these activities formed the basis of Doug’s classes, he liked the idea of staying flexible and capitalizing on “in-the-moment” learning opportunities with these high-engagement activities:

  • Ask students to share current news/events. This could encourage students to look at the world around them through a leadership lens and foster thoughtful conversations about real-life events.
  • Add a problem-solving activity, which could be based on a case study and may be more engaging as additional details unfold during class. Doug could leverage breakout rooms to ensure that group could come up with their own approach. Groups could reconvene to share their approaches and ask clarifying questions. Then, Doug, guest speakers, or the class could vote on the best approach, explaining their rationale.
  • Incorporate storytelling. Who doesn’t love a good story, and a real one at that? Vivid stories can capture students’ attention and help drive home points that relate to leadership skills, characteristics, approaches, etc.
  • Leave the last part of class for informal conversation about leadership topics that students might want to chat about (but keep it light so as not to cut the dialogue short). This could help students get to know each other better and lets Doug in on what sparks their interest.
Leverage technology to scale up for efficiency and sanity

It was essential for Doug to consider ways to lighten the administrative load that can easily overwhelm, especially with larger class sizes.Smart use of technology could help Doug and his TAs eliminate or reduce time-consuming tasks and focus their energies on what matters most, like making sure no students fall through the cracks.

Crowd sort with Canvas Discussion’s “Like” function

Doug mentioned he would like students to suggest in advance questions for his guest speakers, and he would pre-select which students would get to ask their questions. Instead of having 90 emails land in his inbox to sort through, he could prompt his students to post their questions in a Canvas discussion topic with “Allow liking” enabled. Posts can be sorted by number of “Likes,” so Doug could quickly see the most popular questions, easily scan for other noteworthy questions, and identify the students who would ask their questions to the guest speaker.

Use Canvas for student assignment submissions

Creating an online assignment in Canvas versus using one’s email as a dropbox offers students an expedient way to turn in their written work. Submissions are time-stamped, so not only would students be able to verify that their assignment was uploaded successfully, Doug would be able to discern whose work was late or missing. Assignments submitted to Canvas are in one location where they cannot get lost or buried, and Doug and his TAs could easily access and divvy them up for grading.

Get up to speed with SpeedGrader

Because students would be submitting their written assignments in Canvas, Doug and his TAs could take advantage of SpeedGrader to annotate and provide feedback via text, audio, and video. Additionally, integrating a grading rubric would not only communicate to students how their assignments will be graded, it can make grading more streamlined and improve grader consistency. SpeedGrader makes it possible to track grading progress and hide assignments, allowing the team to adjust or curve grades before making them visible to students.

Walk the Talk of a Leader

Effective leaders are adaptable, flexible, and optimistic. Doug modeled the behaviors he expects from his students and determinedly transformed an already successful course into one for a class three times the size he was accustomed to. Armed with an expanded playbook, he changed up his instructional approach and readied himself and his team to engage 90 leaders-in-the-making and achieve lasting impact.

How did it go? Doug reports, “Your advice was significant in creating the methodology for an MBA class of both full-time and Evening students…90 students! It has gone quite well given the challenges of remote teaching. Your guidance contributed to the success of the class that I would normally teach using the Socratic method.”