Date December 18, 2020
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In Anchor Program, faculty design courses that thrive within pandemic moment

Since this summer, over 300 Brown faculty members have completed an online institute run by the Sheridan Center that focused on innovative approaches to developing remote and hybrid courses.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When Annie Gjelsvik received an invitation early last summer to join the Anchor Program — an online course design institute run by Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning that teaches instructors how to develop powerful remote and hybrid courses — she jumped at the opportunity.

“I signed up within 30 seconds of receiving that email,” said Gjelsvik, an associate professor of epidemiology.

A winner of the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and current director of Brown’s master of public health program, Gjelsvik has taught public health courses at the University for more than 15 years.

But, she said, the pandemic had presented teaching challenges unlike any she had encountered in her many years working with students: “Just based on my experience moving classes online midway through the spring, I knew I needed help figuring out how to get many of the teaching methods that I rely on into an online space.”

Gjelsvik was not alone. Since its launch last July, the Anchor Program has run six times: first as an immersive four-day institute that was held five times this summer, and later as a fall institute, spread out over five weeks in the latter half of the term. Over the course of these sessions, the program has trained over 300 Brown faculty members from a wide range of departments — from classics to engineering, Africana studies to applied math — how to create what the institute’s co-founders call “resilient” courses: goal-directed, learner-centered courses that are adaptable to a range of student needs and teaching formats, including online-only and hybrid teaching.

“ Right now, we think about resiliency in terms of designing courses that can adapt to the shifting circumstances arising from the health pandemic. But the teaching practices we cover in Anchor — and the ability to deliver instruction that adapts to unique learning situations — will be valuable long after the pandemic. ”

Melissa Kane Associate Director for Instructional Design, Digital Learning and Design

“We want to show faculty how to design courses in which everyone can keep moving forward, regardless of the circumstances that may arise,” said Eric Kaldor, senior associate director for assessment and interdisciplinary teaching communities at the Sheridan Center, who co-directed the Anchor Program with Melissa Kane and Maggie Vecchione, both associate directors for instructional design in Digital Learning and Design.

Through resilient course design, faculty can strengthen their students’ learning experiences during the pandemic and beyond, Kane said.

“Right now, we think about resiliency in terms of designing courses that can adapt to the shifting circumstances arising from the health pandemic,” she said. “But the teaching practices we cover in Anchor — and the ability to deliver instruction that adapts to unique learning situations — will be valuable long after the pandemic.”

Designing resilient courses

To help faculty members design resilient courses, the Anchor Program offers participants the chance to sample a range of online teaching technology, while also providing something far more foundational: the opportunity to reevaluate the connection between a course’s format and the learning goals students will meet. 

Gjelsvik enrolled in the institute with the intention to develop an online version of Biostatistics and Applied Data Analysis I, a graduate course that she has cotaught for 11 years. “The course has many moving pieces — labs, lectures, small group projects,” she said. “I went into Anchor thinking I needed help recreating these elements using online technology.”

Because the Anchor Program was designed using a wide range of online learning platforms, Gjelsvik was able to choose the best ones to host the various learning activities she had planned for the fall — including an online poster session during her second fall graduate course, Applied Public Health: Policy, Leadership and Communication. “Being able to experience these tools from the student perspective was really helpful in deciding which to use in my courses,” she said.

But the program also offered the opportunity to revisit and strengthen her course’s foundations, Gjelsvik said.

“What I ended up doing was realigning the course materials and assignments with the learning goals to make sure the students were getting what they needed,” she said. “After teaching the course for 11 years, getting to set aside time to reimagine it in this way was a gift.”

Like Gjelsvik, José Itzigsohn signed up for the Anchor Program to explore how best to adapt a course he had been teaching for years to an online format.

In a typical term teaching his undergraduate course Race, Class and Ethnicity in the Modern World, the professor of sociology would cover most of the material through lectures and measure student performance through a midterm and final. He knew he needed to make changes to make the course work online, but he wanted to learn precisely what changes would best serve student needs and course goals.

“I thought I would just record my lectures online, but I wasn’t sure if this was the right way to go about it, or how to do it in a way that wasn’t completely boring,” he said.

Participating in the Anchor Program, Izigsohn said, “completely changed the way I thought about online teaching.” Instead of long lectures, he posted short videos and readings that connected directly to the learning goals for each week; instead of two major assignments, he asked students to complete an array of shorter, weekly writing assignments — including discussion board posts and reading responses — at their own pace. Each week closed with an optional synchronous discussion session, during which students could respond to discussion questions both verbally and in a Google document.

“If I had just put lectures up, there would have been no class community, and no way for me to connect with students or assess how well they were engaging,” Izigsohn said. “Having more focused learning tasks gave me a much clearer sense of how my students were progressing and how I could best engage with them.”

“ These are tools that will be helpful well beyond the crisis of teaching online. I wish that I had taken this course years ago. ”

José Itzigsohn Professor of Sociology

These targeted learning tasks also helped students stay focused and engaged at a time when many are spending significantly more hours at their computers than in a typical term, said Alexa De La Fuente, a sophomore concentrating in ethnic studies and education.

“When you’re taking Zoom classes on a full course load, you learn quickly that being on your computer 24-7 is a lot,” she said. “You’re not only taking most classes synchronously on Zoom, but you’re also reading online in many cases.”

Itzigsohn’s course was different, De La Fuente said: The short, mostly asynchronous assignments made the workload manageable, and the written discussions that complemented the course’s weekly discussion sections made it easier to engage with peers.

“Sometimes it’s hard to come up with answers in a class discussion, especially on Zoom,” she said. “Putting it down in writing really helped.”

For Renée Ater, the Anchor Program offered the chance to build a new course using a novel approach. A Provost's Visiting Professor in Africana studies, Ater designed Monuments, History and Memory by thinking about the undergraduates she would be teaching, rather than the material she wanted to teach.

“It was exciting to actually reverse-engineer a course — to not leap to the syllabus first, but instead to think about who my students would be, and what the learning goals were that I wanted them to take away from the course, and then create activities around these goals,” she said. “The syllabus was the last thing I did. I’d never designed a course that way before.”

Innovative Online Teaching


In the Anchor Program, faculty learned how online content — like this video by Provost's Visiting Professor Renée Ater — can enhance course goals.

Ater also organized her course after the structure of the Anchor Program itself, which was divided into modules — sets of short, largely asynchronous learning activities, all focused upon a series of concepts and questions, that students can access online and complete at their own pace. In Ater’s class, weekly modules culminated in a final project that invited students to evaluate and reimagine a monument in their city or town.

“Before, Canvas was a place where I parked assignments and readings,” she said. “Switching to a module design shifted the way I thought about teaching — each week, I asked how that module related back to our learning goals, and how it built sequentially upon the knowledge we had developed in previous weeks.”

Dividing the course into these interconnected units made the course’s subject matter accessible and engaging, said Peder Schaefer, a sophomore history concentrator.

“One of the hardest things with online learning is that there’s so much less structure,” he said. “Having this structure made it more fulfilling and easier to engage with the material. It felt very intentional.”

By helping students steadily build upon their understanding of monuments, the module design also prepared students well for the course’s final project, said Avery Oliver, a sophomore concentrating in Africana studies and international and public affairs.

“When I sat down to write my final project, it was so easy because I’d already been conceiving of what a monument was over the course of the semester,” she said.

"We Dream a City"


Sophomore Avery Oliver reimagined a Providence monument in Monuments, History and Memory, taught by Provost's Visiting Professor Renée Ater.

Lasting lessons

Although the Anchor Program was developed to address the specific needs arising from teaching during the pandemic, its participants and co-directors believe that its influence will outlive the current need for online and hybrid courses.

For Gjelsvik, participating gave her the opportunity to reimagine what makes a course design a good one.

“One of the things I’ve struggled with in the past is locking down a course — it’s got to be perfect before I enter the classroom,” she said. “The Anchor Program showed me that when you set up your course goals with your students, you can work together to figure out how best to reach them.”

Itzigsohn also expects that the skills he gained through the Anchor Program will continue to shape his teaching when in-person classes fully resume. “These are tools that will be helpful well beyond the crisis of teaching online,” he said. “I wish that I had taken this course years ago.”

Like Gjelsvik and Itzigsohn, Ater found that the program gave her the occasion and freedom to try new teaching approaches.

“It encouraged me to be more experimental and opened me up to alternative ways of thinking about my teaching,” she said. “I will never go back to lecturing in a dark classroom ever again.”