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Thursday, May 14, 2020

Lecturers’ Early Tech Adoption, Grace Fuels Virtual Transition Success

Diana Pastora Carson (third from left), Rachel Schlesinger (right) and their TAs.
Diana Pastora Carson (third from left), Rachel Schlesinger (right) and their TAs.

Television news coverage of the early spread of COVID-19 in the United States provided an eerie backdrop for Diana Pastora Carson and Rachel Schlesinger as they passed through airport terminals on their way back from New Orleans in early March. It was a strange time to travel, but for the pair of San Diego State University lecturers, the timing was also somewhat fortuitous.

Carson and Schlesinger had just attended a conference for Top Hat — an online education platform they had been using for a couple of years to increase student participation and engagement in the General Studies 420: Disability and Society course they teach together. Soon, they’d need to use it to tackle a new challenge — moving 600 students from two large lecture halls to virtual learning.

And they’d need to do so in one week.
“Thankfully, technology has been our saving grace to an extent in being able to continue to offer this class and continuing to further the message and the topics that we want to cover,” Schlesinger said. 

Disability and Society is a foundational course offered through the Department of Special Education that provides students from all majors with an exploration of issues such as ableism, discrimination, inclusion and public policy. In non-pandemic times, Carson and Schlesinger teach the course using a combination of lectures and guest speakers from the community.

They first started using Top Hat because it allowed them to weave in live discussion, enabling students to make comments from their mobile devices that appear in the class PowerPoint. Now, the platform allows them to cover individual topics with interactive assignments and embedded questions. And while it has been difficult to coordinate guest speakers because of the pandemic, they have been able to weave in videos of speakers they recorded in past semesters.

“We felt so much better prepared having done a lot of prep work through the Top Hat platform,” Carson said. “We've attended two conferences and gained so much empowerment through that. It wasn't as difficult of a shift for us as it would have been two years ago when we started teaching this course.”

While the two are reaping the rewards of enthusiastically adopting educational technology early on, not everything has been easy. Carson, a kindergarten teacher by day, and Schlesinger, an educational consultant who teaches social sexual education for adults with developmental disabilities, spend hours together on Zoom calls each week writing their lessons.

They’ve also taken care to focus on access, captioning all videos and working with Jon Rizzo in Instructional Technology Services to assure Top Hat meets accessibility standards. But in these unprecedented times, providing access has also meant being flexible and understanding. One of their students — an international student who had just returned to their home country — reached out because they were quarantined for two weeks with limited internet access.

“It's about giving ourselves grace so we can survive, and also remembering to give our students grace,” Carson said. “We've had to be very flexible about making sure we don't dock them points and allowing them to complete the work when they can.”

Added Schlesinger: “We've been really grateful that we've had Top Hat to help us with the transition, but my message to other educators would be to do the best you can. Right now we're in a pandemic situation and it's not like this is easy. We've had glitches in our classes. Sometimes assignment dates are not correct or things get deleted. Stuff happens.”