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Flex@Pitt has been announced: Now what?

Cynthia Golden smiling in front of bookshelf

As announced this week, the University of Pittsburgh’s fall 2020 term will undergo myriad adjustments to help keep the community safe and healthy. The Flex @ Pitt concept allows for in-person, remote, synchronous and asynchronous approaches to courses that will build on the innovative ways instructors have already adapted to the ever-changing learning environment this year.

Cynthia Golden is an associate vice provost and the executive director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning with a long background in IT and online higher education. Her staff of 60-plus learning professionals has helped thousands of instructors quickly shift their courses online for the spring and summer terms, and they will continue to help all faculty members keep their courses at the usual level of an excellent Pitt education.

Pittwire spoke with Golden about what faculty members should be thinking about as they plot their fall courses and as they continue to adjust to this new world of teaching and learning. Check back in the coming weeks and months as Pittwire highlights more resources and advice.

This has been a year of big changes, and our faculty members really rose to the occasion this spring. Can you share some success stories from teaching during the spring semester that other instructors could model their fall courses after?

We spoke with instructors about this very subject. View a YouTube playlist of our faculty interviews (and see above for one with Juan Manfredi, professor in the Department of Mathematics).

As instructors begin preparing their fall syllabi, will there be trainings throughout the summer that help guide instructors through course development and Flex@Pitt?

Yes, we will be holding workshops throughout the summer. All upcoming trainings and workshops can be found on the Center for Teaching and Learning’s workshops and events page.

In general, we’ll be encouraging faculty to flexibly leverage face-to-face class meetings, making sure remote students have opportunities to participate using video conferencing technology, synchronous online activities and asynchronous online content as appropriate to the size of their class, availability of suitable classroom space, content and course structure. This blended approach should be adjusted depending on the type of course, whether lecture-based, discussion, recitation, project-based, lab, studio and so on.

Canvas, our new learning management system, is going to play a big role in keeping students and faculty members connected this fall. As instructors start using Canvas, what are your tips, and what resources will the Center for Teaching and Learning offer in the coming months to help?

Start as early as you can to learn the basics before you need them. To that end, we’re offering a three-part Introduction to Canvas webinar series weekly through early September (more details to come), as well as sharing a list of curated web-based self-help resources. Throughout the summer we’re also offering a dedicated Canvas for Remote Instruction webinar to further highlight some of the features that are particularly useful for the online aspects of course delivery. One big feature we always like to mention is 24/7 support service for all faculty, students and staff, directly from within the Canvas application.

University Center for Teaching and Learning logo

What technologies will be added to classrooms to support remote video connections?

We are collaborating with Pitt IT, and anticipate that by the fall term many campus classrooms will be equipped with video cameras and microphones that will quickly connect off-campus participants to the in-classroom experience. These technologies will be most effective when faculty apply active learning strategies to engage with students regardless of their location. 

In-classroom sessions may also be recorded to accommodate students who are unable to participate synchronously.

How will courses that involve touch, like in physical therapy or nursing, look?

There are some well-established models for online education in areas like nursing and other high-touch disciplines. These typically involve hitting a strategic balance between carefully crafted asynchronous online instruction (e.g., didactic content, demonstrations, procedural instruction), synchronous virtual coaching, observation and feedback, and in-person training, observation and assessment. We will help faculty to leverage these models and the best practices they advocate in the support of the relevant courses at the University. 

How can teachers make sure their content is accessible and follows ADA guidance?

Pitt has a number of resources to help guide instructors on accessible content, including on the Center for Teaching and Learning’s site, that cover recommendations and resources.

For instructors looking to covert documents into accessible formats, they should consider the SensusAccess tool. Anyone with a Pitt email may use the service.

Where should instructors look for the most up-to-date information about teaching this fall?

Our homepage is the best resource: teaching.pitt.edu. Since decisions have just been made and all this is evolving, there will be more details and resources forthcoming. Faculty can check the website, and we will be communicating updates via our regular channels on social media (the center is on TwitterFacebook and Instagram), newsletters and direct emails to schools and campuses.


— Robyn K. Coggins