Educator Spotlight: Sarah Cowan

Welcome to another Coffee Break Chat! One of our goals when creating this blog was to share powerful insights from current educators with you regarding their experiences with blended learning, tips and tricks, and helpful resources to use. Today we are thrilled to kick off that vision with a spotlight on Sarah Cowan, a college instructor in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

 

Along with teaching a variety of courses for business students (such as the First-Year Global Experience and Designing Your Leeds first year classes), Ms. Cowan is also a Program Director for the Leeds Scholars and Honors programs and has a passion for helping students individually discover what they love to do and how to incorporate it into their careers. In the past she has utilized her skills and knowledge of social entrepreneurship and nonprofit management to pursue endeavors such as creating a Guatemala spring break opportunity with an education-centered nonprofit, and by working with Teach For America/AmeriCorps.

 

Sarah’s journey of teaching in a blended environment is similar to that of many college professors across America, as well as other teachers---it all changed in an instant. In spring of 2019, Sarah pivoted along with the whole country and transformed all of her lesson plans to be compatible with remote learning. At the time she was teaching the First-Year Global Experience course for students preparing to take a trip to South Africa post-finals, and so one of the major challenges was determining how to reconfigure the fundamental consulting-style project that was a building block of the whole class. In this project, students were placed into groups to connect with a company based across the world in South Africa, and they had to create a presentation to pitch potential ideas to the company to solve an issue that they had researched and investigated. 

 

Another central difficulty to making the switch for Sarah was losing the spontaneity and extemporaneous nature that in-class discussions often possessed. She missed the opportunity to walk around the room and engage with students in multiple groups, feel the energy of the class to gauge their reactions/understanding of course content, and build relationships in this way.

 

However, despite the many obstacles and the nature of the abrupt transition that Sarah experienced, after we spoke with both her and some of her students it was clear that she handled it with empathy, compassion, flexibility, and exceptional adaptability.

 

At the end of the year, students left feedback for Sarah in their Faculty Course Questionnaire survey that they fill out for every professor and course they take at CU Boulder. The response was overwhelmingly positive and affirming. Students expressed their gratitude toward Sarah for treating them with grace and for making herself available to talk about life matters and their current struggles with the pandemic apart from just classwork. 

 

Not only that, but Sarah’s hesitations about the outcome of the consultation-style projects turned out to be refuted. Students were actually able to meet with their “client” companies in South Africa more easily and frequently via Zoom (as well as with each other), and Sarah commented on how the projects that emerged were some of the most well-developed that she had seen throughout her years of teaching the class. This effort on the part of the students combined with Sarah’s positive attitude and outlook on making the most of the situation created a course that was still fulfilling for students, and one that they were able to learn a lot from.

 

When asked what resources she uses that work best for blended learning, some of the ones that Sarah recommends are Playposit, Proctorio, Zoom breakout rooms and polls, and other resources such as Google Docs and Jamboard. Playposit allows students to watch pre-recorded lectures and promotes engagement by including designated pausing points where the student is required to answer a comprehension question before continuing, and Proctorio simulates an in-person test taking environment to promote honesty and integrity on exams. 

 

One positive aspect of purely remote teaching that Sarah revealed was her use of polls in Zoom. As she described it, in-class discussions usually cater to extroverted students, but using polls in Zoom allows for her to get a true pulse on the opinions of every student regardless of whether they are fearful of speaking up in class or not.

 

As we wrapped up our meeting, we asked Sarah what her parting advice was on successfully teaching in a blended classroom. Her primary recommendation was to be mindful of the energy and confidence that you bring forth as an educator. If you come in with the attitude that you are all going to “build this space together” and are aware that the level of energy you exude will be matched by students, you will have a much easier time getting students on board with being excited and with trusting you to lead them. In addition, she suggests becoming comfortable with Zoom or Google Hangouts or whatever platform you will be using before you start the class---after all, you would usually not walk into a classroom on the first day without knowing if it had a chalkboard, whiteboard, projector, or other tools to use. 

 

We are thankful to Sarah for taking the time to speak with us and share her experience teaching in a blended environment---she is a great example of someone who incorporates the best practices of blended learning into her teaching, and we hope that you learned something and feel inspired.

 

Thanks so much for joining us, and we’ll see you tomorrow for another Coffee Break Chat!