Teaching & Learning #4. Navigating the Pandemic from a Virtual Classroom in Wisconsin

  • Ron Machoian, Ph.D., Col USAF ret.
  • Teaching & Learning, With Blackboard & Map
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On March 11th, nearly 70,000 students, faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin were met with the news that a rapid transition to virtual classroom learning would begin following the scheduled spring break.

Finding Opportunity Amid Anxiety

I am an administrator and senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, teaching courses in the global security track of our interdisciplinary International Studies major. UW-Madison’s spring 2020 semester, like that of so many other institutions across the country and around the world, came face to face with the growing COVID-19 pandemic in early March. Out of concern for the campus and community, UW-Madison shut the doors to its brick and mortar campus mid-way through the spring semester and asked students, faculty and staff to reconvene in a “remote” environment. All were asked to overcome immediate challenges, circumvent obstacles, and pick up the responsibilities of learning, teaching, and administering with some semblance of effectiveness.

Rather than the complete academic mockery this might have become, the entire episode went rather smoothly – or at the least, significantly more smoothly than might have been expected when first considered. The result was a semester that, while decidedly different than the one that began just a few months earlier, ended with an effective learning experience and the university’s mission still intact.

For most, this meant a rapid transition to life at home instead of on the traditional campus. This went more easily for some than others, with a wide variety of challenges and resources in each setting. Most were sequestered with family or roommates in an environment that, for many, was less conducive to remote learning and study that might be hoped. “Normal” family life—with its many responsibilities, issues, and distractions—in a real-live working household did not disappear overnight to make room for the added anxiety of a global pandemic.

Several of my students related that it was difficult for them to find time when they could study or work without nearly constant interruption from younger siblings or roommates. One international student returned to her home-country in Northern Europe and completed the semester from there, another anguished over her parents’ desire that she return to her home-country of France. This provided a challenging academic environment for many students. As the weeks wore on, it increasingly presented a challenging environment for just plain living also – for teachers as well as students.

Fortunately, this change took place immediately prior to the university’s scheduled spring break. Due to the action’s timing, faculty and teaching academic staff were able to leverage almost two weeks to remake their courses on the university-hosted Canvas platform. In short order, the remaining half of the semester was translated to a wholly online environment – ready or not. UW-Madison immediately strengthened teaching/learning support resources and purchased additional servers and other infrastructure to ensure broadened access and uninterrupted use without service degradation.

I personally benefited from two online conversations with one of many resource-specialists who answered my questions about the platform and helped me work through the actual “button-pushing” to achieve the transition. I had worked through an online teaching certificate nearly a decade before using Blackboard, but that early experience in the online environment was antiquated compared to current applications and practices. Had the university not benefited from the presence of significant in-house expertise, and made it quickly available, this might not have gone as well as it did.

The Course: Culture, Strategy and Security

My spring offering was a 3-credit undergraduate course founded on the sub-field of strategic culture. The course is my own creation and I’ve offered it in UW-Madison’s IS major about six times, in various versions under the title “Culture, Strategy and Security.” The section had 24 upper-division undergraduate students enrolled, the cap for this course. The syllabus builds on the field’s scholarship and offers a foundation in the literature before moving into case studies of the United States, China, Iran and India, finishing with a discussion of the subject’s conceptual application to non-state groups. The syllabus had moved through lesson 17 of a 28-lesson syllabus when students left campus and in-person instruction came to an end; thus, leaving about one-third of the semester to complete via a hastily created remote-learning syllabus.

I decided to finish the semester in a hybrid online approach that blended asynchronous learning with synchronous discussion. For those unfamiliar with the industry lingo of online coursework (it claims its own unique language), the former term, asynchronous, refers to a learning syllabus that does not require students to come together as a virtual class at a prescribed time in the same online “classroom.” Synchronous then, to explain the more obvious without intended insult, is when students come together in a virtual classroom setting at a scheduled time – usually, but not necessarily, at a regularly scheduled meeting time. The advantages and disadvantages of both formats quickly became clear to me as the process evolved.

Online Platform & Initial Decisions

In the end, I used a combination of both methods of delivery for the course. Using the university’s hosted Canvas framework, I wrote discussion prompts for each reading assignment that required student submission in a shared online forum. A typical assigned reading of 25-35 pages required each student to post discussion-based answers to anywhere from 3 to 5 questions, written by me for the purpose. Each prompt asked a content-specific response with one or two follow-up questions that demanded critical analysis in the context of course concepts. Sometimes there was “free choice” among a field of questions, meaning, as a notional example, that students could choose 3 questions to answer from among 5 offered questions.

In the Canvas forum, students were also asked to respond to their classmates’ posted answers, asking follow-on questions or offering constructive comments in response. Many did so, and some warmed right up to this part of the discussion, really making a nice attempt to help me create a true online classroom. The back-and-forth discourse that accompanied some lessons was very well done and exciting for me as a teacher to watch develop from my newly established basement office – often with the family dog at my feet.

Similarly, I was able to insert comments directly into each post, doing so in red font to make it readily identifiable as my own. Student entries were not graded per se, but indicated each student’s participation, in the same manner as their contributions to shared discussion in a physical classroom (the semester’s overall grade reflected a 15% participation grade, so this may have remained a strong motivator for the quality responses I received). The idea was that, in an asynchronous fashion, we would achieve a virtual classroom environment. The reading would provide knowledge-based content, the questions and answers would facilitate critical reflection, and the opportunity to comment on one another’s work would further amplify each outcome via peer interaction. At the end of one of the case studies, I posted an essay myself to highlight and further explicate several points that I believed begged further address. Whether that was helpful or not, the students dutifully told me that it was.

Feedback & Adjustments

This seemed to be an effective strategy – meaning that the responses indicated a high degree of student engagement with the assigned reading, even if only sampled virtually. The syllabus was at a point where the class was applying concepts explored during the first half of the course. Each case study consisted of 3-4 lessons focused on the cultural context of a modern state’s strategic disposition, expressed in its behaviors and decisions – China, Iran, and India. Some lessons incorporated online videotaped presentations by recognized scholars in the field (for example, Dr. Dick Davis, speaking on how salient cultural values may be found in historic Persian literature such as Ferdowsi’s epic Shahnameh, and further, that threads of these values remain discernable even in Revolutionary Iran’s modern identity). These lessons brought expert “guests” to our classroom and also helped students remain engaged by breaking the potential monotony of a repetitive “read and write” sequence. However, it quickly became evident to me, via feedback, that some students still desired greater real-time human interaction than that offered by the asynchronous environment alone – an attempt to regain some elements of the on-campus experience otherwise lost to the pandemic.

To meet students on their own ground, where assumedly they would benefit most, I quickly incorporated synchronous discussions into each module as a sort of capstone to each case study. These discussions offered an opportunity for me to summarize salient points of the module’s readings and attempt to engage students in real-time facilitated discussion, focusing on threads that supported each case study’s contribution to broader course learning outcomes. The synchronous discussions took place in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, a university-supported platform that allows instructors to host an online discussion, with audio, video, and shared resource features – much like the broad list of virtual applications and software being used now, under COVID-19’s shadow, to produce online conferences, webinars, meetings, and interviews around the world.

Reflections & Alternatives

The relative success and failure of my overall effort may never be known, except inasmuch as I was very pleased with the outcome. Students seemed to remain engaged with the course, and their written submissions reflected a high degree of understanding and application. It is clear to me that they were synthesizing course outcomes and were able to apply these critically to a chosen subject. The rapid transition to an online environment, amid the public turmoil of a global pandemic, certainly muted my expectations as the unwelcome adventure began. But if my own expectations were moderated, then my students’ performance restored my hopes and raised them ten-fold. With few exceptions, they embraced the entire challenge with admirable poise and determination. As usual, students here seem to push obstacles aside to press my expectations still higher, even under the current trial-by-pandemic.

By offering a hybrid online course experience – with asynchronous written discussions blended with real-time or synchronous discussions, I was trying to offer media that might appeal more directly to each student’s preferred learning style. As I look to the fall semester, under the stark realization that courses may remain online, either in part or in whole, I am attempting to incorporate this spring’s lessons learned as I recast my fall course on “Revolution and Insurgency.” I am going to try to leverage a spectrum of learning modalities further with more deliberate effort to identify and apply a variety of deliveries. Potential thoughts to amplify traditional teaching are exercises that students might accomplish in the community. Remote learning can be extended beyond the computer-bound limits that most often comes to mind – with a student keyboard-bound at a virtual blackboard. Teachers must avoid letting the student’s role devolve into an online version of the discarded practice of recitation – a pedagogy that marked the 19th-century collegiate experience.

As an example, for my course on strategic culture, in the past I have assigned observational thought-pieces on how culture has impacted the behaviors and decisions of an organization or group activity to which each student has been exposed or participated. The deliverable has taken the form of a short 2-page essay, but if the course is delivered remotely again, this and similar exercises might be expanded and refined as circumstances allow. Even if again under “safer-at-home” conditions, they may not be able to go out into the community to fulfil the exercise, but they certainly can think about past experiences for similar application. Another alternative might be for each student to identify the expression of a collective value or perspective in popular art, music, speeches, or other media, and then relate this to its potential presence in broader strategic culture. In its expansion, such exercises can incorporate peer discussion as well, pairing or creating small groups to discuss one another’s essays and their expression of course concepts in smaller virtual breakout rooms. Similar outcomes can be achieved creatively in many formats to supplement more conventional online content.


I believe that the interdisciplinary subfields of strategic and security studies lend themselves quite well to the remote-learning environment. Much of the coursework has the advantage of building on scholarly literature via historical and contemporary cases, and application-level experiences certainly are everywhere in the world around us, even if in creative translation. Interdisciplinarity by its very nature demands a more holistic approach to learning, making the field a natural candidate for the online environment. There are many online presentations, recorded in various forums over the years, that support so many subject-specific lessons. My own course this spring benefited from online video recorded presentations by Thomas Mahnken speaking on China’s strategic culture from Sydney’s Lowy Institute, Nov 2009; and, as already noted, Dick Davis speaking at the U.S. Naval Academy, July 2015.

Even if not a learning environment equivalent to the in-person discourse that marks a brick-and-mortar classroom, I believe that an online strategic or security studies course can remain a rigorous and engaging experience, perhaps even with distinct advantages in some respects. The distance learning realm may appeal to many students, offering flexibility to those with competing demands on their time, and an element of comfort for other, perhaps more introverted learners, who may even dread the classroom’s expectations. In the end, the virtual classroom’s challenges can be embraced as opportunities, offering pathways that can engage students on levels otherwise not seen. Admittedly, I remain a somewhat reluctant advocate for distance learning, preferring the human classroom experience in a side-by-side contest. But today, the online or even blended syllabus will offer a degree of safe refuge as colleges and universities navigate the pandemic environment and later its uncharted aftermath.

I hope that the International Center for Security and Leadership blog will benefit from further discussion on this topic, helping each of us find engaging practices for remote and hybrid delivery of strategic and security studies coursework. With the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects still present and even growing across much of the world, it appears that the virtual classroom is likely to remain with us for some time to come. I welcome all comments and suggestions.

Author: Ron Machoian, Ph.D., Col USAF ret.

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