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Helping Colleagues ‘Go for the Gold’ in Virtual Instruction

feature-imageAs difficult as the pandemic has been on education, Sally Harris sees an upside: It has helped instructors, including herself, become more comfortable teaching in the virtual classroom.

A distinguished lecturer and assistant director of undergraduate studies in the English Department, Harris was honored with the College of Arts and Sciences 2020 Outstanding Lecturer Award.

Harris teaches workplace writing, technical writing, British literature, drama, and detective literature, a 200-level course in which students explore fictional sleuths from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to P.D. James’ Cordelia Gray.

When she’s not busy teaching students, Harris is coaching fellow faculty members on how to move all or portions of their courses online.

“A lot of faculty members are much more willing to use some of the technology since the pandemic,” she said. “We have learned so much about teaching and our own pedagogy over the past year, and many faculty are taking that knowledge back into the classroom.”

Harris, who has taught at UT for 21 years, began honing her own virtual teaching skills long before the pandemic made it necessary. Back in 2007, she sought to improve her ENG295 courses – Writing in the Workplace – by moving lectures and quizzes online to free up classroom time for students to critique writing samples, practice their own writing, and do group projects.

Harris has shared tech-savvy teaching tips with colleagues as an OIT Faculty Fellow and has worked with Teaching & Learning Innovation (TLI) and Online Learning and Academic Programs (OLAP) to develop faculty programs. She was the faculty lead for the First Year Course Academy, a pandemic-response program that helped the 180-plus instructors of the 15 highest enrollment first-year courses learn best practices for online instruction. Once the First-Year Course Academy completed its work, Harris assisted with the follow-up program—the High Impact, High Enrollment Course Academy, which focused on helping other instructors of high-enrollment courses improve their virtual teaching techniques.

Harris said successful online instruction requires instructors to interact with their students, maintain a personal connection with individual students, and protect academic integrity. And perhaps most importantly, online classes must keep students engaged — with the content, with the instructor, and with each other.

Good online instruction is not “set it up and walk away,” she said. Being nimble is critical; what works for one class may not work as well with another class.

Harris lives in Knoxville with her husband and 10-year-old daughter. When she’s not working, Harris enjoys yoga, ballet (she did ballet and gymnastics growing up), jogging, and walking her yellow Labrador retriever, Bailey.

If she hadn’t become a university lecturer, what would she be doing?

Realistically, she said, she’d probably be a technical writer. But in her dreams, she imagines she would have been an Olympic gymnast performing on the balance beam, floor, and her two favorite events, the vault, and the uneven bars.

-Story by Amy Blakely