Stephanie DeSpain among first winners of inaugural NIU online teaching award

Stephanie DeSpain
Stephanie DeSpain

Stephanie DeSpain can count herself among forward-thinking educators who were somewhat prepared to handle the sudden shift to remote learning in March 2020.

An assistant professor of Early Childhood Education, DeSpain already had developed and was teaching some classes online in the Department of Special and Early Education. She was familiar with Zoom, Teams, Blackboard Collaborate, Blackboard Ultra Learn and other platforms. She had training.

“My brain works pretty quickly at this point,” DeSpain says. “I’ve done enough online classes, or built enough from the ground up, that I was able to pretty quickly identify which weeks would be challenging in terms of activities and content, and then I was able to adjust the format for those activities so that they worked in an online world.”

DeSpain was one of three recipients of NIU’s inaugural Excellence in Online Teaching Award, presented by the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL).

“This new university-level award raises the profile of, and highlights the importance of, this work moving forward,” CITL Executive Director and Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment Assistant Professor Jason Rhode told NIU Today. “It also signals our institutional commitment to excellence in online and hybrid teaching.”

For DeSpain, who was honored during an April 22 virtual ceremony, the recognition “feels so surreal.”

“It has kind of blown my mind a little bit. I never, never expected to get any award for teaching. I just try to come in and do my thing every day,” says DeSpain, who joined NIU in 2016 and previously worked as a special education teacher at both the elementary and secondary levels.

“I don’t want any student out there to face what some of my students and their families have faced. I don’t what them to face what my sister faced when she was in school, because I’ve seen a lot of issues in education, and I want to change that,” she adds. “That’s the whole reason I’m here: to produce really high-quality, strong, confident teachers who are ready to go into schools, be leaders in their classrooms, and advocate for high-quality education for all of their students.”

Stephanie DeSpain
Stephanie DeSpain

Her Huskies enjoy an outstanding role model in that regard.

By the time the Fall 2020 semester arrived, and as COVID forced her to continue delivering her courses virtually, DeSpain was doing the best job she could to teach SESE 423: Observation and Assessment in Early Childhood Special Education.

“None of my assessments are available online, so that was really hard,” she says.

“I would have to go back and forth to my office to cart my assessments home, and I would have to record my daughter taking portions of the assessments. Mikenna is 13; she’s not in preschool anymore, but that’s who I had access to. I would give her the assessments, and try to show portions of that, or I would hold materials up to the camera,” she adds. “It’s not exactly what I would want, but it was what I was able to do with the technology I had.”

Losing clinicals to COVID restrictions called for creativity.

DeSpain “did a lot of demonstrating on my camera. I don’t know that it went how I envisioned it would – I think that we got a lot of laughs out of some of the stuff that I tried to make work – but at least they could see it.”

Students practiced in front of their mirrors, recorded themselves, and collaborated with each other via activities in chat rooms. They also paved a chat thread “miles long” with questions and comments for DeSpain.

“I think it worked, and it was better than nothing,” she says. “I could definitely see evidence of them achieving the outcomes.”

Patience and flexibility also contributed to DeSpain’s success.

“I have some students who are rock stars. They have just done so well with all of their classes being online. They’re strong organizers and time managers. Working on their own is easy for them. They don’t need to bounce ideas off their peers,” she says.

Stephanie DeSpain
Stephanie DeSpain

“For the rest of them, in one capacity or another, it’s been really challenging,” she adds. “For me, my focus in the past has always been on rigor, content and practice, and I’ve had to back some of that off because I needed to make sure that, as people, they were OK. That they felt connected to each other and to me. That we were more than just faces on a screen. I had to really think how I was going to build relationships.”

That personal objective has weighed heavily on her during the time of COVID: “It’s been a little heartbreaking for me,” she says.

Students in her current cohort are the first in her NIU career with whom she never will engage in person. Their Fall 2020 class was online. Their Spring 2020 course is online. Their Fall 2021 course will continue to be online as it always has, regardless of the pandemic.

And, like everyone throughout the world, her students were not truly prepared for the long course of the pandemic and its implications on them as humans and their development as future teachers.

Maybe, she decided, what her Huskies needed were chances just to talk and share.

“We’re all people, and we all have stuff going on. I really had to spend a lot of time making adjustments to how I teach class, taking a step back and realizing that I can’t always push so hard,” DeSpain says.

“I feel that I’m pretty good at building relationships with students, understanding where they’re at and kind of meeting them there, and helping them get to where I think they can get,” she adds. “I have them for three or four semesters in a row, and I just have this amazing opportunity at Northern to build lasting relationships and show them that I authentically care beyond the 16 weeks of a regular semester.”

Looking ahead, she is loving the opportunity to work online, “being able to do the different things that NIU allows me, to teach in a variety of formats, and to mix and match based on whatever works best for the content I’m teaching in any given week.”

She is also grateful for what she’s learned during COVID about the practice – and already thinking about how to improve.

Stephanie DeSpain
Stephanie DeSpain

One key lesson, she says, was her recognition of “how negatively this impacted all of us – to lose those in-person connections, or just being in the same physical space – and understanding how we all were handling this on our own. There’s no rhyme or reason to anybody’s schedules anymore.”

More practical, though, is what DeSpain recognized in herself and in her several years of trial and error in electronic course delivery.

“I had the benefit of training to teach online and teaching online before coming to NIU, so I’ve been doing this for a long time. I definitely got a lot of things wrong before I started getting some of the things right,” she says.

“Before, I treated prepping for teaching online like any other class prep. Now I prep my face-to-face classes like I do my online classes – and I think that’s a really good approach,” she says.

“I’ve used this approach for all of the courses I’ve developed over the last year or so. I try to think, ‘OK, let’s pretend that this is a course that I’m designing, and want to continue to deliver, fully online. I have to start by building it from the ground up, even if I’ve taught it in a traditional format before, instead of just trying to take what I have and translate it over.’ I’ve learned that this is probably a better and more thoughtful approach to developing online courses when possible.”

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