Skip to main content
Department of English graduate student Heather O'Leary at her desk in her home office, where she teaches.

Department of English graduate student Heather O'Leary at her desk in her home office, where she teaches.

Graduate student succeeds in virtual classroom with new technology

When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced professors to move classes online last spring, Heather O’Leary ’10 had a smoother transition than many educators.

O’Leary, a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Department of English, had already been using Microsoft Teams with her students long before the pandemic. Now, she is one of the many success stories behind campus efforts to embrace online teaching and learning tools.

“I like having all the information available to students and letting students learn at their own pace,” said O’Leary. “I like that students can do their work in a way that makes sense to them.”

This semester, O’Leary is teaching the course Literary Narrative. She has based her curriculum on her study concentration, climate change fiction. The class is mostly asynchronous, but she hosts optional Zoom sessions twice a week for students who would like to ask questions and discuss their readings.

For the asynchronous portion of the course, O’Leary took a unique approach to give her students as much flexibility as possible.

“I have the course set up in a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style, which is an idea I got from another TA, Becca Olson,” said O’Leary. “There are nine different assignments that are all worth different points. They can do whatever combination they want to get 50 points for the week.”

Each Sunday, O’Leary posts the instructions for the week’s lesson in Microsoft OneNote. “I post all of the videos they need to watch, links to articles they should read, and some background on the text we’re reading,” said O’Leary. The students’ options for assignments include discussion posts, learning reflections, literary analyses, and sharing articles that are on-topic with the current reading.

After three semesters of utilizing Teams, O’Leary added a new tool to her virtual repertoire this semester. When she discovered the collaborative capabilities of Padlet, she knew that it would be great for her classes. The only obstacle was that it was too expensive for her to cover out of pocket.

O’Leary contacted the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT), which encouraged her to apply for a “Teaching with Technology” grant. She received the grant to cover the subscription cost, and in return, she will be presenting her experience with Padlet to CTLT in the future.

Padlet enables O’Leary and her students to engage in interactive discussion posts. “It’s really easy to share content, which is why we use it. You can put a link in there, and it pulls up the article so you get a preview of it,” said O’Leary. “We’ve used it to make a timeline of the book we’re reading, and we can also use it to make a map and mark spots on a map. There’s a lot of different options.”

Students in O’Leary’s course have expressed satisfaction with the virtual experience. Parker Roberts, a junior business management major from Libertyville, had taken a couple of O’Leary’s courses prior to this semester. Despite the changes this semester, Roberts still feels that his learning experience has been up to par.

“Heather has made a successful learning experience for her students with her knowledge of Microsoft Teams,” said Roberts. “I have spoken to fellow students, and we agree that Microsoft Teams makes it very easy to navigate class assignments and requirements while also being able to easily interact and communicate with your professors and peers.”

O’Leary understands that mastering online teaching is an ongoing process. She has taken multiple courses to harness her skills as a virtual educator; she was first introduced to Padlet through the School of Teaching and Learning course Introduction to Educational Technologies, and she also took an online instruction course through the Illinois Online Network over the summer.

O’Leary also has helped teach online tools to other educators. As she was one of the first Illinois State instructors to utilize Teams, she and two of her colleagues were invited to present at the 2019 Faculty Summer Institute (FSI) Conference at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“We set up a pretend classroom in Teams and showed them all of the tools,” said O’Leary. “It was great to be in that environment with all these different people who are using technology in their teaching.”

Currently, O’Leary is a part of the Teams for Instruction Pilot on campus. The program includes instructors from several departments who are learning Teams for online instruction and are working to figure out how Teams might be used on a larger scale in the future.

“IT got together with a bunch of instructors to start using Teams, and they made a team for us to talk about our experiences,” said O’Leary. “We’ve been having some discussions about what’s working well and what’s not. The pilot has been really helpful to see how other people are experiencing it, and we can give each other advice.”

As a technology trailblazer on campus, O’Leary stresses the importance of being open-minded.

“Especially this semester, try to give your students the benefit of the doubt,” said O’Leary. “Try to make things as flexible as possible and give your students as many options as possible.”

Apply now for fall 2021.