New CTL director used ‘tutor’s intuition’ to ease Georgia College through pandemic change

New CTL director used ‘tutor’s intuition’ to ease Georgia College through pandemic change

W hen the university and universities all over the world were grappling with closures and the rapid switch to online teaching—when everyone was reeling from constant change, fear and the threat of chaos—Jim Berger’s phone rang. 

People needed answers. They looked to him and his team at Georgia College’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) for decisions that would ultimately impact every faculty member and student on campus.

A lot of it for me was trial and error—a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of pressure. I am grateful for the respect that the institution afforded us and the patience they had with us as we worked to figure these things out. It was very much a team effort.
– CTL Director, Dr. Jim Berger
It had to be done right. And it had to be done fast.

“A lot of it for me was trial and error—a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of pressure,” Berger said. “I am grateful for the respect that the institution afforded us and the patience they had with us as we worked to figure these things out. It was very much a team effort. Everybody showed a level of patience and a willingness to try things out.”

Berger had only been director of CTL since summer 2019. His staff was busy launching their spring programming when pandemic struck. Those programs had to be laid aside to make room for new plans—unprecedented plans without blueprints for what needed to be done.

The short of it is Berger didn’t know what needed to be done. And herein lies the real beginning of his story—and how he effectively guided the university to online success. 

It all started in high school algebra. The girl who sat in front of Berger paid him two bucks an hour to explain the complex equations of letters, numbers and symbols. 

Oddly enough, Berger later dropped out of college. When facing unemployment and financial need, he accepted a position tutoring a student at the University of Georgia (UGA). Realizing he had a knack for this sort of thing—he went back to school, launched a tutoring business and continued coaching students throughout his undergraduate and graduate years, all the way to getting his doctorate in adult education in 2001.

He started by charging the going rate: $10 an hour. But demand was crazy. Berger tutored 50 to 70 hours a week, from morning to midnight. To lessen the load, he charged more:  $15 an hour, then $20.

One of the things I realized was that faculty weren’t always aware of how best to teach their students.
– Berger
But he “couldn’t beat them off with a stick.” 

Students just kept coming. Word of mouth had spread. 

If you need help, see Jim Berger.

“I hung a flier saying I can tutor in these 22 different courses—arrogance beyond all bounds—but it blossomed for me,” Berger said. “One of the things I realized was that faculty weren’t always aware of how best to teach their students. Students would come in and say the instructor’s been working on this for three days, and I still don’t get it.”

“Yet, in 20 minutes,” he said, “I could understand what the problem was and get them through it and take them to the point where they could solve the problems by themselves.”

Faculty workshops at the Center for Teaching and Learning.
Faculty workshops at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

When asked the secret to this achievement, Berger shrugged and called it “tutor’s intuition.” This is the quality that also proved useful during the pandemic. Part of it is recognizing that people learn in different ways—some need drawings and graphic images, others benefit more by verbal or written instruction. 

Tutoring, like training faculty to teach online, ultimately focuses on the student. It’s a process of listening to questions, watching the steps taken to solve a problem, seeing where the student hesitates and trying to figure out where the blockage is—but “always with a great deal of respect for the learner and what they’re going through,” Berger said. 

I learned early on to pay attention to people, the way they sit, the way they act, their facial expressions, the words they use, the words they don’t use and why they use those words and the emotional content behind that.
– Dr. Jim Berger

These qualities benefit Berger at CTL, as well. The Center’s purpose is to help instructors identify new and exciting ways to teach, including the use of technology and digital content. This is why the administration relied so heavily on Berger's office when COVID hit. CTL oversees the learning management system for faculty.

Berger had previously taught online in the adult education program at Western Kentucky University. At UGA, he did his dissertation on using the Internet for coursework. Even so—just as the entire university looked to him for answers—he was unsure of all the steps to take. 

Technology had changed. 

“Part of the difficulty was, before COVID, we were such a face-to-face environment at the center,” he said. “We didn’t really understand the technology for changing to online content. We were like: ‘How do we do that?’”

Berger and his team were asking themselves the same questions faculty would be soon be asking and, ultimately, students too.

The CTL staff of four scrambled to hold “fake sessions” online and practice with each other. What if they made a mistake by pressing this key? Oops. Don’t do that. How do we set up online gradebooks or create assignments and discussion boards? How will faculty connect with their students remotely, handle office hours, create WebEx and Zoom invites?

Faculty have really stepped up and adapted to this new environment and to the needs of the students. So, as much as it would be nice for me or our office to take credit, you have to leave credit at the faculty’s feet. They really are the ones who are on the front lines, facing these issues and coming up with creative and engaging ways to reach their students in a totally unprecedented time.
– Berger
By asking these big questions first, CTL laid a solid foundation. Then, they set up webinar workshops and one-on-one sessions with faculty. About 117 participated in mock classroom demonstrations and 168 viewed ‘how-to’ videos CTL created. Videos give step-by-step instructions on holding discussions in Zoom breakout rooms, connecting iPads to computer screens, polling students and other topics. There are tips on creating active online classrooms and teambuilding activities, as well.

“Faculty have really stepped up and adapted to this new environment and to the needs of the students,” Berger said. “So, as much as it would be nice for me or our office to take credit, you have to leave credit at the faculty’s feet. They really are the ones who are on the front lines, facing these issues and coming up with creative and engaging ways to reach their students in a totally unprecedented time.”

When classes moved to a hybrid mode this fall, CTL experimented by training faculty members in a classroom setting with other faculty joining in online. CTL staff emphasized the need to look directly into cameras and speak into mics, so students at home understand what’s going on. The use of Power Points and lists are important for keeping the class up-to-speed. Faculty communicate frequently with students by phone, texts and emails, providing a weekly rundown of what’s expected.

Berger feels the CTL team reacted to issues as they happened, providing “just in time” information. Now, one-page instructions sheets and videos are centrally located on Georgia View, where faculty and students can go for quick reference. 

By December, the number of requests for help “decreased dramatically.” In addition, few students have called in for help—which shows Berger the lessons CTL provided faculty were effective. He’s modest about this success, however, and is quick to say all departments on campus pulled together to get the job done.

“It was very much a multi-team effort,” Berger said. “I don’t want it to sound like the university approached me at my door, and I shepherded this great massive ship. I didn’t. I worked with others, and we came up with solutions, and we addressed those issues that were coming up. This was a lot of communication amongst us all.”

The institution really came forward and did it. The success really does lie at the institution’s feet.
– Dr. Berger