SERIES | REBECCA’S ONLINE TEACHING TIPS
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
― Walt Disney
On March 11, 2020, we received the official notice from Washington State University leadership that we needed to move our in-person classes to the online format. As someone who has designed and delivered many online-only courses for more than six years, this inevitability was not as daunting for me as it was for others. I know how to step back and assess a live course and transform it for online delivery. I know how to establish consistency, engage with students in multiple time zones from a distance, and provide balanced attention to course prep, recorded lectures, discussion forum contribution, and assignment feedback. I have made many mistakes and had the opportunity to fix them. I have had time to learn and master tools like Panopto, Blackboard, Zoom, and now Canvas. Preparation and readiness was not my challenge. What I could not prepare for or predict was how emotionally and physically challenging it would be to shift two courses I have taught in-person for more than 8 years and after nine weeks of instruction, take everything I and the students have built, tear it from our arms, and retrofit it into a virtual space – all in one week.
I will admit that my early attitudes toward all of this were along the lines of “it will be fine; no big deal.” But that thought process was based solely on the mechanics of transferring content normally delivered live to content that would now be distributed solely online or via video conference. Fundamentally, that part of this transformation was not a huge departure from my online course adjustments of the past. It took time and attention to detail. It required substantive changes to the course schedules and lesson plans. It mandated updates to assignment intensity and due dates. But after three weeks of instruction in this alternative reality, I know now that no one could have prepared for what we are experiencing.
Let’s recap on where we were just four weeks ago…
- We were nine weeks into a 16-week semester
- Student teams were well-established and (mostly) functioning on their rhythm
- Our lessons plans were in-place and cruising along, adjusting as needed
- We were about to head into a weeklong break – looking forward to spending time outside and re-setting
- Murrow College was preparing for Murrow Symposium and the pending hosting of dozens of alumni, students, and guests
- Other WSU programs were preparing for a series of annual spring events, the famed Mom’s Weekend, academic and research showcases, end-of-year gatherings, awards, and commencement
- WSU staff were working hard in their roles for advising and mentoring, facilities and maintenance, tech support, budget management, event planning, food preparation, and office administration
- WSU tenure-track faculty and grad students were rooted in their research, teaching assistantships, and ongoing publishing and grant preparations
- Many of us were making plans for spring and summer travel, concerts, weddings, reunions, graduations, and conferences
- Kinder-parents had kiddos in daycare or preschool – settled into a daily norm and schedule
- Our K-12 kids were in school 8a-3p and well-established in their routines, sports, and extra-curricular activities
- Our college-age kids were wrapping up their second quarter, secure in part-time jobs, and gearing up for their final quarter before a well-deserved summer break
Fast forward from March 11 to Apr 12. Nothing I listed above is the same. We have all had to shift, adjust, make accommodations. We have all probably broken down – in both laughter and tears. We have felt invigorated, fearful, angry, frustrated, and hopeful. We have had to set emotions aside, hunker down, and address a new reality none of us wanted. Parents are now homeschooling – a feat unto itself, everyone misses their friends and family they do not live with, families are upending their households to create new work-spaces inside what was once a dining room or spare bedroom. Wifi capacities are being tested. Our forms of entertainment have shifted, our shopping routines and practices redefined, and the way we connect with others is entirely different.
According to my course schedule, this week marks Week 13. My original plan and approach have already shifted. I went from a series of all-hands Zoom sessions to meeting with smaller groups and teams. I am progress-grading in a way I always wanted to but never made proper space to sustain. I am recording my feedback instead of writing it out in a way I never have before. I am on top of email responses. My spring course prep is complete. My announcements are scheduled. I am already shifting gears to prep for my summer class. This morning I read an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Ed that I think is timely and sets a nice tone for the final push of spring semester (“How to reconnect with students and strengthen your remote class” by Beth McMurtrie, Apr 9, 2020). The author shares advice from two teaching experts who discuss supporting students during times of anxiety and stress and embracing creative ways to teach and reach them from a distance. Here are some of my takeaways from the ideas presented:
Be (virtually) present
I have always been very accessible for my students – both in-person and online. But this can be a challenge in a 40-person class packed with discussion and tasks in our 50-minute sessions 3x/week. I am spending a lot of time on Zoom with the students – both individually and in groups. Some stay behind to ask me a question. Others use the chat to request clarification on something. Some prefer to email me separately. Whatever the method, I am responding accordingly and doing all I can to make sure they feel heard and connected. This week I am going to reach out to the students who have not checked in this past week. I want them to know I am thinking about them and making sure they are doing OK, feel on-track and know they can connect with me however it works best for them.
“Explain, and then explain some more”
This idea struck home for me. Sometimes I feel like a broken record with students – telling them what is expected or how to do something multiple times. Right now repetition is critical – and important that it is delivered in multiple ways. I post weekly announcements with to-dos and reminders. I send emails each week for “topics of the week.” All live Zoom sessions are on the calendar and invites were sent to all students. I created a section in Blackboard with folders for each session that include resources, links to lectures and assignments, and other information. I record tutorials and assignment walk-thrus. Questions still come up. I address them quickly and consistently. It feels non-stop but I believe it is necessary right now so students remain focused and confident in these final weeks of class.
Build a sense of community
I am trying to build a community with my students. In one class, every Wednesday we convene as a group and then I put them in breakout rooms in Zoom so they can connect on projects they are working on for Center for Civic Engagement partners. We go back and forth between the main meeting room and breakout rooms and it helps them stay connected. In another class, I meet with pre-established teams. I may still bring the full 40-person class back together, but the individual team meet-ups help them maintain connection and progress toward the completion of their semester-long project. I am also building community through discussion forums, social media and blog posts – giving them a place to connect, share, and engage more passively.
Use creativity to connect
Creativity and application of creative tools are central to my curriculum. But finding ways to connect creatively with students from a distance is a newer challenge for me. This week I want to incorporate Kahoot with the students – an interactive game and study tool most them probably used in high school. We played it with friends last night and it was so much fun. I see great potential in introducing new concepts creatively with this tool. I also want to add Padlet into the rotation to inspire more active engagement and collaboration during live sessions.
I write this today, sitting outside on my front porch. It is Easter Sunday. My brother is a pastor at a Presbyterian church in Sequim, WA. This morning his team delivered their sermons and music programs via live video-stream as the pews were empty on this normally packed and festive day. The sun is shining bright, birds are chirping, squirrels are scavenging, a breeze brings a slight chill, and a few couples are out walking their dogs. I hear the laughter of our neighbor’s kids in the distance. My babes are sleeping. I made myself a London Fog tea, grabbed my laptop and a blanket, and came outside for a change of scenery, fresh air, sounds of nature and community. Cars pass by – fewer than usual. The Bryan Clock Tower bells just rang at the top of the hour. Our grass needs mowing, our bark needs to be refreshed, our rose bushes need to be trimmed.
My senses are engaged. I am in-tune with my emotions. I am allowing all of it today… grateful that my family is safe, healthy, and connected; sad about the loss of our old routine and plans and activities; fearful of the unknown; and excited about warmer temperatures and working in the yard.
Tomorrow we begin week four of our new normal. Four weeks of classes remain including finals week. Summer session starts the following week. It is a good day to pause and reflect. Three weeks in, four to go. I owe to my students, my family, and myself to keep going…
This post is part of Rebecca L. Cooney’s Online Teaching Tips series. Check out more tips in the “Online Teaching Tips” category.