Is the Campus Obsolete?

This coming Friday at 2:00pm CDT, join me for a conversation about whether on-campus learning is necessary, and if so, why.

Contact me for the Zoom login info. sorina[dot]higgins[at]signumu[dot]org.

In this time of corona, many are speculating that a great number of colleges and universities will move online permanently, at least in part. Some hail this as the next great thing that will help save higher education. Some say that online learning needs to go back to being a tiny minority of the courses students take, that it can have a supporting role only.

Baylor University Campus - Picture of BlueSky Helicopter Tours ...
Baylor Unversity

The pragmatic questions about whether to re-open campuses in the fall, how to keep students/faculty/staff safe, whether to create some hybrid form of learning, and what the role of online learning should be in the future also raise much deeper philosophical questions about the nature and necessity of the body-mind connection: Is there something about embodiment that is conducive to human flourishing? Do colleges and universities have greater responsibilities beyond the dissemination of information and the teaching of skills, and if so, do those duties include physical training, community building, and other in-person activities? Does education include nurture of the whole self or just the mind? Where do sports belong in higher ed? Can religious institutions engage in “discipleship” or “Christian formation” or other similar tasks at a distance, over the internet? Are relationships real relationships when conducted via audio and video, without touch or proximity? Online learning is cheaper by far than the maintenance of expensive campuses; would it be better stewardship of tuition money and other financial resources? Isn’t college a kind of weird, artificial environment anyway, when we take a whole generation of young people all the same age, all the same educational qualifications, more or less the same socio-economic background, probably a majority with some shared culture, and have them all live together in a small space? Wouldn’t it be more culturally healthy to keep them in their local communities, mixing with babies and adults and older folks, living around the corner from somebody with a drastically different income, thinking about real-world problems instead of only on-campus ones?

Organisation | University of Oxford
Oxford University

Let’s meet to talk about the specifics of what your school plans to do in the fall and the more general theories about on-campus vs. online learning. Everyone is invited, not just English profs., whether you’re teaching online for the first time, the thousandth time, or not at all!

Are We Working Hard Enough?

We’ve now had two meetings of my little online-English-professors’ fellowship-and-support group. [That’s a lot of hyphens, but I’m saddened by the impending extinction of the hyphen, so I’m trying to breed more and release them into the wild.] In our second meeting, we covered a lot of important topics, and I’d like to share them here. Please feel free to respond with your own experiences on these points, and you are invited to join again this afternoon:

Friday, May 1, 2020 02:00 PM Central Time (US and Canada)
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 938 4251 0311
Password: 656151

We began by taking about final exams. There are lots of different approaches to giving end-of-course assessments in this strange new environment. My Director of First-Year Writing decided that we would replace final exams in freshman writing classes with 500-word reflection essays, in which the students think back over what they have learned this term. The University as a whole has suggested a wide variety of ways to give finals. If we want to have a traditional test, we can post it on the LMS with a 24-hour completion window. Or we can have the students create a course map, multimedia assignment, pop culture analysis, “passion project,” or game that reflects the main concepts of the course.

In British Lit, I’m giving oral exams. The students pair up, and each pair signs up for a 15-minute time slot with me. I’ve given them a list of themes from the course, and they are asked to prepare a 5-minute talk on one theme in which they discuss how a few works of literature from the semester express that theme. Then I will ask them questions about other themes and other works for the remaining 10 minutes. I’ll let you know how it goes!

One attendee gave exams using TopHat, which is a software that (according to its website), allows teachers to “Securely administer quizzes, tests and exams on students’ computers. Set specific start and end times and verify identities online to ensure that the right students are taking your test. Monitor student activity and generate an easy-to-understand proctor report that flags irregular student behavior.”

How are you doing final exams this year? Please let me know!

We talked about overwork, eyestrain, and migraines. Most of us are spending waaaaay more time on our computers than we used to. Ironically, and I use that in the colloquial sense, I had decided to go digital-tech-free in my Brit Lit class this year (I’m usually totally tech-friendly and tech-integrated). I wanted to have a paper-only class as kind of a breath of fresh air, a screen-free space for a change. Yeah. Well. The universe had other ideas. Anyway, have you all been suffering from eyestrain and migraines? I have. And tired eyes are an anxiety-trigger for me. (I had a minor eye injury a few years ago that occurred in a really bad mental health season and totally freaked me out, so anything even slightly wrong with my eyes terrifies me and sets the anxiety going. Alas.) In my case, this is exacerbated by my hardware troubles: My glorious Surface Pro died right at the beginning of all this (graphics card couldn’t handle all the video, and having all the guts in the screen leads to easier overheating), and I haven’t yet replaced it. I’m working on a fairly lousy laptop loan from school, for which I’m grateful, but I need to invest in new tech. I’m planning to get a desktop gaming computer that can handle all the webinars in the world, then replace my Surface for portable work. Waiting for that government relief check, tho…… Anyway.

So we talked about strategies for reducing eyestrain. Taking breaks, setting the brightness lower, changing the background/text colors, working on one’s phone instead, working in intervals with time outside in between, creating a playlist with study music punctuated by break songs [dance recess!]…. Those are all good ideas. The one day when I did audio-only WebEx office hours outside in my catio was nice. 🙂

What solutions have you found for eyestrain?

The most astonishing moment was when one colleague said that a grad student of hers (a GRAD student, no less!) complained that the faculty aren’t working much at all right now. Um. Wut. Dude. I’m working waaaaay more than usual, and I’m sure you’re the same. Hours and hours of personal conversations over WebEx or Zoom, talking to students about their lack of space to work in, their difficult family situations, their mental health crises, their pregnancy scares, the long hours they have to work at a new job they’ve taken on to help their families, their health worries and COVID-like symptoms, their fears for parents or grandparents, their challenges with figuring out how to travel home safely….. Hours and hours of hunting down digital texts to post online because the textbooks are back in the dorms while the students are living with their parents. Hours and hours recording encouraging little videos to explain upcoming assignments or alleviate exam anxiety. Hours and hours learning new software, googling how to do something on the LMS, editing video clips, troubleshooting technical problems….. Yeah. Working a whole lot more than usual, y’all. And getting paid the same. Ah, well.

How much more do you think you’re working right now? Do you track hours? Does online teaching take more or less time than on-campus teaching for you? How much extra time did the sudden transition to online cost you?

So those were the main conversations. We also talked about accommodations, extended time, captioning, ESL issues, intellectual property rights for recorded lectures…

Oh, one more thing. I tried out a new method this week that I like and think I’ll do in online courses in future. Because we lost an instructional week, Chaucer got cheated of his two classes (sorry, Geoffrey!). Instead, I posted some great intro lectures and also recorded my own lecture about the selections we were reading. Throughout this lecture, I embedded five quiz questions. Then I posted a quiz on Canvas with blank questions, so that they had to listen to/watch the lecture in order to find out what the questions were. In this particular case, I made it optional (I have a 25-point “optional work bucket” into which they can put points by doing extra work of various kinds); in future, I’d probably make it required. So only a few have taken it, but for those folks, it certainly helped to get them to dig into my lecture and the text.

Okay, this afternoon I plan to talk about course evaluations and end-of-course surveys, then either today or in future to dig into the big topic of Why have on-campus college at all? Is it necessary for “life-formation” or other extra-curricular goals of your institution?

Hope you can join us!

Online Class vs. Class Online?

This past Friday, April 17th, we had our first meeting of “Ready, Professor One?” — my fellowship-and-support group for English professors teaching online. Six of us gathered from across the U.S., Canada, and France. Below I discuss some of the topics, tips, and techniques that emerged. Please email sorina[dot]higgins[at]signumu[dot]org if you would like an invitation to the next session, which will be this Friday, April 24th, at 2:00pm CST.

There were two big, inter-related questions we tackled: Are we teaching online classes, or are we teaching our face-to-face classes online? And should we strive for excellence in our online teaching for the remainder of this semester, or should we (as many have suggested) give ourselves permission to do a bad job right now?

Our general answer to those questions was that they presuppose a false binary. There’s rarely a course anymore that’s 100% on-campus anyway: Most of us are teaching some sort of hybrid course, even if that’s simply using an LMS as a document repository or accepting work by email. Heck, even reading emails means our course has some small online component. And while we do need to be kind to our students and to ourselves, understanding the crises and stresses of the moment, the students have paid an enormous amount of money for their education, and we want to continue to provide them with the best quality teaching we can without burning out or requiring additional work of them.

Those extra crises and stresses are manifold. We talked about students who are locked in a government quarantine camp in China, living in a trailer park with their single mom, sharing one iPad with siblings, driving half an hour to use the wifi at an empty public school building. I have at least one student who is probably sick with COVID-19; others have sick parents, grandparents, friends, coworkers. A huge number have taken on jobs, even full-time jobs, to help out parents who have been laid off. Most have no physical space in which to work, but have to use a corner of the dining room table and then clear off so the family can have the space. One colleague reported that four of her students have no access to any kind of camera, period: no webcam, no camera phone, no video/photo at all. Another has a rural population, many of whom have unreliable internet access, no printers, maybe even no laptop at all, so she has had them handwrite their essays, take pictures with their phones, and email her the photos of their papers! #NecessityIsTheMotherOfInvention, for sure.

How do we addresses these challenges? First, we talked about creating exceptions to the policies, such as being flexible with deadlines. I myself have simply stopped applying late penalties to assignments. I am in touch with each student to see how they are doing, and most of them are very open about their struggles and their progress (or lack thereof) on their school work, so we can engage in an ongoing conversation about how and when they can get the work done. (I’m blessed with a smaller number of students than usual this semester, so I can do that. My colleagues with upwards of 100 students can’t keep up that level of accountability!)

We brainstormed about how to keep interpersonal engagement with students who don’t have enough broadband to join synchronous video sessions. Here are some ideas we came up with; do you have others to share?

  • Yes, use old-fashioned discussion forums, but give highly specific guidelines for their comments on each others’ posts. Otherwise, you end up with everybody simply saying some variation of “I agree!” over and over. One person even reported that she forbid the use of “I agree,” and so one smart-alec wrote “I concur!” 🙂 I like to give instructions such as: “Write comments on three of your classmate’s posts, specifying details that they brought out in their plot summary which you had not noticed,” or “On three of your classmates’ poem illustrations, write comments in which you discuss ways they interpreted the poem that are different from how you did,” or things like that.
  • If students have access to voice-recording but not video, ask them to record threaded audio posts, perhaps each posing a discussion question about the literature, then responding to a given number of those questions, again via audio recording. This at least gives the limited by still sensory interaction of the human voice, so that we can feel some sense of connection with one another.
  • I often post short videos of me chatting with them about the sorts of things that I would usually talk about at the beginning or end of class, such as going over advice for an upcoming assignment, clarification on something several of them have asked me about, or even etiquette for an online class.

Speak of etiquette, we talked about the problem of the bedroom videos. Many of my students joined the webinar in their beds during the first week, until I wrote and asked them to refrain from that. It’s inappropriate, unprofessional, and potentially even legally problematic. I know that some of those teaching elementary and high school online have outlawed the use of video whatsoever, because of the privacy issues of visually entering the homes of underage children. I still like to keep video on when possible (although I fried the graphics cards on two laptops already!! eep!), so I’ve asked them to get out of bed and get dressed. But some of them don’t have any space to call their own! Their bed might literally be the only few square feet where they can do their schoolwork. So I’d at least like them to put on clothes, make the bed, and sit on top of the bed, rather than attending class snuggled up under the covers in their PJs.

In another post, I might talk about why I think that synchronous video sessions are important. I have been incorporating them, although I make attendance at synchronous sessions optional and encouraged, NOT required. (Here’s a good piece about asynchronous vs. synchronous learning). Then I post the recordings of the sessions later. So far, all my students have been okay either attending or watching the recordings except (and this is an important exception) those who are struggling with schoolwork overall for other mental/physical/emotional/personal/health problems.

One final topic: We talked in some detail about how to do peer review of student essays in the online environment. Having students exchange essay drafts and comment on each other’s is a common element of most basic writing courses–but how do you do that when they can’t exchange papers? Well, if they have the internet access, your LMS probably has a peer-review function. I’m currently using Canvas at one of the universities where I teach, and it has a pretty nice peer-review feature. You set it up, specifying how many papers each student should review, and then it can randomly assign them, or you can manually assign them if you want, say, to match people up by paper topic, or pair stronger students with those who struggle a bit more with writing. It then provides editing tools they can use for commenting on each other’s work. Note that I always post a video with instructions for how to do peer review–even when I’m teaching on campus! In this, I include a screen capture of myself doing a mock review, inserting comments, etc., so that they have a model to follow. If you don’t have an LMS, or even if you do, Google docs is a good option. Lots of students use this as their native writing environment anyway. You’ll probably need to provide some training in how to use the editing and commenting tools effectively. Finally, there’s always email (I mean, if they have any internet at all, and if they don’t, that’s a whole other conversation about going back to correspondence school on paper! I suppose they could mail their essays back and forth–but is it safe to go to the post office these days??? and what if they don’t have a printer????). They could email their papers to one another, ccing you, and send back comments on their classmates’ work.

So that was the substance of our first session. Overall, I think the main point was to encourage one another, to share our woes and struggles with this sudden, drastic pedagogical shift, and to brainstorm ideas for how to meet the challenges. Please share your thoughts, tips, tricks, and troubles — and join us this week if you like! Cheers.

Ready, Professor One?

All over this planet, teachers have sudden been whisked from their classrooms and thrust into the digital realm, asked to teach online with little or no training and very little preparation time. As you scramble to #quaranteach, I’d like to offer my experience to help you get through and even thrive in this strange time. I’m hosting a weekly (?) fellowship-and-support group for English Professors to gather together via WebEx to talk about challenges, successes, and strategies for #OnlineTeaching. This will not be an official training program or anything like that (but if you want such a thing, may I recommend Signum University’s Mentorship program?); instead, it will be a friendly peer discussion that I’ll guide, and I’m sure I’ll add some tips and tricks and suggestions as appropriate.

The first meeting will be:
Friday, April 17th
200pm CST (that’s U.S. Central Time)

Teachers We’ll Be There For You 2020 Quaranteaching Classic T-Shirt

A quick bit about me. I’ve been teaching online with Signum University since 2014, and I served as the Chair of the Language & Literature Department there from 2015 to 2019. In that role, I sometimes got to talk to faculty about best practices in online pedagogy, and I learned a lot about the differences between online and on-campus classes. This summer, I’d like to share that knowledge with you!

Right now, I’m teaching British Lit and freshman writing at Baylor University (where I’m a PhD Candidate), and the nearly universal shift to online course delivery has revealed areas of weakness in my own skills. In the first week after spring break, I found that I assigned too much additional work, I didn’t know how to balance required and optional assignments, and I didn’t adapt to all the WebEx features quickly enough. Therefore I, too, will benefit from our conversations, and I’m sure I’ll learn from you.

So if you’re an English professor who has recently moved to online teaching and you would like to join this discussion group, please email me:
sorina [dot] higgins [at] signumu [dot] org. If we don’t know one another personally, send me a little bio and a link to your institutional webpage. (I’m trying to avoid anything like zoombombers). I’ll reply with the WebEx login information. I’m going to limit this group to English Profs. to begin with; we shall see how it evolves.

Please help spread the word! And “holy luck” on your teaching endeavors. You’re doing really good work in these strange times; keep it up.