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.