by Lee Brewer Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Think back to the beginning of your career. You may have received months of training before you became an instructor of record, and then a mentor worked closely with you. The university where you probably taught first as a T.A. had your back. If you were asked to do anything unfamiliar, chances are the college offered ample support for you to accomplish the new task.
Then came the coronavirus. Suddenly and with virtually or no warning, whether you had any experience or inclination or not, your teaching load shifted online.
As an online professor of English since 2005, I have a few guidelines for approaching your new responsibilities. While I would defend each as strongly as Orwell defended his recommendations in “Politics and the English Language,” I concur with his conclusion that you may break any of these rather than say or do something Orwell called “barbaric.”
- Let yourself feel anger and grief. You didn’t sign up for a job as an online professor. You miss seeing your students and the camaraderie in your classroom. As an extrovert, I still miss that interaction. Although you may feel very alone as you shelter in place, your anger and grief are common among your colleagues, a natural process when facing a major loss. Your students deserve that same slack. They didn’t sign up for an online class. If some of your good students have disappeared, the pandemic makes it more acceptable to reach out to them in a professional manner. Think about the tremendous new obligations, such as homeschooling children and providing elder care, your students may suddenly face. Not only that, but you cannot know that your students are physically safe from Covid-19. Avoiding enabling behavior and showing concern for your students’ wellbeing are not mutually exclusive. A courteous email from you may glean important information and help at least one student finish your course.
- If your courses involve writing that you now grade online, a lighter touch may serve you effectively. When I grade physical essays, I have a system tells students which errors and issues pose larger problems than do others. Such subtlety is lost in Turnitin. Consider marking the most important issues and referring briefly to others in your end comment. Students who care enough will follow up on what they have done well or poorly, and you may then do line-by-line corrections expecting the student to take them well. Grading in Turnitin tends to take longer; it need not be less effective.
- If you employ discussion boards extensively, consider how formal to make the rules about posting and replying. Each term, I require students to create 50 posts that average approximately three sentences. Substantive replies to classmates’ and my posts count toward the 50. Many templates have built in requirements about the number of times a student must reply to other students, but I do not include such a requirement. It often yields posts that say, “John, you do a good job of x, but you could also say a little more about y.” How much learning do such posts really demonstrate? Not only that, but how many times do you require face-to-face students to reply to each other? You have taught many students who, when another student posed spoke up, tuned out as if the discussion no longer applied to them or listened actively but silently. I doubt that any requirement will alter such behavior online.
- This summer and beyond, understand that synchronous learning may no longer apply – at all. Early in my distance learning career, I tried to set a time to meet a class, and there was not a single hour per week when every student could meet. This situation stemmed from the different scheduling needs among students. Your future online courses come with an understanding that at least some of your students are “traditional” distance learning students who have the same issues due to work, travel, family, etc.
- Do not fear that preparation for a full term teaching online means recording hours of lecturing or reading PowerPoint presentations. We have known for decades that the “sage on the stage” usually does not correspond with best practices. While your presentations have a place in the online classroom, my experience suggests that less is more. Because my students don’t need to see me present ideas, I rely upon podcasts less than ten minutes in length. Also, although the method is imperfect, I read from a script or prepare a transcript so that my podcasts are ADA compliant. My students hear my voice but only in measurable chunks. And I have never read them a PowerPoint!
- Check your email more than once per weekday and every Sunday night. Asynchronous learning means that students will not restrict themselves to your office hours. I have been online working at 2:00 a.m., received an email, and responded to it within a couple of minutes, all to the surprise of neither my student nor me. Your college may give you an instructional day to reply to emails, but I find that checking email before dinner lets me catch my afternoon emails and give same-day responses. My Sunday evening login lets me avoid a daunting “mailbox bomb” early Monday morning. I may not answer every weekend email on Sunday night, but I at least perform triage so that I can catch what is important and think about what to say Monday morning.
- If you share my love for the Socratic Method, bring it online via the discussion boards. Start by replying to at least every third student post, posing a follow up question designed to make all your students think more deeply. Tell your students that follow ups are not intended solely for the person who originally posted! If you model the Socratic Method well, some of your other students will join in, providing answers to follow up questions and creating their own follow up questions. Compliment and complement good posts, and show your personality, including your sense of humor. Threaded discussions show you how effectively this process is going: the deeper the thread, the deeper the learning. Granted, many students will not get the hang of the discussions, but then again, many do not in the physical classroom, either.
- I know you recall well the occasional agitated student who spoke with you after class. That student may send you an inflammatory email now. Remember that you do not have to reply immediately. Write a draft, and save it. Then, reflect on it, and revise before sending. You want to lower the temperature of the interchange, and a bit of chronological distancing can do that. Show that you understand the student’s concern, and respond in a calm manner. A kind word can, indeed, turn away wrath and resolve a matter quietly. You may even want to thank the student for contacting you. “Thank you” has countless implications both online and in person.
- Without lowering your standards, be flexible. The university’s and students’ systems will crash. Students will inadvertently submit the wrong essay or completely misunderstand an assignment. A child’s illness will keep a parent up all night right before a deadline. Granted, there is no such thing as an actual “education emergency” that prohibits teaching and learning, as your own conduct during the pandemic shows. This does not mean, however, that you (or your DFW rate) will gain by complete inflexibility in your online classroom. You lack the control when your students all work online at a distance that you enjoy when you can see their pens moving. Accept this fact as part of your baseline to save yourself aggravation.
I could say more, as could anyone who has taught extensively online. Another veteran online teacher might make entirely different points from a very different philosophy. I hope I have communicated that is okay. As you gain experience, you will develop your own list of pointers. You may want to share your thoughts at a virtual watercooler, and the time may come when you train the next generation of distance learning faculty.
Meanwhile, I hope you are able to gain something from the experiences and lessons I have shared. Better yet, I hope you will find something to discuss or debate. You love teaching and talking about teaching. My experience teaches me that while online teaching is different from face-to-face teaching, the outcomes and the learning can be relate. Best wishes as you undertake this new phase in your career.