Going Big, Online (Pt 1 of series)

Large college classroom, full of studentsSo you taught a large face-to-face class (150+ students) and you now find yourself having to redesign it for an online environment, perhaps permanently. First—I can empathize with you. While I never went completely online with my classes of 275+ (what my institution called a “supersection”), all but the class meetings and some office hours were in an online environment. And I prepared most of my class meetings for online delivery just in case it was every needed.

I taught these supersections of Introduction to Sociology every semester for a decade. I’ve probably made every mistake—interactional, technological, about classroom management—that someone could make. I’ll share some of them in the next few weeks and also some of the techniques that worked well for me and for others I know who have taught large sections online.

Zoom screen with 25 people participatingSo in a series of posts, I will offer some suggestions if you didn’t make the transition during the spring but now find yourself faced with a fall large class. Let’s start the series with some questions:

-How familiar are you with the course management system offered by your institution? Can you get more training now—preferably before the course begins, if you don’t feel very comfortable with it?

-What other software can you use for your course, which is supported by your institution’s IT staff? (You really don’t want to be using software not supported during this kind of transition, with several hundred students, trust me on this. Been there, done it, lots of tears!)

-How familiar are your intended students with the course management system? Other software you want to use? Or are your students likely to be new to all or some of them? I usually taught first-year students, so they were new to our course management system and many had not used anything similar in high school. Some had a steep learning curve.

-Will you have any pedagogical help? A graduate student assistant? An embedded undergraduate peer tutor? Academic coaches? Beg and plead for all the assistance you can.

-Does your institution have an Academic Support Center? An Instructional Technology Support Center? Online Library staff? What hours will they be open during the term you are teaching? How can you and your students interact with these crucial staff members?

-Do you have required pedagogical experiences such as laboratories, service-learning, or observations in the face-to-face class? Will you transition all of those experiences in some way to the online experience?

-To the best that you can know it now, what is your institution’s plan for reopening? Are there policies being created about, for example, you being able to meet with small groups from class, in an open area, or could you reserve a smaller classroom? Will you be allowed to have in-person office hours as well as online office hours, if you wished to do so?

-Is there a chance that you could be told to deliver face-to-face AND online content for the same large section, with students choosing which content delivery they want to have on any given day, based on their health status and other choices?

-What is your institution’s plan if you get sick (and not necessarily just from Covid-19!) and are teaching online (especially important if you have no assistance)?

-What instructional materials will you use?

-Open educational resources? If so, have you read through them all? Do you have the ability to add notes/make changes to any which might conflict with how you teach the material? [I have found that students struggle mightily when what I am sharing is contradicted or even slightly different than what the text says. The last online text I used allowed me to line through any text I didn’t want them to read and insert a “text bubble” with what I wanted instead. It really helped!]

-What online resources do you have available? Does the text have online exercises or applications or visuals which you can assign? Again, have you looked at them all/watched the ones you are likely to assign?

-Are all the visual materials chosen accessible? (This will be the topic of a post in this series, so if you are not sure – I’ll help.)

-Have you looked at your selected resources on screens/monitors of several sizes? Think from a large, gaming monitor, to a standard monitor, to a phone—students should comfortably be able to access your educational materials using any of these technologies.

-How likely is it that most of your students will be enrolled in online-only courses? There can be an increasing amount of “screen fatigue” with more classes taught that way (it can happen to you, too!). Think about that as you contemplate the amount of work you are assigning.

Text says: "Make the plan, execute the plan, expect the plant to go off the rails, throw away the plan"And of course, other than knowing what CV-19 is going to do in your area, the biggest set of questions is: What is your institution’s plan for the fall? When will it be decided? And how flexible is it/will it have to be?

Here’s how I see the series unfolding, but if people suggest other topics, it could change. Some of these might be longer than usual, but to make the series useful, making it be over too many weeks won’t help much. If people would like me to do the series at a faster rate, just let me know in the comments, I can do that too!:

Week 1:  Some questions to think about

Week 2:  Designing for and with accessibility

Week 3:  Backwards designing your class, for its content and the changed circumstances of Fall 2020

Week 4:  Assessments that engage them (and you!)

Week 5:  Communication: tone, honesty, and humor

Week 6:  What classes might look like come fall and building student engagement for different options

Week 7:  I can’t believe I did that–but I did–please learn from my failures  (I might choose to weave these through each post, again, in an effort to share my pedagogical tips out quickly.)

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Pandemic Lessons

Image of COVID-19 virusAs the academic term is winding down for most (and for some, summer term has started), it’s time to reflect on what happened. Have you taken some time to do that? After you’ve gotten some rest and relaxation, of course!

Three blocks that spell out "You"About Yourself

-What new skills did you learn (by choice or by necessity), either for teaching or for interacting with members of your department and university?

-Are there ways you can continue to build on those new skills?

-How can you use those skills in your future pedagogy?

-What did you enjoy about the last two or so months of teaching?

-What did you come to detest about the last two or so months of teaching?

-What did you learn about how you handle unexpected change? How you need support? How you offer support to others?

-How did your pedagogy change (I’m assuming that it had to, at least in some ways!) during this time of staying-at-home-teaching?

-How did you manage the changing workload this academic term brought? What time management steps did you learn? Wish you had learned?

-How have your relationships with others at your institution changed over the last few months?

-What did you learn about your communication style and how others react to it?

About Your Students

-How did they rise to the changes in your courses?

-What strengths did you see in them?

-How did they cope with the transition to being away from campus, if they were primarily an on-campus population?

-How many online campus services did they access?

-What new skills did they learn (or were forced to learn) in order to continue with the term?

-How can you create future class content to leverage their new skills?

-What did they teach you about your pedagogy and how to better meet their needs?

-Are there skills you thought your students had learned that you feel they need to still work on, in order to succeed in courses and the labor market?

-How did they do working in teams (if they did)? How can you help them to strengthen these people skills?

Sign in 4 directions, which say, "Respect," "Ethics," Integrity," and "Honesty"About Your Institution

-What software worked best for communicating with others on campus?

-What software did not work as well for you?

-What surprised you about your campus/department/program’s leadership team and their decision-making? Good surprises and not-so-good ones?

-How well did you feel your institution communicated with you about CV-19 on campus, in your community, and the plan for trying to reduce its spread?

-How well did you feel your institution communicated its pedagogical plans to you, to staff, and especially to students as the transitions occurred?

fountain penShare Your Thoughts, Constructively

In this time of Zoom meetings and such, people might be “screened out.” So I suggest you consider doing something “old fashioned”—drop a few handwritten cards or notes to those individuals who were really there for you, your program, or your students. That might be your Teaching and Learning Center staff, your Instructional Technology staff, your Library staff, the faculty member who had more online teaching experience and helped others out, your Housing and Residence Life staff who helped students to exit campus safely, your campus security, your Human Resources staff, or a particular administrator whose deft touch in campus communication helped the transitions which had to occur. Even if you have ideas for improvement, a short note might be heard better than a long email.

You might even consider writing yourself a letter—memorializing what you have learned, how you have changed as a teacher, and how you want to keep changing in the academic terms to come, given that the virus looks like it will still be on campus, in our communities, and in our lives, for at least the near future. Open it as you begin fall planning.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Now, it’s your turn

Closeup of typewriter, with the words "The end"You made it. You pivoted to teaching, learning, advising, counseling, teaching labs, and even physical education, online, with little or no time to breathe. You had to do it—and you did. Many of you did it while also becoming teacher to your own little ones, who were home with you.

Pink flower, gently opening; above it, says "It's time to take care of yourself"But as the academic term winds down, I worry about each of you. How will you decompress? What do you need to decompress? How will you heal your body and soul from the stresses of the last two months? All while knowing that the next few months might not be necessarily that different. Staring into a future that is so uncertain brings its own stresses. So before you focus on the future (summer and fall academic terms): Stop. Breathe. Take care of yourself. Take care of your loved ones. Do nothing for a while. Turn off the notifications on your phone(s).

Just be.

Saying Goodbye

Sand and wave approaching; in the sand, someone has written "Goodbye"The academic term-to-end-all-academic terms will soon be finished. It included a pandemic, a nation-wide economic crisis which touched nearly all of us, and changed how most of us in higher education, worked. Other than that – it was business as usual, right?

Classes—be they extended due to weeks for transitioning to online delivery or not—are about to be completed. First off—congratulate yourself. You did it—the ways that faculty and staff have pulled together in this extraordinary time have been inspiring to witness. Congratulate your students as well; many of them stayed with classes because classes provided one of the few stable patterns in their chaotic new “present.” But that inspiration and perspiration have also created exhaustion, incredible stress, and a myriad of emotions, for everyone.

So let’s talk about one of those emotions: saying goodbye to your students this term. I confess; I never felt that I did the “last day” very well. After going over grades, I tried to sum up key concepts and engage with students about how they could use those concepts in their professional and personal lives. But often, it was clear that students just wanted to be “done” and were very happy when I dismissed the class for the last time (save for the final exam, to be taken only by some of the students).

Quote: We don't live through live only by our own experiences, we live through life with other people's experiences as a reference too. -- Nike ThaddeusHow you end an academic term where, for many, more life experiences have been shared than ever before? This term, those “final moments” might be even more interactionally difficult: they perhaps will be on software like Zoom, where many are on at a time and so the moment has to be public in a way that a face-to-face interaction might not be. Or they might be embedded in an asynchronous posting which not all students might even read.

It might be more difficult this term because their grades might not reflect what all has happened to them, to you, to the class, and to our world. It could feel awkward awarding the grade a student earned, given all that you might have learned about her or his current situation. Prioritize kindness and humanity right now, whenever you can. So what to do in your last time with your class?

Be honest—something I hope you have been doing throughout this pandemic’s new pedagogy. Tell them if it is difficult to acknowledge that in a few days or weeks, you won’t see them regularly and will worry about them, their health, economic security, and that of their families too. Acknowledge their worries about you and yours as well.

Do you have to say “goodbye” though? I ask because you might want to understand fully the limits of the software you have been using. Will the Zoom “room” allow a student to continue to log in and talk with you after the semester is over? Can you prevent that from happening, if you want to/need to? Or if you are using your institution’s learning management system, do you understand how long the class page will stay active? If you are like me, I would “hide” my past classes and only keep current class pages visible, but that means it would be more difficult for you to notice if this term’s students checked in with you via the learning management system. They may need that ability to reach out to you and hiding the class will complicate communication. Will you encourage students to contact you via your school email? Again—some of this just involves understanding thoroughly the tools you have been using. And sharing that knowledge with students, so that they know how to stay in touch if they wish to do so (and you concur).

What about advisees? Especially those who are about to graduate? With most public moments to celebrate canceled, there will be fewer opportunities to congratulate them, wish them well, and celebrate their successes. Can your department or program host a virtual party and invite them to attend? Or can you do a smaller one for your advisees? Could you start an official Facebook (or perhaps Instagram) account which would allow them to choose to follow you? There you could post job announcements, link to articles about job hunting (in general or in the post-pandemic job market), and would allow you to encourage and support them in the days and weeks ahead. It could also create a social network for them to connect with each other as they spread out across the country.

back of beige envelope; it is closed and sealed with red waxOne of the things I did the moment it became clear that our country (or most of it) was headed for shelter-in-place guidelines was to buy a large number of blank cards. For the price of a stamp (which helps out the US Postal Service—an organization that desperately needs our support), I can stay in touch with former students and graduates who I know are on the job market. I’ve offered to review/edit resumes and be a reference. Most importantly, I’ve offered to just listen as they game out their job search.

It won’t be easy, no matter how you and your students say goodbye. Give yourself time to process your feelings, time to decompress from what has happened, time to just breathe. Celebrate their successes, and yours. Next week will come and it might mean time to begin to prepare for summer or fall classes.

But Spring 2020 will be one for the history books. You made it. They made it. You all persevered. Give yourself permission to have mixed emotions as it ends. Have them, feel them, reach out, and share them. Know your students will not soon forget you, how you pivoted to face the pandemic and how you taught them—and not just the academic content. You taught them and learned from them what being human is all about—the good, the confusing, the anxiousness, the fear, and the ability to focus, even if it was for just a few minutes at a time.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.






Regrets, I have a few…

Tiles that spell out "Regret"I read Facebook and Twitter and hear the exhaustion, sorrow, and sadness of so many of my friends whose lives have changed so drastically, due to the coronavirus. Some were experts at online pedagogy and are thriving—at least in their teaching—at this time. Others are struggling with transitioning laboratory classes to an online environment. Many are juggling life as an online teacher with being parent-teacher—online and in person—to their own children as well. As a non-parent, I read those posts and admire each of them for multitasking so diligently. I realize that how one did yesterday does not mean how today is going.

I’ve had lots of regrets. Did I retire “too soon,” given this pandemic? Could I be useful now, teaching a large online class of students in these tense times? Could my senior capstone course help advisees and majors about to graduate think smartly about how to find jobs in this weak job market? Should I have gone into public health instead of sociology (has long been an interest of mine; about 5 years into my teaching career, I had an opportunity to enroll in a MPH program and really had to think hard about it)? [I’m thinking of seeing if my local public health department needs contact tracing volunteers.]

"I wish life had a rewind button"My guess is many of us have similar thoughts—should I have done . . . ? But rethinking choices can be difficult in times like these. Be kind to yourself. Realize that during times of stress it’s easy to wish for a different present, just in case it might help create a different future. But we’re living, teaching, and surviving in this pandemic.

Up here on the mountain, self-quarantining is our way of life anyway. Even before the virus, we tended to go to the store once a week (or less) and run all our errands during that one trip. I’ve been going into the stores because my husband is older than I am and well, I’ve seen the data about the mortality of this virus and males. So I am doing most of our trips out or Frank’s coming with me, but staying in the car. Though North Carolina doesn’t require it, we’ve started using masks when we go out (we found several which our contractors and carpenters left in the garage!).

My husband and I are blessed and we know it. Of course, that could change, but for now, financially we are so much better than most, so we are doing what we can to help out our local food bank and local companies.

All we can do is to live—and teach— in the moment—be it one of calm, stress, anxiety, fear, or just exhaustion. We need to help our students to be in this same moment and to look, not long term, but to near-term horizons. Help them to get through this week’s classes and to plan for next week’s. Help them to assess accurately their health status (physical and emotional) and access resources they need. For those who will be graduating soon into a labor market that has crashed, give them hope that their degree will provide skills they can use in a variety of jobs let alone careers. This is the time to really be sure their resumes list skills they have (e.g., data analysis, qualitative and quantitative research methods [many jobs will need staff who can, with a bit of training, provide contact tracing, for instance], cultural competencies and how to handle customers from a variety of social locations, etc.).

Stay honest with yourself, about yourself and your pedagogy. Stay honest with your students by modeling truthfulness. Be gentle with yourself and with them. The goal of “finishing the term” needs to be flexible and reflect the pandemic realities of the last few months.

Know that there are many people, like myself, who are here to support you all as you live and teach in these historic, scary times. Stay inside, stay healthy, and be strong. You are doing hard things very well. But remember, you are entitled to “down time” – even if you are online, you don’t have to be “working.”

Meme that talks about it is okay to have a variety of emotionsIt’s okay to cry, scream, to need a break, to take time to meditate or exercise, to chill out with your favorite comedy or Hallmark Christmas movie or whatever it is. Be kind to yourself. There will be time for whatever comes next—make this moment, now, count. Know lots of us are here to support you.








Teachers and professors too are on the front lines of this pandemic. Many have been forced to transition pedagogical strategies in just days—a week at the most. Students need you now, not just as their educators, but as lifelines, creating routines and a sense of steadiness in the midst of chaos and upheaval.

Unlike retired medical professionals, there isn’t a call for retired professors to rally to help—though I know many of us would like to do so. Instead, many of us are trying to support our friends still teaching, albeit differently, and the staff who have become academic coaches and advisors, online helpers, etc., regardless of their official job descriptions.

These abrupt transitions must be difficult enough, but additionally, many faculty and staff are now becoming teachers in a different way—for their own children, who are at home with them full-time. Parents are always teachers, but transitioning to stay-at-home teaching and oversight of their little ones who are suddenly learning online, simply adds more stressors.

So what I want to offer today is a set of values and behaviors for those of you doing the hard work of pandemic educating:

Believe Breathe. Be still for a moment. Every day, take a moment to quiet, to center yourself, to ground yourself in whatever ways fill you up. That might be prayer, meditation, communing with nature, whatever works for you.

Expect the UnexpectedExpect the unexpected. Whether it be a storm that knocks out the Internet, or a student whose online post causes pain to another, or finding out a friend or loved one has tested CV-19 positive—something likely will happen today that will overturn your plans. And it’s okay. Plans don’t have to be completed in the chaos of the now—do something to advance the goals today.

Like yourself in the now. No one should be judging others or oneself in these times. Each of us should be extending a hand and an open heart. But it’s not the time to say “wow, her classes are going better than mine” or “he seems to be managing teaching/parenting better than I am.” Do what you can. That is enough.

Graphic: magnifying glass enlarging block of text that repeats FACTS over and overInvestigate—be a knowledge seeker. Listen to what you hear on the news, in social media, or from family and friends, but be sure to check out the source of information. Official websites are much more likely to be sharing the best data we have about the virus, the economic distress spreading across the globe, and potential treatments. Help students to sort through sources to find ones which are more trustworthy.

Experience what is happening. Whatever it is, live in the now. Be that sadness, fear, or the joy of a happy pedagogical moment online—feel it. Know that you are not alone. Luckily, children can help to show those of us who are adults how to do this. So watch a child for a moment—the laughter, tears, seriousness, and back again—can be great life lessons during these stressful times.

Value what is most important to you. Family, health, social connections, faith as one understands it, life-long learning. Share yourself with your students—we all need to see each other’s humanity during the pandemic (and afterward too), and the more students see you as a person who is trying to live out personal and professional values and ethics, the more comfortable they will be in creating their own set. As our society—and the world—begins to rebuild itself, we will need to act in ways that reflect our better values—sharing with each other for the common good, be it supplies like food and paper products, wealth, access to education, health care, or internet access. There will be time for political conversations, to be sure, but conversations about equal access to resources shouldn’t be about politics, but about our shared humanity and weaving the social network tighter, to catch those who are in danger of falling through it.

ExhaleExhale. Let it go—whatever the ‘it’ might be. Tears of frustration, fear, the screaming at the frozen screen in front of you, the child who seems to step on your last nerve—try to step away for the moment to rebalance. It’s far easier to say than to do, so don’t worry if you don’t always succeed at letting things go. Do the best that you can and be kind to yourself, your loved ones with whom you are “staying at home,” your students who are worried about their learning, their health and economic future, their loved ones, and your colleagues who are simply doing the best that they can too.

We always are constructing our individual lives but now, in this pandemic moment, we are caught up together in constructing the history of our nation, it’s young, and our world. Do today what you can. It is more than enough.

Just believe.

Don’t Really Know What To Say–Do Any of Us?

I feel like I’ve let all my professional colleagues down by retiring in 2018, given what the past 10 days or so have been for them. There’s no way I can understand the stresses they are feeling–for their students, for their colleagues-the techy ones and the ones who feel they are so lost right now trying to transition to new learning and teaching modalities, for their families, for our communities, our nation, and the world.

We’re stressed about and for friends whose jobs are have disappeared in less than a week. Some of us know people who are Covid-19+ or waiting to hear if they are. Fewer of us probably know someone who has died of it–so far.

Some of the people we are worried about might be students, others are friends, others are family members. My husband’s family lives in NYC and mine in Seattle–so we listen to the news about the two US hotspots nearly every moment of the day.

Our world is radically different. Teaching, learning, is different now too, if only because for now, it often takes a back seat to the virus and what it means for our lives, now and in the future.

So be kind. First, to yourself. Especially be kind to yourself if you are trying to convert classes in order to finish the term and provide continuity of learning. What centers you, in this new reality? Do it as often as you can.

Be kind to your students. They likely are overwhelmed with family, financial, school, mental health, and technological stresses. They may or may not share that with you, but it’s there. So assessments need to be rethought (e.g., the type, the number of them, the grading). Err on the side of grace.

Be kind to your family, however you define that term. That cup in the sink, the dishwasher still not emptied, the little one who is crying because she knows something is “wrong” but doesn’t have words to talk to you about–take a breath or two or three.

Help out. Every community is different. Research what it needs. A colleague started a GoFundMe for wait staff from local restaurants (many who are students). Or contribute if you can to your favorite charity. Log on to social media and see if there’s something that needs to be done. In a nearby town where I live, more people are signing up for going out and cleaning up trash on local highways. Families can do it yet still practice social distancing. Social science research has shown if we do something to help others, we often feel more in control when life is chaotic.

But most of all, know that we are in it together. So here’s one way I want to help. Anyone need a video guest for class conversation? Count me in. Here’s some of my specialties:

-teen Satanism

-new religious movements

-gender and religion

-social construction of reality, especially about the social construction of social problems

-how media construct social problems

-Class specialties: Introduction to Sociology, Soc of Religion, Social Problems, Constructing Social Problems

Email me at klowney@valdosta.edu

Be kind. Take breaks (emotional and physical ones). Hug someone you love if you can or reach out via social media. Stay in touch. We’ll persist…together.

I have never been so proud to say I am (albeit retired) an educator as I have been these past two weeks.