COVID-19, Transitioning to Online Learning, and Emotions: Yours and Your Students’

I had planned on this week’s post being about how a leader can help build a community of teaching practice. But current events have made me rethink that topic and I’ll shift it to a future post. Sorry for the length – I hope these thoughts can help.

Image of COVID-19 virus; image from CDCThe coronavirus is shaping—at least for the near future—higher education. Many schools are canceling face-to-face classes and shifting them online. For those faculty who have taught online before, this can be stressful, but for those who never have, it must be unnerving, frightening, and overwhelming. There are lots of resources if you are in that situation (I’ll put some of them at the end of this post) but what I want to talk about is the emotions of shifting classes online—for you, the faculty member, and for your students.

Your Own Emotional Work

Text: Be scared and do it anywayIt is okay to feel overwhelmed with teaching online. It can feel that way when one chooses to shift to online classes; being forced to might only amplify the emotion. This suddenness only complicates the situation. Recognize that you are not alone in feeling overwhelmed. I also understand that at this moment, knowing others are feeling the same way doesn’t help all that much, necessarily. What you likely feel you need right now is a technological elf who will come and set up your classes, not just solidarity with others who are feeling stressed! So know yourself—what do you need to minimize feeling overwhelmed and begin to shift to making forward progress on the transition? Within reason, give yourself what you need to begin to work through this.

If you are wondering if your students’ learning experience will be different now, the answer is “yes.” But different does not necessarily mean “worse.” You might end up liking the fact that students will have to do more “conversing” in online discussion groups than they would have done in class (where conversations are often dominated by a few individuals). So don’t deny your concerns but also don’t let them get in the way of brainstorming creative ways to finish the academic term.

LMS imageIf you have not taught online before nor played around in your institution’s learning management system (LMS), it’s time to start. If you need to create an account, do so immediately. Most schools are ramping up IT support, so call if you need help. Remember, you will not be the only person asking for help and it’s okay to seek out experts. Your goal is to get online quickly and “correctly” (i.e., in ways that students who have used the LMS before will be expecting), so don’t be worried about bothering them. And by the way—write down your institution’s IT numbers and your LMS’ help hotline numbers, so that you have them handy.

For me, feeling comfortable would entail making several “to do” lists (one for each class and a master list). While not everyone feels the same way, I feel less overwhelmed when I write down tasks that need to be done. What might be on the master list? All tasks that I will need to double-check for every class (e.g., did I create dates for the beginning and ending of all assessments?; did I post the revised syllabus in several places online for each class?, did I post a notice about how grading might change due to the coronavirus, etc.).

Everyone will be different—are you someone who would like to do the same task for every class before you move on to the next task? Or do you want to finish one class before moving on to the next one you have to get online? You might have to redefine what “finish” means, however, depending on your particular institution’s timeline for shifting to online classes. “Finish” might mean setting short-term goals (e.g., have content for the next two weeks of classes for all classes posted) versus working on one class’ content, when that class may extend for six or eight more weeks.

Everyone will be stressed—your students, university staff tasked with helping make these transitions to online teaching and learning, university administration, and you. So be kind. Rethink the pedagogical necessity of every assignment. Give yourself permission to eliminate some, given how the virus has changed the social context of learning.

HELPING STUDENTS PROCESS THEIR EMOTIONS IN A REQUIRED MOVE TO ONLINE COURSES

Communication Anxieties

Three thought bubbles with words, "Frequently Asked Questions"Consider writing your class a letter and “pin” it to the opening of your class. The tone of the letter should be “we’re in this and we’ll get through it, together.” Let them know you understand that many are worried about their own families, their economic status, their health and that of their loved ones, and how this shift to online learning will impact their grades. Let them know that you’ll be around more—answering questions, reading discussion threads, and so on. If you want to create a “Frequently Asked Questions” discussion board (something I would encourage you to do now and which I did in every hybrid classes I taught), link directly to it in your letter. Tell the class that you will try to log into that FAQ at least twice a day and you’ll respond to questions and clarify any misinformation which might have been posted. Let students ask anything they want and let other students respond—but once a day, post your answers/clarifications. That way you don’t have to respond to each student’s posting. But I would encourage you to reply directly to any post which does have incorrect information, either about institutional responses to the coronavirus or to your specific class. Be gentle as you correct information, don’t be overly aggressive with the student.

Many students might worry about how to communicate with you privately. While it will be easier on you if you ask them to contact you only within the learning management system (LMS), recognize that many will not, either because they forgot or that they may not know how to send an email within the LMS. So check your campus email frequently as well as the email within the LMS. Be gentle in your replies to those using your campus email—don’t snap at them (even if you might feel it every now and then). You might consider adding an email signature that explains how to write an email in the LMS or add an attached slide showing how to do it.

Chalkboard-like image that says, "Announcements"Some students will want to know everything about the changes to the course—right now, if not yesterday. And while you might share their concerns, you might well not have all the answers. I suggest you be transparent—share what you know officially as soon as you know it. That might mean that you use the “Announcement” tool which most LMSs have as your mechanism to share “official updates.” If it is easier, just copy and paste all news that is meant to be shared with students right there. The tool will send it out to all students or will show it when the students next log on to the LMS. Be sure to include the date and maybe even the time when you posted the content—things are moving fast in terms of the virus and how institutions are coping with it, so it will help to identify when the information was posted.

Recognize that some students will struggle with your answering their questions with “I don’t know that yet either.” They might feel the need to have firm answers to their process questions in order to be able to settle in, concentrate, and learn. So expect a few students to keep reaching out to you. Again, be kind with your replies—they are trying to cope in ways that make sense to them about an event where there are so many unknowns.

Stay in touch with students, more than you might otherwise. Let them know that you are “out there” and are wanting to know how they are feeling and how things are going. Open that communicative “door” often. Those who reach back are many of those who need you the most, at that moment. Be there for them.

Desk with computer and phone on it; text says "Online office hours"Consider having more online office hours than you might have had in-person ones, not fewer ones. I used my LMS’ Chat tool for a ‘live” experience or tell students you will be in an “online office hour discussion board” during the following hours. Tell them any question is okay—that you’ll answer what you can and crowdsource some tech questions which you might not know how to answer. Then send those questions to your IT staff for answers! Know that you might sometimes be alone, but having the hours will mean a lot to students, even if they don’t use them.

Technology Anxieties

Expect that students—especially those who have not enrolled in hybrid or online classes before—might struggle with understanding the in’s and out’s of your institution’s LMS. Hopefully your institution will offer a “quick introduction” for these students. But have the URL ready to send to any student who might need it. You might even consider adding it as a part of your email signature. Or consider creating a few “pertinent links” which you include at the start of every communication you have with students. That way students can easily find what they need to locate, thanks to you.

Be generous with your deadlines and your procedures for students turning in assessments. Yes, students should upload a written document via the Assessment tool, but many might not understand how to do that. Please, this is not a time to believe all the hype that this generation is hyper-connected and therefore should know everything about technology. Take the time to explain each step (PowerPoint or other presentation slides can be a lifesaver for this kind of knowledge-sharing). But in case someone doesn’t do it correctly, give students an “out.” Perhaps tell them that you require them to upload assessments via the assessment tool but you will also allow for a grace period (determine how long you want it to be and put it in the directions of the assessment) where a student could send the assessment to you via LMS email. Yes, it will likely mean that some students send it to you twice, but if it calms their anxiety, it will be worth it.

Consider what content you decide to “open” to students and when. Students new to the software may not think to look for due dates, so consider guiding them by only opening the content which is only needed during the first week of online teaching and learning. As students get more comfortable with the software, you could always open more content for those who might want to work ahead.

Consider a “technology bonus.” What do I mean? Think about giving all students in the class bonus points (maybe even a substantial one) for coping with new technological ways of having to learn. Yes, this could be an artificial ‘bump’ in grades, but so what? These are unusual times and offering this makes you seem humane and understanding of their concerns.

A few additional technological pieces of advice: 1) Think in small bites of information. What might have worked for your 75 minute in-class slide presentation/talk will need to be posted in sections, once you start adding in audio and text. Best practices say to think in 5-15 minute sections, with 10 minutes being ideal; 2) Caption everything. It’s the law. But especially if you are having to create content at home, with a less-than-stellar microphone, you will want to caption the content in case the audio is not that great. And realize that students who might be stuck in dorms or their homes might have to listen to your content when others are around, so they might need the volume to be lower than they’d like. Having content captioned will help everyone to master the content you want them to learn. Be sure you explain to students or show them how to turn on the captioning though – different technologies do it differently.

Learning Anxieties

Stressed studentMany students will be worried about how their learning (and your teaching) will be impacted by the shift to online teaching. Talk with them about this in your letter to them and your posts. Some students who are very verbal in class might be worried that they are not strong writers and therefore might do less well on discussion board assessments which you might be creating. One way to minimize their worries is to post a few examples of strong, good, and weak discussion posts written by you, so that all students can see exactly what level of detail, engagement with texts, and length of response will earn what kind of grade. Be encouraging with all students, especially on the first discussion assessment you create. Gently guide but let them know you are proud that they made the transition and are trying to show their learning in this (potentially) new way.

Conversely, other students might be excited to be able to write their thoughts versus having to talk in class. So expect that some students will blossom in online discussions. One tip: don’t say to such a student, “Why didn’t you share these kinds of insights in class?” You’ll be exhausted during this transition and these kinds of comments may come to you—so set your internal filter a bit higher, so that you don’t post them. Don’t beat yourself up for having such thoughts, if you do, but please police your public comments to students.

Beware of the Emotional Rollercoaster:  The Invisibles, the Not There So Much Students, and Other Worries

One of the worries shared by every faculty member who teaches online is that some students just never log on or others start well but then over time their engagement falls off precipitously. When you also see that same student in a face-to-face class, it’s easy to pull him or her aside and say “Hey, what’s happening?” But that’s nearly impossible online, for one specific reason—no matter how many check-up messages you send the student, if the student isn’t logging on, then the disconnect will continue. Here’s where you might want to ask your institution a strategic question about pedagogy: Will they have anyone (working remotely) whose job will be to contact students in other ways (likely via phone or text messaging) to assess what is happening with the student and perhaps coach the student through whatever technological or personal blocks might be happening to keep the student from doing better in the course? And if your institution does have this as part of its plan, how should you as a faculty member share information about a student who is concerning you?

Don’t assume these students “don’t care” about your class. That is usually not even true in a normal academic term, but this is far from a normal term. A student might have deliberately chosen face-to-face classes because of limited internet access, only to now have every class moved online. There might be economic or health or family pressures (or some combination) that have overwhelmed the student. Remember, some work-study students or those with campus jobs might now be scrambling to find work, while campuses are closed. They may not be able to prioritize online learning right now.

Female student, sitting on bed, looking morose, surrounded by books, notebooks, and phoneFor other students, the loneliness of having no social interaction with peers might engulf them and they might not have coping skills to manage the transition to online courses in addition to everything else going on in their lives. [An aside: you might want to find out if your institution will be offering online counseling services during the campus shutdown. If it is, always include the information on how to access that in all communication with your students.] If or when (hopefully, it is when!) a student returns to your online environment, again, be gentle and see if there are ways to adjust the schedule to help the student to succeed in learning your course content. Normally I am pretty firm about deadlines, but these are not normal times and kindness needs to outweigh steadfastness to norms.

If you can, check-in with seniors who are about to graduate whom you know, whether they are in your classes or not. They most of all might be on edge—worried about if the term might be canceled and they won’t be graduating, and/or worried about the worsening economy as the virus not only decimates people’s lives but our economy as well. Take the minute or two to write an e-mail, if you can—they will appreciate it. If you have advisees, try a mass e-mail to all and more detailed emails to those who have particular curricular issues that may be impacted by this health/educational situation. Let them know that you are thinking about them and that you will be ready to help once the coronavirus situation has been resolved.

Text: Be kind to others, be kind to yourselfMy overall guidance—be kind, be gentle…to yourself, to your students, to teaching and learning staff and instructional technology staff, and to your support system. While in one way you are figuring all this out for your classes, there are thousands of faculty just like you, making the same decisions, dealing with the same “What now?” feelings. Reach out–help is close by. Don’t go it alone. I am happy to help anyone, either sharing what I know or helping to connect you to others who know more than I do. Just reach out in the comments. Good luck.

Here are some resources which might help you. Thanks to all the scholars who are sharing, not hoarding, information.

Google Document put together by Teaching and Learning Centers across the country. Links can be accessed for help.

Google Document on Teaching in the context of COVID-19 (lots of useful links)

Google Document: Resources for Online Meetings, Classes, and Events by Facilitators for Pandemic Response Group and other collaborators

Barbara Smith’s Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/nanaslugdiva/status/1236005712020426752

Mapping Access’ Accessible Teaching in the Time of Covid-19 by Aimi Hamraie

Online Learning’s article by Saltz and Heckman on “Using Structured Pair Activities in a Distributed Online Breakout Room”

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start” by Michelle D. Miller

Dr. Paige Harden’s Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/kph3k/status/1237383704311476224

The Teaching Professor article by Molly Barnet and Linda A, PhD on YouTube and Creating Videos

Katie Linder’s free online community, “Keep Teaching: Resources for Higher Ed” to share knowledge about academic continuity (will require registration)

Online Teaching with the Most Basic of Tools—Email” – post on the Explorations in The Ed Tech World blog by Dr. Tannis Morgan

Sean Michael Morris’ Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/slamteacher/status/1236036921488367616

Some Resources for Online Teaching from the Wabash Center Resource Collection

InsideHigherEd article: So You Want to Temporarily Teach Online by Stephanie Moore and Charles B. Hodges

Some video captioning links:

University of Washington accessibility tips on captioning

Social Media Examiner blog

Google on how to caption YouTube videos

TechSmith blog on how to caption

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