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.