Teaching Online: Things Just Got Real

All, Guides

I have the benefit of 15+ years experience teaching online and hybrid classes combined with multiple experiences as a student/learner in online classes and programs. Recently I’ve been asked a lot about my advice for those making this transition for the first time (or at least with a chance to think and plan unlike the pandemic transition forced on us in the spring), so this blog post is my attempt to distill a lot of experience and many blog posts into one handy guide. When I wrote about adapting your Blackboard course shell (advice that works for other content management systems too) I noted that there are many decisions every instructor has to make during the course-design process including the structure or organization of the course, the flow of communication in the course, and how the work of the course will be supported and so that is where we will begin.

Structure

It is really important to think carefully about the structure of your online or hybrid class. What does the arc of the semester looks like? What does the arc of each unit look like? What happens over the course of a week? My online and hybrid classes will follow the same four-square semester structure I was using before the pandemic because it suits my less is more approach. For your own sanity as well as the well-being of your students I strongly advise limiting your units to 3-4 per semester. As I have noted in multiple blog posts, life is a lot right now and we are going to need plans that are flexible and forgiving to ride this pandemic rollercoaster for another school year. If ever there was a time when less was more that time is now. I’m doing a lot of Marie Kondo on my own lesson and unit plans and strongly recommend you do the same. This is really important when moving online – especially if moving a class that you have previously taught in person for a long time. Things take longer to explain and to complete in an online environment so it is really important to plan carefully and thoughtfully so you do not overwhelm instructor and/or student. This becomes even more important while teaching/learning in a time of pandemic. We are all so much more stressed by the just living in the world (especially America) right now and there will come times when it is too much. Very few of us will be performing at optimal levels so we need to build grace into our course calendars and policies and we need to enter our course planning, teaching, and grading with the assumption of good faith. It is important for us all to accept that none of this is normal and it won’t be for a long time – maybe ever (because by the time life returns to something approaching normal we may have completely re-visioned education).

I wrote two blog posts this semester about my process for determining how my units and my weeks will play out using a HyFlex model, but in the past I’ve put a lot of thought into my class ecosystem and the system I use to guide our workflow. Trust me. Locking down this plan before you begin building (let alone teaching) will save you much stress later when things get real — and this pre-planning also helps you make the structure clear to your students from day one — which will save them stress. Win-Win! And I repeat, less is always better! It is so easy to overwhelm both instructor and student – keep it as simple as possible- constantly prune your lessons by following the maxim that if you add something then something else must leave. Find/hack/invent a good system/structure to support your work. I’ve been using Google docs – specifically HyperDocs for a few years now and I regularly introduce this pedagogical framework to the teachers I work with in the Morehead Writing Project. It is an incredibly robust and flexible framework that can be adapted or outright hacked for your unique teaching context. There are so many HyperDoc templates out there you can definitely find a model that works for you.

Communication

The communication channels you offer your students can make or break the success of your class community at a minimum and may well impact your students’ ability to succeed in your class. The pandemic has disrupted so many of our traditional channels of communication that it is really important that you carefully think about how you will communicate with your students, how you want them to communicate with you, and how they will communicate with each other (don’t overlook this – it is key to their success as well). Successful communities offer multiple channels of communication. I’ve written before about how I check in with my students in online and hybrid classes (see also Surviving) and recently offered some of my plans for this fall in Building a HyFlex Community and in my recent Blackboard post. Start and center community – from icebreaker to final exam to support your students and their learning.

I use Blackboard as our communication hub and build in public and private channels for students to receive help and support as well as deliberately work to build our community. I use discussion board forums, journals, and wikis as well as weekly (at a minimum) announcements to help my class community stay in touch and informed. If we learned anything at all from our spring of pandemic teaching it should be that we need to place a high priority on connecting our class community so students do not become unmoored and potentially drift into disaster. Establish good communication channels for the general class as well as within the work itself and make sure that there are multiple options as well as a mix of public and private channels available to support your class community. Think about the communications from the before-times that you need to replace. How will you offer office hours? How will you hold sidebar conversations with your students (you know those little confabs that might take place at the beginning or end of class)? So much of my class time is spent writing and collaborating (in the before time) I spent a lot of time thinking about how I can replace not only that connection, but also the opportunity to check in with my students. How can you help students arrange study groups or group work when so many of the common areas that used to exist for this engagement are off limits or restricted in various ways? There are multiple workable options for all these communications, but none of them are as easy to arrange during a pandemic as they were before. Certainly not as easy as students simply dropping by your office or grabbing you in the hallway or stepping up to the podium before class. Certainly not as easy as reserving a work space in the library or gathering in the student center or meeting at Starbucks.

Work

Where will the work of your class take place? Your institution probably offers a course management system (ours is Blackboard) and sometimes other systems that could be used to exchange files or host meetings and presentations. Talk to others at your institution who were teaching online before the pandemic about their choices. Sometimes it is better to stick with a known quantity that comes with a lot of support (for you and your students). This semester will be a lot for you and your students so you do not want to get too fancy or stray too far off the beaten path. I tend to use Blackboard as my communication hub, but most of our work (writing, discussion, feedback) takes place in Google Drive because I find that platform supports more robust community interaction and it is well within the comfort zone of most students and there are robust tutorials and support tools for the few who are new.

Building a structure to support the workflow of a class is something that requires careful thought. Most instructors already have a semester structure and probably have routines that they usually follow for in person classes. It takes some time and thought to unpack and examine those routines to create a protocol for their online class. Sometimes we can use/adapt a routine that works for in person classes but sometimes that procedure requires too much support or simply has too many moving parts to be practical for an online class (especially for an online class during a pandemic – remember we are all stressed and overwhelmed). I’ve been doing this a long time and I still have to unpack and think through the transfer. This process is made even more complicated by the fact many of us have shortened semesters. I used backward design (starting with my primary goal , my one big thing, and found that I didn’t need to make changes to accomodate my overall workflow although I’m building in lots of flexibility and choice to make each week does not overwhelm my students. In the before time, my in-person classes would often involve kicking off with writing or drawing (but not this year as I don’t see me hauling in my bags of markers and crayons) and wrapping up with a group report delivered on a piece of notebook paper or perhaps a 3×5 card. I will need to transfer all these check-ins to the digital environment. Some will move into Blackboard (I’m looking at you, wiki) and the rest will be shifted into our weekly Google activities.

You also need to think about the accountability structures and pacing you will work into your class structure. When will assignments be due? When teaching online I like to work with a predictable pattern. When you see students in person two or three times a week it is easy to keep them on track, but when you do not see them face-to-face you don’t want nagging to dominate your interactions. Pick a due date and time that allows you to deal with last-minute problems or expect some bumps in the road given the way that technology and humans operate under pressure. Are there things that can (and should) be automated? As you consider accountability don’t forget that there are other factors in this equation. What will your accountability be to your students? When will you be available to them? How quickly will you respond? How much time will you allow for students to work on a task (both supported and unsupported work)? How often will you reach out to students to remind (or even nag) them about work in progress or approaching due dates? Also have you built in any sort of peer-to-peer accountability? I like to use badges to reward (even encourage) peer support.

Some Final Thoughts

Every pedagogical delivery method comes with trade-offs. In person instruction has definite drawbacks as well as advantages, so do not romanticize it. I personally like how asynchronous instruction allows students to optimize their participation by giving them the choice of the time and place they will work as well as thoughtfully participate. An asynchronous class gives students more time and space to think and draft and read. It also allows students who might be shy or otherwise reluctant to participate in class equal footing for class participation and makes it more difficult for students to dominate the discussion. It is also very difficult for a student to hide in the back and sleep in an online class. It is immediately apparent who has contributed to a discussion and who has not. Of course, there are many things it is simply easier to explain or teach to a large group all at once and there is a different energy to work that is happening when you are sharing the same time and space. That’s why my preferred teaching method is hybrid as it offers the best of both worlds, but pandemic teaching definitely makes online safer than hybrid and my choice is focused on protecting my health and safety as well as the health and safety of my students. I think Writing I is an important class (I would argue the most important), but it is not worth one student death or one student struggling with lifelong health challenges so we could hold an in-person writing workshop. This would be true even if I did not know that I could deliver a quality learning experience online.

While I feel strongly that seat time does not equal pedagogy, some selective opportunities for synchronous participation might be a good idea for your teaching methods and to help students weather another semester of pandemic learning. While asynchronous learning worked well before the pandemic, I think sprinkling in some synchronous connection during this time of tremendous upheaval and disconnection can benefit both instructor and students (socially and emotionally). This fall I plan to add in a synchronous element because I found when we shifted online in the spring that students felt unmoored without it. Connected to that idea is being deliberate about how you will build and sustain class community. Whether I teach in person, hybrid, or online I put a lot of emphasis on community because I know that trust and connection are essential to building the community we need to support learning and sharing as writers. This fall I am building in specific strategies to help keep my students moored to our class community above and beyond what I have done in the past because we hope that student living/learning conditions will be improved over what happened in the spring but we are all still facing multiple traumas (pandemic, social justice, economic, political) on top of the normal stress that today’s college students face. This fall semester is going to be tough so I want to build in as good a support system as I can without burning out myself.

You do not need to embark on this challenge alone. Take advantage of the support your institution offers as well as your more experienced colleagues, but look beyond your home department and school to find inspiration and help. Look for groups of educators to help you build your PLN. Every teacher needs a robust professional learning network. I built mine through leveraging social media, my mentors and peers at Texas Tech, the National Writing Project (especially programs such as Connected Learning), and the National Council of Teachers of English (especially KCTE). These sources have connected me to a professional/personal learning network and offered me teaching/learning experiences that have shaped me as an educator. NWP and TTU have both contributed heavily to my online pedagogy and praxis and provided the foundation for my PLN. Develop a good network of folks to inspire, challenge, and support your work.

As it becomes clear that more K-12 teachers and post-secondary instructors will be teaching online and hybrid classes than ever before, I hope that this advice is helpful. What questions or worries do you have as you embark on teaching online or hybrid for the first time? What advice do you have to offer these first-timers based on your experience teaching online and hybrid classes before the pandemic?

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