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Doing an OK job: navigating teaching in the age of COVID-19

No one expects you to become an online teaching guru overnight. The best any of us can do is just get through the rest of the semester by focusing on student learning.

BY ANDREA EIDINGER & MARY CHAKTSIRIS | MAR 16 2020

Many universities, colleges and schools have suspended in-person courses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As public health officials try to flatten the curve of the outbreak, these suspensions are a display of solidarity to reduce the spread of the virus and allow health-care workers and institutions to cope. These actions are also an expression of hope. They acknowledge that institutions of higher learning have a critical role to play in protecting and caring for the well-being of their communities.

While this context is important, the shift to online learning and the uncertainty that surrounds the rest of the term has felt, at times, all-consuming. Some institutions have  suspended classes and cancelled in-person exams for the rest of the term, for others that decision still remains unclear. Most, if not all, are transitioning classes to online formats. Some have made the transition this week, some next week. And instructors, who themselves have different approaches to teaching and different degrees of job security, are not experiencing this uncertainty equally. This experiment is especially hard on precarious instructors, since it is not clear that this extra work will be compensated, and a number of individuals have raised valid and important concerns about what will happen to online content once the pandemic is over. While some universities are providing guidance on how to manage this situation, that is not universally the case.And let’s be real: not all instructors have the technical skills, knowledge or experience to  effectively transition their courses to online formats.

There have been a lot of conversations about how to move courses online. A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education has coined this shift the “Great Online Learning Experiment.” Advice and opinion pieces wonder if it would be better to do a bad job at teaching online (i.e. to lower your expectations of what you can accomplish at this time), and then a flurry of responses follow for or against this mindset.

What is happening in the “Great Online Learning Experiment” is not online teaching. It is getting through the rest of the term using pedagogy you did not plan to use from the beginning. Rather than focusing on jargon and jockeying around ideas about best practices for digital pedagogy, focus on student learning. Under different circumstances it might make sense to build interactive online lectures, use new-to-you technology and more fully engage students. Right now, the focus should be more on the essential learning that remains ahead for your students.

So with all this in mind, we’ve put together some points to help you through this period:

  1. Now is not the time to try new stuff.
    Right now, employing new pedagogies and digital tools likely does not make the most sense. The priority is getting your students through the end of the semester the best that you can. So stick with what you know. For instance, most of us have at least some limited experience with  learning management systems (LMS) like Moodle, Canvas or D2L. These LMSs offer tons of features  that you might already be using, including discussion boards, quizzes, grading and rubrics.
  2. Pick one impactful concept or skill your students still need to master.
    It’s the end of the semester and you have limited time. Pick one thing you want your students to take away from the course. You know your students and you’ve already seen them learn. Use that knowledge, and the two-and-a-half months you’ve already spent together, and build on that.
  3. Modify your existing plans.
    Do not try to think of new assignments or activities for your students. Rather, keep doing what you were doing, but move it online (please note that this is bad advice for planning online courses in general, but good advice in the context of the “Great Experiment” ). For example, we are both history professors, so many of our students have to write papers and exams towards the end of the course. Both of these activities can be easily adapted to an electronic format. Andrea has already written about going paperless in a course, so check out some of her suggestions here.
  4. Go as low-tech as possible.
    Not all students have access to computers or the internet (high-speed or otherwise) outside of campus. What’s more, your students’ technical skills are not necessarily as advanced as you may think they are. This is not the time to start recording or streaming lectures, or even holding webinars, (unless you are obligated to, or feel there is no other way to communicate necessary information). Rather, introduce just enough technology to meet your needs, and focus on gathering together existing resources for students.
  5. Be creative.
    Rather than recording lectures, why not ask your students to watch a movie or listen to a podcast? There are also really great online lectures that are already available that you can also draw on. Depending on your field, there are likely also online educational resources, like museum websites, that you can adapt for use within your course. Replace tutorials and group discussions with online discussions. If you were grading them, consider making them pass/fail.
  6. Feel your feelings.
    Any feelings you have right now are 100 percent legitimate. Whether you are scared or relieved, that’s totally OK! Many of us already have a lot of experience with spending extended periods of time alone at home. So in some cases, suspended or online classes can seem like a bit of a break. Others among us are experiencing crushing anxiety because of all of the uncertainty. Still others are overwhelmed caring for themselves and others. No matter what you are feeling, let yourself feel those feelings and take the time you need to process them.
  7. Be kind and compassionate.
    This is a rough time for everyone. Pandemics are scary, and both you and your students have to deal with the stress that comes with that. Make sure your students know that they need to prioritize their well-being. Be flexible with deadlines. Be patient with co-workers, who are dealing with their own concerns. This is especially true for staff members, some of whom still have to go on campus to work. Finally, make sure that you prioritize your well-being too. For instance, this is not the time to “catch up” on all those projects you’ve put to the wayside. So rest and relax as much as you can.
  8. Use your time and energy wisely.
    Stress takes up a lot of mental energy. So take that into account and remember that you won’t be as productive as you were a week ago. You now have to carry a heavy burden in addition to your usual work. tThink strategically about where you choose to focus your time and energy.
  9. Reach out.
    This is a very difficult time for all of us, but some folks have more on their plates than others. If you know someone like that, then now is the time to reach out. This is especially the case for folks who are immuno-compromised, or who don’t have limited material and financial resources at hand. And if you are a person in need, this is the time to ask for help! We’ve been so impressed by how wonderful and supportive academic Twitter is at the moment, with so many crowdsourced initiatives compiling resources for online learning. Let’s keep that going!
  10. Remember that this is not forever.
    The uncertainty that surrounds us is anxiety-producing but also provides a reminder that things are changing, and sometimes rapidly. We are still at the very beginning of the pandemic here in North America. While there is no denying that the next few weeks or months will be difficult, eventually this pandemic will end. Before you know it, this whole experience will be just a memory. And it’s lasting impacts on higher education or the longevity of social distancing measures remain unknown.

We are all, both instructors and learners, feeling stretched between our responsibilities to community, family and workplace. There are many unknowns. Now is not the time to expect perfection either from yourself or from students. We don’t know how the pandemic will change things for our students and ourselves. And we don’t know what the impact will be on higher education in the long run. But these are not things that we should focus on right now. Right now, the best and most important thing we can do is make sure that we take care of ourselves and our students. Doing this might mean doing less.

If there’s one thing we could say to all instructors, it is this: you’ve got this.  If it helps to stop reading advice, then do so. If it helps to continue to research and read and reach out, then do it. Whatever you choose, whether its low-tech or high-tech,synchronous or asynchronous, pick a course of action and move forward. Students are waiting for your leadership.

Here are some resources that we’ve found helpful:

Do you have any other suggestions? Let us know in the comments below!

Andrea Eidinger has worked as a sessional instructor at a number of universities in British Columbia, and is the creator and author of Unwritten Histories, a Canadian history blog. Mary Chaktsiris currently holds a visiting assistant professorship and is a Wilson Fellow at the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. You can follow her on Twitter at @marychakk.

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  1. Gabrielle Saint-Yves / March 19, 2020 at 08:17

    Thank you!

    I really enjoyed reading your article. It gave me good insights on how to adapt my in-class course to an online course the best way I could under the circumstances. I will use podcasts, YouTube video clips, Moodle, etc … modify/adapt my syllabus.
    I have many international students and you were right to point out that they might not have access to Internet easily.

    I shared your article and ressources with my colleagues. You final message about professoral leadership is very pertinent.

    Let’s now explore online tools peacefully and start teaching online while learning to do so!

    If this article gets translated into French, please let me know.

    Gabrielle Saint-Yves, PhD
    Linguist at…
    Université du Québec à Chicoutimi

  2. Andrea Eidinger / March 20, 2020 at 16:02

    Merci Gabrielle! We are so happy that you enjoyed the piece! And we’re also excited to note that the French version is now available here: https://www.affairesuniversitaires.ca/conseils-carriere/conseils-carriere-article/faire-le-necessaire-enseigner-au-temps-de-la-covid-19/