In June 2020, I wrote an article called “We Will Still be Emergency Teaching in the Fall,” with recommendations on how to handle the transition to online education at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s now March 2021, and some of us have been doing this for two semesters. However, that group that doesn’t include me – I am now back in the (virtual) classroom for the first time since April 2020. I still stand by what I wrote in my previous piece, but as I was planning my upcoming course, I thought it would be helpful to reach out to colleagues and ask them if they had any advice based on their experiences. These conversations were invaluable to me, and resulted in what I hope is a great course. So, I thought for this month’s column, it would be helpful, with permission, to share some of this advice and explain how I adapted my regular course for a pandemic reality. I’m hoping to follow this up with another piece in May or June talking about how things went.
Before I talk about what I changed, I think it would help to talk a little bit about the original course. The course I am teaching this semester is on history and the public. In previous iterations of this course, we met twice a week (ha, remember those days?), and each class was half lecture, half discussion groups. There was one major research project that involved three components: a group online mapping project, a paper proposal (with bibliography), and the final analytical paper. And then there was a final exam. Given the realities of virtual learning, a lot of this wasn’t going to work. Here is what I ended up changing.
Make things as asynchronous as possible
One of the biggest changes that I made to my class was getting rid of class times altogether. This was inspired specifically by conversations that I had with Donica Belisle and David Tough, both of whom used this approach successfully in the fall semester. Synchronous classes have some really major drawbacks. Some of these are technical, like access to high-speed internet or issues of time zones. Others are emotional: many of our students have heavy care and work responsibilities right now. Other students are dealing with anxiety, depression and isolation. All of these factors can make attending synchronous classes difficult.
This is why I decided to make my course as asynchronous as possible. Following Dr. Belisle and Dr. Tough’s suggestions, I will post the lecture material on the course website ahead of time, and what would be class time will now be a drop-in session. If students do attend this session, they will get an additional 0.5 percent bonus for their grade. Students who can’t make this time are free to schedule separate appointments with me. And, as per my previous post on office hours, I will dedicate part of my introductory class to explaining why attending office hours (or drop-ins in this case) were so helpful and important.
Build in flexibility
As we learned last March, our entire lives can change in the blink of an eye. One of the great suggestions I got from Rachel Bryant was to think of the syllabus as a starting point for outlining a relationship between myself and my students. Seeing the syllabus as a working document rather than something set in stone gives it the ability to adapt as needed.
I wanted to build this kind of flexibility into my course, so I turned to a strategy I have been using for a couple of years: eliminating deadlines and lateness penalties. I gave students two options: a suggested submission schedule, or a schedule they created themselves. If they chose the latter option, they needed to submit this schedule to me by the end of the second week of class, and at least half of the course assignments must be completed in the first two-thirds of the course. Dropping the lateness penalties made sense once I eliminated deadlines. I know that many people feel that it is important to teach students to stick to due dates, but lateness penalties always struck me as unfair. When I first made these changes, many of my friends made dire predictions about my being inundated with papers at the last minute, but that is not what happened. Most students wanted some kind of structure, and stuck to the schedule I had suggested. But my flexibility gave those students who needed it the ability to plan around their schedules, and to deal with unexpected challenges. I think this is especially helpful given our current pandemic realities.
Make things easier for you
Most of the pedagogical advice that I read focuses on the students. However, something I think frequently gets missed is that professors are also living through a pandemic. It’s all well and good to work to make the burden on your students as light as possible, but don’t forget to apply the same compassion to yourself.
I plan to do this in a few different ways. First of all, I will slash the length of assignments. I first started doing this a couple of years ago when I was teaching third-year classes on Canadian history. Regardless of the course level, I cut my length requirements. This was really helpful, since it made marking much easier. Because really, does anyone like marking? But it has also benefitted students, since it is much harder to communicate complex ideas in a limited space. One of the hardest assignments I ever did as an undergrad was a 400-word essay on an entire novel. I cursed at the time, but in hindsight, it forced me to carefully consider what I was trying to communicate.
The second thing I plan to do is to integrate a discussion leader assignment into the class participation segment of the course. Group discussions have always been a key component in my courses, since I find they foster a sense of community. I feel like this is especially the case in virtual learning, and I’ve always found that it can be hard to encourage real dialogue in online discussion forums. But while I wanted to foster community, I didn’t want to increase my marking burden. To solve this problem, the discussion leader assignment gives each student the opportunity to lead the course. To facilitate this, classes will be divided into smaller groups. Each student in each group will take a turn as a discussion leader for one week of the semester. As discussion leader, they will be responsible for summarizing the readings, coming up with discussion questions, and moderating the discussion. Students who are not acting as the leader will be responsible for posting one original comment (between 50 to 100 words) and replying to two other posts. To minimize anxiety and to maximize my chances of success, I planned to model how to do this for the first two weeks of class so that students could see what I was doing, as well as what my expectations were. My hope is that this will basically allow the discussion groups to run themselves with limited intervention.
Finally, I will go super-low tech with recorded lectures. I personally couldn’t decide what would work better: pre-recorded videos or written study guides. My plan is to do one class with each approach, and then give my students the option to choose which approach I will use for the rest of the course. I’m expecting that they will go for the video route, so that’s what I am planning for. But again, to minimize my workload, I plan to alternate my lectures between 20 minute pre-recorded videos and a live feed of myself with a PowerPoint presentation (via Zoom). Afterwards, I will upload everything to YouTube as unlisted videos for the automatically generated captioning. (For more detailed advice on video lectures, I highly recommend checking out Aimée Morrison’s fantastic Twitter thread on the topic.) Again, my goal is to make lecture production as simple as possible, while also making the content as accessible as possible.
The conversations that I had with colleagues throughout November and December were extraordinarily helpful for me. I got many great suggestions about a variety of different topics. But one thing was underscored in all of these dialogues: the continuing need for kindness, compassion, and a sense of humour. Eleven months into this pandemic, and we have started to normalize our trauma. While this is a coping mechanism, pretending like everything is business as usual is incredibly harmful. We seem to have forgotten the messages that were widespread at the beginning of the pandemic. Here in Montreal, there were rainbows everywhere with the slogan, “ça va bien aller,” which translates to, “it will all be ok.” These rainbows were, and are, reminders that we are all in this together. While there aren’t many rainbows, real or metaphorical, out these days, I’m still trying to hold this message close to my heart.