In the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, universities across the country continue to announce that they will be transitioning, at least partly, to online classes in the fall. This has sparked a lot of discussion. Many faculty members are concerned about how this will work in practice and about issues of content copyright. Precarious instructors are worried about whether they will be compensated for the extra work involved in creating online courses. And many students and families are questioning whether they should be paying their full tuition considering that most of their courses will be online, since many individuals assume that there is a qualitative difference between face-to-face and online learning.
Many of these discussions are underpinned by an assumption that courses should be more or less back to normal by the time we get to the fall, even if they will be online. But we need to realize that this will not be the case. In the fall 2020 semester, we will still be emergency teaching.
Let me repeat that.
In the fall 2020 semester, we will still be emergency teaching.
The pandemic is far from over, and there are worries about a second wave in the fall.
At the same time, we need to recognize that online education is far more complicated than simply putting content online. Online education has different pedagogies and approaches that require specialized training and more time even than from now until September. Faculty members developing online classes are normally supported by a team of individuals, including instructional designers, technical support, and content experts. These courses can take months to develop. But given the circumstances and the dire situation that many universities are already facing, few among us will have access to that level of support or will be able to undergo the necessary training.
However, and I cannot emphasize this enough, the move to online teaching is an emergency response to a public health crisis. Yes, it will be difficult, but learning new skills, even when it is hard, is always a good thing, and ultimately, these new skills will benefit both ourselves and our students. As my colleague Samantha Cutrara said, “[this] may be a useful moment to (re)consider the act of teaching writ large rather than a set of practices you may or may not want to engage in.”
What’s more, we don’t need to face all of these challenges alone. While I have never taught an online class before, I have many colleagues who have. Two weeks ago, I asked some of them if they had any advice for instructors who would be doing emergency online teaching in the fall 2020 semester. Here is their advice.
1. Don’t try to replicate all of your face-to-face learning with online activities. Like I said before, not only do we need to keep in mind that online education isn’t simply a matter of putting information online, we also need to remember that we are all operating with diminished capacities right now. So rather than simply trying to replicate your face-to-face course in an online setting, think carefully about constructive alignment: what you want your students to learn and demonstrate within the course, rather than just what you want to teach. And focus on that. Expand your understanding of learning and teaching, and consider newer and less conventional ways of organizing your course by focusing on learning rather than content. Sometimes, with content, less can be more.
2. Use existing online resources wherever you can. You’ve already been dealing with a heavy workload, so using existing resources can help to make your life a little easier. Why start your course from scratch when there are already places you can start from? So try Mary Chaktsiris’ approach of thinking of yourself as a content curator. There are already a ton of wonderful educational resources available online, and there are even compilations for a number of different subjects (often described as a crowd-sourced syllabi). Pull together online content and experiences. Organize them into themes that reflect the learning goals for your course. It is particularly helpful to use multimedia resources, like podcasts, videos, documentaries, and image galleries. And on a related note, don’t forget to use the resources that your institution already has available! Many are offering webinars about online education, and many of the excellent teaching and learning centres across the country have posted great guides, some of which are listed below.
3. Make sure your content is accessible. Many of the concerns that Mary Chaktsiris and I raised in a previous article remain: not all students have access to computers or the internet outside of campus, nor will they necessarily have sophisticated technical skills. So limit the amount of technology your introduce in your class. And if you are recording videos, make sure you use captioning so that students who are D/deaf or hard of hearing can still access your material. You can either do this yourself, use services that range in prices, or you can use an automated service, and then go back and correct them.
4. Use the best equipment that you have access to. Let’s face it: recording equipment is expensive. It is therefore out of reach for most graduate students and/or precarious instructors. So, don’t beat yourself up if you make do with your laptop camera and microphone. If you are in this situation, get in touch with your institution’s IT department to explore any available support or funding. Many universities, including several that I have worked for, offer free rentals of computer and recording equipment for faculty. But, if you can afford it, Mohammad Keyhani already has some great suggestions for excellent equipment. I can particularly recommend the Blue Yeti microphone, since it has great quality and is easy to use.
5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Online courses can be challenging and isolating for students even under the best circumstances. Many students in the fall 2020 semester will be completely new to online education and/or are taking courses online because there are no other options. One of the best ways to support your students, and student learning, is to regularly reach out to them. Several individuals recommended making lots of announcements in your course, to help keep students on track. Not only will this help your students stay on top of deadlines, but they will appreciate that you are invested in their wellbeing and success. Rebecca Beausaert recommends making an announcement at the beginning of each week with activities and due dates. Similarly, Ian Milligan also does weekly announcements, sharing news of interest, information about what’s going on in his life, and reminders about upcoming assignment deadlines. Sean Kheraj has also emphasized the importance of offering virtual office hours and/or drop-in hours, so you can connect with your students in a more direct way. The importance of connection cannot be understated.
6. Foster community. This is especially important right now, since students won’t be able to connect with one another in a typical classroom setting. One of the best is by using the discussion board feature that comes with most learning management systems. Ian Milligan suggests mandating both a weekly post to discussion prompts, as well as a response to another student’s post. This helped to facilitate real discussion. He also suggested creating small groups of students, between four to six students, who will work together as a team throughout the semester. Smaller groups like this mean that students can get to know each other and remain engaged. I’ve had considerable success using this small groups model in my face-to-face group discussions, so I can’t recommend this approach enough. Finally, make sure you are participating as well. Again, this is something that is great for face to face and online education. You don’t need to individually respond to every single post, but try to read through everything and response to a handful of posts or threads.
7. Model kindness. Or as Samantha Cutrara put it, ““Allow this moment to reveal and demonstrate to students your shared humanity.” This will be a new experience for most of us. Accept that you and your students will make mistakes. And that’s ok. Making a mistake is an opportunity for learning, not something to be ashamed of. Be flexible rather than rigid in your approach, because that flexibility will make it easier for your to respond to unexpected complications. And there will be unexpected complications. The point here is to regularly check in with your students, given them the space and opportunity to share how they are doing, and let them know how you are doing! You may even want to share some stress-management techniques, like engaging in activities that bring you joy or learning a new skill.
While we have more time to prepare and will have different challenges in the fall 2020 semester does not make it any less of an emergency. But make no mistake, circumstances are still far from normal. We are all still enduring a collective trauma. But several months into the pandemic, all of our lives have been changed in ways that we are only beginning to understand. Many of us have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Many of us have lost sources of income or homes. And the trauma that we are all enduring has become normalized. Your students may not be able to focus as much as they would have this time last year. What’s more, many students are not used to be self-directed learners, and online education requires a certain level of self-discipline. You may also have difficulty focusing. There is more than a little truth to the expression that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Instructors are also living and working through the COVID-19 pandemic, and we need to take care of ourselves as well.
Remember, we are all trying to do our best in a difficult situation. The priority should continue to be on providing care and support for your students and for yourself. But by emphasizing care and community, we can get through this together.
I am particularly grateful to Samantha Cutrara, Mary Chaktsiris, Ian Milligan, Sean Kheraj, Shawn Graham, Rebecca Beausaert, Jeremy Milloy, Stacy Zembryzcki, J. Sheldon MacLeod, and Susan Jourdrey for their generous responses. Extra special thanks to Samantha Cutrara and Mary Chaktsiris for their comments on previous drafts of this piece.