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In March, due to a sudden, untenable surge in the number of COVID-19 infections, university administrators across the country asked students to vacate their campuses and prepare themselves for a new online learning environment. By the end of August, many administrators had decided to continue to use virtual classrooms. Abruptly forced to pivot from teaching in brick-and-mortar classrooms to remote ones, faculty members struggled and continue to struggle with this prodigious pedagogical transference.

Many have written about the experience, offering suggestions for how to teach online more effectively, and we all continue to share ideas for improvement. While not perfect, here are three tips that, over the past months, I’ve found to have made this shift slightly less burdensome, with hopes they’ll be helpful to you, too.

Tip 1: Establish a COVID-Era Student Code of Netiquette

Many students alchemize participating in distance learning with sitting in front of an optically and audibly challenged neophyte substitute. Moreover, some act as if they can easily evade engaging in chats, polls and discussions. Pandemic-era instructors, much like the lobsterman who drops a beacon into Long Island Sound at night, luring his valuable catch toward the shimmering light, need newfangled pedagogical beacons to lure their students toward enlightenment. At the start and middle of the term, by clearly explaining and consistently enforcing a series of post-traditional classroom rules, you can create more of a safe, productive and freewheeling remote learning environment and less of a rigid digital panopticon.

I’ve listed below 10 rules I’ve developed for the students in my classes. Any that you establish for your own classes can, of course, be more or less rigorous.

  1. Log on early and stay logged on. Logging on after the start of class is rude. Repeated log-ons equate to abruptly leaving and re-entering a classroom.
  2. No multitasking. During our online sessions, I need your undivided attention. Using one browser to answer incoming customer service calls while using another to stay involved in our discussions will not work.
  3. No smoking. The on-campus ban extends into our computer-generated classroom.
  4. No eating. Eating during a session is cause for removal.
  5. No unauthorized guests. Only those officially enrolled in the course may be present.
  6. No pets. Unless it is an officially registered service animal, our simulated classroom is a pet-free zone.
  7. Situate yourself in a location that gives you the best chance to learn. Lying on an unmade bed with the sounds of your sibling’s band reverberating through the walls equates to taking the corner seat in the last row of a cavernous, dimly lit lecture hall while listening to Metallica.
  8. When posting to our chat forum, be cognizant of your grammar, spelling, diction and tone. The same rules established for face-to-face discussions apply to our chat forums. Emoji or acronyms and abbreviations like BTW, NTTAWWT, INCYMI, WT*, SOB and U have no place in a cybernetic discussion.
  9. I am not technical support. I’m unable to teach while simultaneously offering assistance. If you cannot connect, contact the help desk.
  10. Attendance. Chronic digital truancy and or tardiness will hinder one’s chances of earning an acceptable final grade.

Tip 2: To Increase Engagement, Decrease In-Class Screen Time

In 2014, research published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions determined that college-age students in the United States may spend an average of eight to 10 hours per day on a smartphone. In 2020, assuming a college student enrolls in two courses that meet twice a week, they may spend up to five hours in front of a screen just for classes. Although teaching online presents a number of problems, it also provides opportunities not otherwise available. The activity below offers one means of ending this scourge of profligate screen time, while giving students a reason to temporarily disengage.

Show-and-Tell Time

  • Spend 10-12 minutes looking for an object that holds a high emotional value but has a low monetary worth.
  • Write a 175-word paragraph describing why this object means so much to you.
  • Draw at least one connection between your object and a reading assignment for this course.
  • At the end of 30 minutes, please be ready to show your object and tell us why it means so much to you.

A remote show-and-tell exercise has three benefits. First, it forces students to move away from their computer screens. Second, it challenges them to intertwine their lives with a piece of fiction. And third, it gives their peers a glimpse into what they value. For a science or mathematics course, task students with finding something they invented: an algorithm, a robot, an innovative method of solving a complex equation or anything else that might provide a window into their lives.

Another variation of this exercise is to task students with interviewing a parent or grandparent. The questions might revolve around their elder’s views on the importance of earning a college degree, what they experienced during their college years or how they feel about today’s cultural climate.

Tip 3: Shake Up Breakout Rooms

Before the pandemic, I found most students preferred sending texts to their friends rather than conversing with the person seated next to them. Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, defines this digital age phenomenon as “being alone together.” In an online learning environment, the reticence among students to exchange pleasantries becomes even more pronounced.

If you find that your virtual classroom feels more like a virtual echo chamber, try out this strategy. When you assign breakout rooms, base the student pairings upon their dearth of common interests: the top-performing student with the lowest, the oldest with the youngest, the suburbanite with the urbanite, the future musician with the aspiring accountant and the former platoon leader with the leader of the campus social justice club.

In a humanities course, either assign the groups a question from recent course material or pose a question for which there is no definitive answer: What makes us human? If anything is possible, is it possible for anything to be impossible? Are there forms of government better than democracy? Is there such a thing as inherently bad knowledge, or is all knowledge value-neutral? For a science or mathematics course, task the pairings with solving one or two habitually challenging problems.

Such breakout-room combinations have three benefits. One, the activity challenges them to set aside their differences and look for an elusive answer. Two, these types of pairings make the full-class discussions following the breakout sessions much more enlightening. And three, sometimes coalescing disparate worldviews of college students produces illuminating results.

With a time-tested, affordable and trustworthy vaccine on the horizon but still a good way from fruition, the Zoomniverse is here to stay for a while. Converting the challenges presented by remote teaching into learning opportunities is an unnerving challenge unto itself. Yet underneath Generation Z’s veneer of indifference burns a molten core, yearning for enriching enlightenment. Bridging the digital gap between instructors and remote learning students is a monumental task. I hope these three tips will eradicate some of the unrelenting uncertainty and fill this newly created void with a measure of cheerful certitude.

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