Under normal circumstances, preparing for an online course takes a lot of effort. I had a whole semester, the help of a mentor and the continual support of my college's ed-tech department to create mine. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions are gambling that ill-prepared instructors can undergo months’ worth of technical training within a few days and somehow salvage their semesters. There’s no reason that you need to oppress your own students with this fantastical thinking when you deploy your newly online course.
More to the point, you can use your position of authority to share life-saving resources with students and even build a virtual support community as we face an uncertain future together.
- Go easy on yourself. Teaching online can make you feel like a beginner again, and I imagine it will feel worse having to switch midsemester during a pandemic, no less. All my strengths as an instructor -- my rapport with students, my well-timed bad jokes, my ability to work one on one with students who struggle academically -- did not translate in the online environment. You won’t be able to roll out the tried-and-true lessons and tactics that have worked for you and students over the years, but remember that we are in an unprecedented situation, and it’s OK to be less dazzling than usual.
- Use as few tools as possible. This crisis is stressful, so be kind to yourself by only using technology you already are familiar with. If you are really not agile with the learning management system, then sudden technical know-how is probably not going to happen for you in the midst of what might become the worst events of our lifetimes. Being simple will also reduce your reliance on tech support, which is likely overwhelmed and overburdened. If this means that you’re just using email, then that is fine.
- Be generous with extensions and excuses. I became less stressed in the classroom when I stopped turning into a cop when students made excuses for late assignments. Now, I just believe excuses prima facie and grant extensions. Sometimes students are too embarrassed to give details about their distressed circumstances, and particularly now, in the midst of acute crisis, allowing people to save face will be a relief. Missing deadlines is often a sign that a student needs help, so demonstrating trust gives you the chance to help students access resources.
- Foreground life-sustaining resources in your course information. I have never gone through a semester without having a student who either loses housing, comes to school hungry or is unable to pay for materials. By repeating information about resources regularly, I find that students are more likely to take advantage of them. Now, I’d consider adding information about local hospitals, food banks, COVID-19 prevention and care, and coping strategies to the top of that list. Include this information in every email you send, and put it at the top of your course webpage if possible.
- Invite frequent student feedback. The best improvements I made to my online course last semester came about as a result of student feedback. Ask frequently -- every week -- for anonymous student feedback about the way you've deployed your materials and how students feel about expectations. They’re in other online classes now, too, and likely have opinions about which instructor’s methods are most effective -- find out what they are and use them! I use Google Forms to create the survey, I send out the link multiple times and I thank students for their voluntary suggestions.
- Do not rely on synchronous meetings. We’re in a major crisis, so do yourself a favor and drop the expectation that you and your students will meet at your usual times. Instead of thinking of your course as a dozen or so more meetings, think of it as few simple assignments that, when assessed, could allow you to give the student credit for the course. Plan backward from those assessments and distribute them in such a way that people living through disaster will have a chance at completing them.
- Make everything due at the same time every week. I initially spaced deadlines and readings throughout the week because I was so used to thinking about courses in terms of biweekly class meetings. This was one of the key ideas I got from student feedback: Why not just make everything due on the same day each week? The whole point of an asynchronous course is to allow students to do things on their own time, not in sync. So I changed the whole calendar and made everything due at noon on Fridays. During this particular crisis, I’d let students have the weekends off to help them cope with disruptions to their lives.
- Make your assignments relate to the crisis. Let students write in the first person about things that they observe around them. We are witnessing a historic crisis firsthand, and their reflections might become important historical documents! It's also an important opportunity to help them learn how to navigate good and bad information. Students are probably freaking out about coronavirus anyway, and social media and the news are utterly saturated with information, so empower students to see that critical thinking about media actually has life-or-death consequences.
- Have students write informally in a journal. In all my classes, my students must write two 250-word entries per week in a Google Doc. I check these every few weeks and use the commenting function to give feedback and ask questions. It’s informal, and I tell them they can write about anything related to the course, their other classes or education in the broadest sense. In my online courses in particular, I found that this was the place where I got to know students best. And because with writing, quantity leads to quality, students regularly tell me that although the assignment seems onerous at first, the journal has made them feel like writers.
- Build community with a “clubhouse” forum. I got the idea from my colleague Jason Buchanan to create a clubhouse forum (his words) on the course website. I encouraged students to "talk about issues you are having with time management, classwork, other classes and so forth. If you have good suggestions or strategies that can help your classmates cope with the semester, post them here as well! Or post something funny that relates to our course materials." Students posted pet photos, study skill suggestions, memes about our readings, videos, homework questions and, yes, the occasional complaint. A lot of students said that this was by far the best part of the class, because participation made them feel a form of the camaraderie they’d experience in a “real class.” Sometimes I'd post funny memes, too, or just give positive feedback. It was easy and paid huge dividends. I imagine this sort of forum could offer more than just fun in this difficult time: students could truly support one another.
- Limit your reliance on lectures. Most of us rely heavily on talking as part of our pedagogy, but making and uploading effective videos takes time and skill, not to mention bandwidth -- which might be in very short supply. Instead of lecturing, create one video to orient your students to the course, guide them through the materials and explain what they have to do to pass.
- Snapchat? Tiktok? If you do want to make some short videos, these corporate apps have their charm. I often make announcements or give instructions for assignments using Snapchat because even a boring message is funny when done using a goofy filter. Students didn't need a Snapchat account to watch them, either, because you can email the video or post it on your LMS. This is a time to try to make people laugh whenever possible, and nothing delights students more (I find) than when instructors make jokes at their own expense or delve into the ridiculous. Snapchat is an excellent tool for this.
Nothing is going to make up for the fact that we are losing weeks from our semesters due to this pandemic. It’s absurd to think that last-minute attempts to upload your materials to an LMS will compensate for what we are going to lose in the next few months -- which for some, might be everything. But as things get bad out there, perhaps the online classroom could be a site where we build the community that our students need to help get through these dire times.
Alexandra L. Milsom is an assistant professor of English at Hostos Community College, CUNY. She studies the history of guidebooks and is at work on a book about the relationship between British tourism and Catholic Emancipation in the 19th century. You can find her on Twitter (@alexandramilsom) or through her website (http://www.amilsom.com/).