A Day in the Life of a Remote Instructor: Fall 2020

Jenae Cohn envisions how the term may unfold for a faculty member who remains off campus in September.

June 24, 2020

You pour your second cup of coffee for the morning and get ready to hop online to teach. You have a designated work corner in your home space that you gradually shaped to suit your needs after a tumultuous spring term where you were launched unexpectedly into remote teaching. You brought your office chair home, bought an external keyboard and laptop riser online, and you’ve decorated your space with a few of your favorite photos.

You still miss the feeling of going to campus, walking through the quad on the way to your department building, but you’re getting used to this setup and you’re grateful that you don’t have to wear a mask all day or worry about touching the same doorknobs as hundreds of other people.

A View From the Other Side
Envisioning a day in the life
of a remote student this
fall. Read the companion
article here

You open your laptop and find three new Slack notifications waiting for you. This is the first time you’ve ever used Slack, a messaging tool you’ve installed on your desktop, but you’re liking it so far. It’s a bit faster to communicate with people and more dynamic than email. One notification is a direct message from a student asking if they can make an appointment with you to talk about their latest assignment. One is from your class’s workspace; you see that one of your students responded to the prompt you posted yesterday inviting students to share study tips for the upcoming exam (to your delight, they included a GIF of a cat with a book open).

The third notification is from another instructor in your department, posting a link to the latest Inside Higher Ed article about online teaching to your department’s workspace channel. You respond to your students, browse the article and add a thumbs-up reaction emoji to your student’s study tip idea.

You then open a browser window and log in to your campus learning management system. You open up an assignment that your students submitted yesterday and start to read the responses, taking note of the most thought-provoking one that you intend to shout out during your upcoming Zoom class session. Some of the student responses are written; others are submitted in the form of voice memos.

You broadened how students submitted informal, small assignments to your class this term, and you’ve enjoyed seeing the range. In addition to allowing students to send responses in the form of voice memos or written text, they can also submit notes or responses in the form of a drawing (many students take pictures with their phones) or digital sticky note brainstorming (the ed-tech specialist at your school gave you a few tools you could share with your students to help them accomplish this). You don’t respond to each and every submission, but you peruse what’s there, noting trends among your student responses, even as they span different media and forms. These low-stakes responses help you to take the temperature on your students’ understanding of the course content.

Some days, this process feels harder than others, but you can’t remember the last time you had such a clear sense of how your students understand the course content. That’s been helpful for you in terms of prioritizing where to spend your time in terms of recording new mini lectures and posting course materials. At first, you thought you’d record lectures for everything you think is relevant to the course (a task you soon realized was overwhelmingly time-consuming), but now you’ve started to shape what you say in prerecorded mini lectures based on what you’re hearing and seeing from your students.

In fact, you’ve really decided to cut back on your Zooming this fall term because you got so burned out on video calls last spring. Instead of using Zoom time for lectures, you now use the time to synthesize the work that students submitted asynchronously, commenting on their ideas and inviting students to build upon their peers’ contribution as a way to leverage the real-time interactions.

You’ve given them a variety of materials to peruse when they’re not in Zoom, in fact: reading, using a social annotation tool to leave comments and ask questions about course readings, taking diagnostic quizzes, and writing reflective response essays where they can synthesize and analyze findings from the content they’ve watched and read.

It’s super different from anything you’ve done before, and you’ve fumbled through it a lot. During the first week of the quarter, you forgot to publish the course resources in the learning management system, so you got a flurry of panicked emails from students. Those mistakes still don’t feel great, but you’re getting used to offering a quick apology, troubleshooting on the fly and then moving along.

After reading the students’ responses and taking note of the provocations that you think will foster some good real-time dialogue before you hop on Zoom, you comb your hair, turn the lamp on at your desk and start your Zoom class meeting. When you first began teaching remotely, you felt nervous about how you looked and spoke on camera, but as time has gone on, you’ve become a lot more relaxed. You’ve come to realize that your students don’t really care that much what you look like. They’re mostly happy just to get to interact with each other and see some of their peers online.

You see that your first student has entered the room, and the two of you chat informally for a bit while other students start to trickle in. Some students mute their mikes right away; others leave them on. Some decide to turn their video cameras on; others choose not to.

You used to ask everyone to keep their cameras on while in Zoom, but after reading some spirited editorials from undergraduate students in the spring, you changed your policy and told students that camera use is optional. You realized that requiring students to have their faces present on camera wasn’t really necessary for fostering dialogue and had the unintended consequence of making some students feel deeply uncomfortable and unsafe.

You’ve been relieved to see that the students who keep their cameras off aren’t necessarily less engaged; they often contribute to the chat room in Zoom, and you see them sharing ideas in your class workspace Slack channel. Some students still don’t seem as present as you’d like, but this was true even in an in-person environment. After all, even in a fully in-person environment, not everyone could be engaged 100 percent of the time. Plus, you’re understanding that times are still especially hard right now and you’re willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Your cat hops up on to your desk, and as you start to shoo the cat away, you see some of your students laugh. One types into the chat, “Hi, Frances!” Everyone knows your cat’s name now; in fact, they know your whole family, as your 9-year-old daughter often wanders into the frame and they spotted your partner in running shorts and sneakers about to go take a jog outside.

You’ve gotten to know some of their families, too. One of your students brought her younger brother in to say hi and perform a short TikTok dance during a break while another of your students’ parents comes into the frame every so often to bring in a snack or a drink (much to the student’s embarrassment). Some students are still living in the dorms on campus, so they often show off their posters and decorations there. You don’t have a window into everyone’s lives -- and it’s your students’ choices about how much they want to disclose -- but you feel like you’re even getting to know them a little bit more as full people this term than when you’re on campus.

You decide to start the live class session, emphasizing how impressed you were with what they submitted as part of their asynchronous work. You engage in a brief group share of the responses you enjoyed reading, and then you give the students a poll to check in on their understanding of another concept that came up in their asynchronous work. You use the results to have yet another group conversation, happening both verbally and in the chat.

The time in the Zoom session flies by as you’re toggling between what feels like hundreds of tabs: you’ve got up your notes, your presentation slides, a browser with the learning management system, your Slack channel window and a running Google document with the collaborative class notes that students are taking. It’s all a bit overwhelming -- and you sometimes share the wrong thing on your screen -- but your students have been patient and forgiving. Plus, the students spend much of the time in Zoom in small group breakout rooms working on something together, anyway.

Before you know it, you’ve logged out of Zoom and your little home office corner is quiet again. You take a stretch break (you’ve been living in yoga pants since shelter in place began) and hop back online to get back to some of your own research and writing, accessing your library’s virtual proxy network to access some new articles you need to read.

You’ll be happy when it’s safe to return to campus. You still miss the energy of a face-to-face class and being able to read an in-person room. But you’ve been pleasantly surprised; this was better than you expected it to be. You’re all doing the best you can.


Jenae Cohn is an academic technology specialist at Stanford University.



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