Teaching online: lessons learned

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Now that the coronavirus crisis has forced a lot of faculty members to move their classes online, I’ve been spending some time thinking about my own online teaching. I’ve been teaching asynchronous online information literacy courses in one environment or another since about 2012. In fact, I’ve been teaching my course exclusively online for the last five years.

My earliest experience teaching online was one in which I had to convert a course I’d planned on teaching in-person to an online one somewhat unexpectedly (because I was moving out of state) but I had plenty of time before the course’s start date to make the change. That was stressful enough. I can’t imagine how stressful it must be for professors (and their students) to be converting their classes so abruptly now and in these circumstances. Likely my own reflection will be of limited use to instructors in those situations, but I thought I’d share them now anyway because they’re on my mind and they might come in handy for someone, somewhere.

Simple is better: The first two times I taught online, I adapted a format of instruction that was intended to imitate the Team-Based Learning model created by Larry Michaelsen, which I’d used with some success in my in-person courses. The format I came up with worked well enough that I got my first peer-reviewed article out of it back in the day but from the student point of view, it was a bit of disaster.(1) There were too many moving parts: individual quizzes due on one day, team quizzes due another, individual activities that needed to be completed, and team projects that needed to be coordinated. And everything had to be done in a set order. It was too much to keep track of, for my students and for me.

The structure I have now is one that I came to after many iterations. It is much simpler. Each course module has its own folder, clearly labeled with a beginning and end date for that module. The folder becomes available on the first day of the module and remains available for the rest of the course. In the folder is everything that students will need to complete by the end of the module. The items are listed in the recommended order of completion but everything is due on the same day so the students have the flexibility to decide for themselves which tasks they want to tackle first. There are no group projects but there are discussion activities.

That’s it. That’s all there is. To some, this may sound like an obvious way to organize things but it took me a long time to get here and overall the student response has been positive. They appreciate that this structure respects their time and makes clear where their attention should be in a given week. They also really, really like having a single due date for everything in the module.

Civility can’t go out the window: My second time teaching online, I had a student who would write me long, angry screeds multiple times a day using capital letters, bold fonts, and different font colors telling me everything he hated about the course and why I was a terrible teacher.

As I said, my first few outings with online teaching were less than successful, so he had good reason to be irritated but the speed with which this turned into harassment really caught me off guard. Soon, he had recruited other students in the course to his cause. Many of them were worried that the glitches with Blackboard and the wonky setup I had chosen for the course would negatively affect their grades. Several even used the “my tuition pays your salary so you should give me the grade I want” line of reasoning in outlining their complaints against me.(2)

Good times.

I’m certain that this level of vitriol never would have happened in an in-person course, no matter how poorly designed that course was. Because in an in-person course, the instructor and students are more than just names on a screen to each other: they’re people you have to look in the eye at least once or twice a week. It’s a lot harder to reach this level of outrage when that’s the case, which is a big part of why it took me by such surprise when it happened.

These days, I have a strict policy in my syllabus about online civility. At least once a semester, I respond to a student’s angry e-mail by acknowledging their right to be upset but also informing them that I won’t address their concerns until they revise their original message so that it adheres to this policy. For the most part, this has been a successful strategy for me and is one I would strongly recommend for anyone teaching online.

The importance of boundaries: In an online course, there is a lot of pressure to be available 24/7. Students’ questions can appear in your inbox any time of the day or night and since you won’t be seeing them in person, it feels like you need to answer right away. At least, that’s how I felt when I first started teaching online. As soon as those long, angry screeds I mentioned before appeared in my inbox, I would go to work responding to them. Sometimes it would take me hours and the next one would appear while I was still in the middle of responding to the first one.(3)

I don’t do that anymore. Instead, I state clearly on my syllabus that when students e-mail me a question, they can generally expect a response within one business day. I also tell them that I don’t respond to work e-mails outside of normal work hours, which are 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. So if they e-mail me over the weekend, they won’t hear back from me until Monday.

And then I hold myself to that rule.

Which is to say, if I happened to check my e-mail on a Saturday and saw that the students in my course were having trouble accessing that week’s quiz, I wouldn’t wait until Monday to fix it and respond to them. But generally speaking, I’m pretty strict about keeping to those stated boundaries. Let me tell you: it has saved my sanity on more than one occasion.

And for the most part, students are okay with it. In fact, the feedback they’ve given me seems to indicate that they like having such clear information about when and how I’ll communicate with them.

As long as it doesn’t affect their grade, of course. Because there really have been times when students couldn’t access a quiz or other assignment and I don’t know about it until late in the game. Along with my hours of availability, I also state in the syllabus that students’ grades will never be negatively affected by any delay in response from me. So if a quiz can’t be accessed, the quiz gets an extension. If a student needs clarification on the expectations for an assignment in the hours before that assignment is due and I don’t get back to them in time, I give them a little extra time to complete it if they need it. It only seems fair that this is the case.

 

It’s all a learning experience: Anyone who teaches knows that the act of teaching is in and of itself a learning experience. Getting it right takes time, no matter whether you’re teaching in person or online. Professors who have found themselves teaching online so unexpectedly may not experience the level of disaster I did when I first started teaching online. Or they may experience problems I haven’t even thought of. But I know it always helped me to remember that the inevitable mistakes I made were opportunities for growth. Some things will go well. Some things won’t. It will all be useful.

*

(1) I have it on good authority that this is the case because one of the students in that class is now a colleague/friend at the library where I work and it comes up in conversation sometimes. Luckily, his experience in the course was not enough to scare him away from the LIS field altogether.

(2) Lucky for me, I was not on the tenure track at the time, so the evaluations from this course weren’t included as part of my tenure file when the time came.

(3) These days, I’m a little more secure in myself as a teacher and in my professional standing and would never put this much work into responding to this level of incivility, except in the manner I mentioned above: refusing to address the concern until the student rewrote their message so that it adhered to the relevant course policy.

 

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