How COVID is changing my online course this spring

This spring, I’ll be teaching a section of my eight week credit-bearing information literacy course starting in late March. This is the first time I’ll be teaching this course in over a year thanks in part to the chaos of COVID and also my sabbatical this fall, which will soon be coming to an end.

Because I was on sabbatical and focusing on my research during what would normally be the planning period for spring, my plan this year was just to teach the course the exact same way I did last spring. Back then, I’d rearranged the course a little from previous iterations and used a new version of my usual annotated bibliography project that was reasonably successful. So I decided that I would make minimal changes this time around in order to squeeze as much as research and writing time as possible out of my remaining sabbatical.

In some ways, that was easy to do. My course has been fully online for quite a while now so there was nothing I needed to do to convert the materials I already had to the new situation. Teaching the course this year should have been an easy copy and paste job. Easy peasy.

The problem with this is that I’ve never been very good at copying and pasting my course from semester to semester. I’m always making changes. Between fall and spring, these are usually small changes. I generally save bigger changes for the fall semester so that I have the summer to plan them.

But now a whole year has passed since I last taught this course and the world looks very different from the way it did last time I did this. So while a copy and paste from last year to this year would have been possible, it didn’t feel right. I ended up doing yet another overhaul.

The annotated bibliography stays in the picture

I still like the annotated bibliography assignment that I introduced last year, so that’s the one piece that’s staying exactly the same. The first group of students I used it with did well with it overall and I learned a lot about how students think about research by reading their reflections. Because every group of students is different, I’ll be interested to see how this new group feels about the project, especially since, unlike last time, this course is taking place in the second half of the semester rather than the first. Second semester students in the spring are generally eager for the school year to be over and so tend to be somewhat…less patient, let’s say. On top of that, I imagine this year’s students are more likely to be experiencing some feelings of burnout by the time they get to me in the second half of the semester than they have in the past. So I think some will welcome the idea of a “full credit just for submitting it” type of project while others might be unhappy with the ways in which this project goes against the usual rhythms of a course project. We’ll see what happens.

A focus on context

During the course of my sabbatical, I’ve spent some time writing a book for ALA where I make the case for incorporating ideas about the contextual nature of research into our teaching. The version of this course that I taught last year had some nascent evidence of this thinking here and there. This time, I’m going all in. This means completely reworking the structure of the course as well as significantly revising or rewriting all of its main content. This content mostly comprises short (written) lectures and since I’m basing a lot of it on what I already wrote for the book, it’s not a huge project to redo them but it’s definitely more work than I was planning to do. I’m excited about it, though. I think the new content shows a little more confidence in these ideas than I had before, now that I’ve written a book on them. I also think it’s a good idea to put my money where my mouth is. If I’m going to write an entire book arguing that we need to be teaching students about the importance of context to the research process, I should probably be teaching students about the importance of context to the research process. The trouble is, I don’t know what students will think of it. Likely they’re expecting a class where they learn how to use library databases to find peer-reviewed sources and this new version of the course is…definitely not that. I mean, that information is still there but it’s not the focus the way it used to be. My hope is that this new version of the course will be more meaningful to these students, many of whom will be graduating at the end of the year. These new ideas are ones they can carry with them beyond the academic environment in a way learning databases might not be. Still. Nervous.

Creating more community

I’m not going to lie: the structure of my course has tended in the past to reflect my personality as an introvert. There are opportunities here and there for students to interact through discussion activities but generally speaking it’s possible to get through the course without making contact with a single other person in it besides me. Which is the way I would like it if I were a student. With the way things are now, though, it seems important for students to have an opportunity to connect with each other. I’m still not requiring it because I think that would be unfair in a course where the main attraction is that it’s asynchronous, but I’m working in some optional activities on Zoom that will give students a chance to interact with each other in fun ways. I’m also giving them options for participating in the usual Blackboard discussion forums in ways other than simply writing a bunch of text. Whether students will take me up on any of this remains to be seen. I doubt they will but I still wanted to offer it in case there is a student or two out there who might need that sense of class community.

Creating more support

I have a grading policy in my course that gives students a seven day period after an assignment grade is posted to ask questions about or otherwise challenge their grade. After that seven day period is over, the grade is considered final. The reason I did this originally was because I tended to have a lot of students come to me at the end of the semester asking about extra credit and makeup work they could do to fill a hole left by a missed assignment much earlier in the course. Since instituting this new policy, I’ve gotten a lot fewer of those requests and the ones that I have gotten have been much easier to field when I have a policy I can point to that specifically states when a grade becomes “final.”

This semester, I went back and forth on whether or not to keep that policy. We’re all going through a lot right now and the last thing I want is for this course to become another source of stress for students who might already be dealing with the pressures of living through what sometimes feels like an endless pandemic. Ultimately, I decided to keep the policy but I’ve made sure to acknowledge throughout the course that I fully understand that things are not normal right now and that students might find that they are struggling for one reason or another. I want students to feel like if they find that this is the case, they can let me know and that I’ll work with them as much as possible to figure something out. Or if they don’t want to let me know, they can talk to someone else on campus through one of the many services that are in place to help them through this time.

I know this semester is going to be different from past experiences and that I’m behind a lot of other instructors who have been teaching throughout this whole pandemic. I don’t know if the changes I’ve chosen to make will all work but I think they were good ones to make. I’ll report back at the end of the semester to let you know how things went.

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