Even in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t anticipate having to do much work to reimagine or restructure my credit-bearing information literacy course this spring. That’s because I’ve been teaching that course in a fully online, asynchronous environment for probably about five years. It seemed like there was nothing to adjust. If anything, I almost looked forward to the fact that students would be more used to taking online courses now,(1) which meant less of a learning curve by the time they got to me.
But then I started seeing conversations about how other instructors were incorporating Zoom and other tools into their online teaching, mostly to facilitate the delivery of lectures or other “live” learning activities. Again, I didn’t see the relevance to my own teaching right away because my course is entirely asynchronous. But by the time I started reviewing the materials in anticipation of the start of my own course, I began to think about how many of these instructors had used Zoom and other tools not only as a way to deliver course content but also to foster a sense of community in class. To make students feel like even though necessity has kept us largely separate during the last year or so, interacting through our screens rather than in person, there are still people here and those people can be more than words on a screen.
My class, I noticed, had no such opportunity for students to feel a sense of community. My lectures are all written. The activities are all writing-based. Though I try to interact directly with students as much as possible by responding to their discussion posts and giving them feedback on their assignments, it is entirely possible to go through my course without interacting with a single other human being.
Partly this was because failed attempts at creating more opportunities for connection had largely failed. In fact, an early version of my course, though ostensibly asynchronous, included elements that required students to coordinate with each other regularly, which they had to do more or less on their own schedules. Unsurprisingly, students hated this aspect of the course. Many complained that it was unfair—that they were taking an online course specifically so they could fit the work into their schedules rather than having to figure out meeting times and all that. Honestly, this feedback seemed fair, so I dumped all of that team-based interaction.
But for a while I still tried to make interaction part of the course, requiring students to respond to each other in discussions as part of their grade. It didn’t work that well. Students’ responses were rote at best and grading them got confusing. So eventually I gave up. While there are still discussion activities in the course, responding to their fellow classmates’ posts is encouraged but largely optional. Meaning no one actually does it.
So why have discussion activities at all? I actually didn’t for one course and I got the opposite complaint that I got before: that students felt like they were a little too alone in the course and that they could have benefited from seeing other students’ takes on some of the questions I was asking them to reflect on. I thought this was a good point, so I added the discussion activities back in. Occasionally, I would try different ways to require students to read through their classmates’ responses even if they didn’t respond to them directly—the most successful attempt at this was by asking students to reflect on three things they had learned from their fellow students’ discussion responses. But for the most part, I’ve kept these activities very low pressure and very focused on individual contribution.
And frankly, if I was a student, that’s probably the way I would like it. I’m the person who, when I’m in a webinar, really hates the part where everyone gets siloed off into breakout rooms to interact in smaller groups. It’s not that I don’t enjoy getting to talk to other people, especially colleagues with the same interests as me. It’s just that I prefer to have the opportunity for private reflection before I’m thrust into a discussion where I have to share and defend my own ideas. I don’t even like participating in the chat in a webinar, when the speaker stops to ask for responses to a brief question. (Though I do like using this strategy in my own webinars. Go figure.)
So though I think there are other reasons why my course ended up being organized the way it is, including past failed attempts at introducing opportunities for interaction and my desire to keep the structure straightforward and easy to follow, I also wonder if my own tendency toward being an introvert isn’t a factor as well. I avoid including interactive elements because, as a student, I wouldn’t want them there.
Which is weird because in my in-person teaching, I’m much less introverted. I mean, I do improv games. Ones where I demonstrate to students how to yell the word “die” at each other(2) and take elaborate bows when they make mistakes. In my freshman seminar, I play the song “If I Had a Million Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies to my students on the second day of class AND I SING ALONG WITH IT (because how could you not?). I also facilitate live discussions and other activities without a second thought. In short, my in-person teaching persona has absolutely no problem with interaction.
Why it’s different online, I don’t know. Interaction online just feels like more of an effort, I guess. And civility online is also a lot less guaranteed than it is in person. While nothing in my classes has ever reached the level of the comments section on a typical news site, I have had issues, so maybe that’s another demotivating factor too.
Whatever the reason for it, I always sort of knew my interaction-lite way of teaching was maybe not the best approach in terms of instructional design but it worked and I didn’t see a need to change it.
So I was surprised when I started planning my course for this semester to find that this time around I felt a little different.
Interaction and community can be hard to come by this days. For my part, I’ve been privileged enough to be able to work from home for the last year, which I’m grateful for but I can’t deny that it’s been incredibly isolating, especially during the winter months. I relish my alone time but it’s also become clear to me that I do, in fact, need people.
Students are struggling too, obviously. I thought having the opportunity to make connections with others might help with this (a revelation many who have been teaching this whole time probably had long before me), so I added some new elements to my course to give students the opportunity to make these connections, including live, casual Zoom chats about fun(ish) course-related topics (like “my best/worst research experience”). I’ve also given students the option to participate in discussions not only through text, but also through audio or video, if they want.
None of these elements are required—at most they are extra credit (with alternative options for anyone who would like extra points but can’t or doesn’t want to participate for whatever reason). For one thing, this is still an asynchronous course and I feel like requiring synchronous interaction wouldn’t be fair. For another, the last thing I want is to add to students’ stress by throwing unexpected (and untested) curve balls at them.
I understand that making these things optional makes the chances that students will participate pretty small, but I still feel like offering them is a step in the right direction. If turns out to be a total bust, that’s fine. But if it helps even one student feel a little less alone, then I feel like it’s worth it.
(1) To be clear, I’m not happy that the pandemic made the migration to online teaching necessary and obviously students are still going to struggle with online courses for a variety of reasons, including different learning styles and different levels of access to/competency with technology. I’m just saying there was an upside.
(2) As part of a game called Category Die. Don’t worry, it’s not as mean as it sounds but I do give the students in the classes where I use this activity the option to shout something else at each other if they’re uncomfortable with “die.” Most don’t take me up on it.