Blog Post

The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course

Trauma, Teaching,

Let's start the week by repeating that a summer of planning for better online learning this Fall will be wasted if we do not begin from the premise that our students are learning from a place of dislocation, anxiety, anger, and trauma. So are we.

This is the single essential that must be built into the structure, assignments, thinking about what and how we will teach online in the Fall. Face to face too. Imagine the classroom of students in face masks sitting six feet apart, one part of the brain focused on school, another on parents or partners dying, on an uncertain future, on a crashing economy.

Trauma is not an add on. From everything we know about learning, if the trauma is not addressed, accounted for, and built into the course design, we fail.  Our students fail.  None of us needs another failure.

This means thinking about access in all its dimensions: technological, intellectual, personal, financial, medical, educational.  And cognitive. Distraction is the single biggest deterrent to learning. Physical and emotional distress are the single biggest causes of distraction we have. Period.

In considering what we assign and how, it means we might, at least as a metaphor, think of the complex of trauma and anxiety as a cognitive burden comparable to a full-time job. We should be building our courses around the reality our students are carrying that emotional workload (even if they are partying, pretending they are invisible, not caring about their future: don't believe that for a second). Again, so are we.

We need to build our courses thinking about empowerment and agency, desinging ways for students to interact with one another and with us. We need to think about meaningful activities beyond the screen that extend the lessons of the course, building in ways students can be co-teachers as well as co-learners, actively contributing to the course. We need to think about what we all can offer one another--curiosity, imagination, knowledge, power--as antidotes to the present disruption and trauma, as tools towards building a future.

As educators, we offer ways that help students not just learn content but also how to have a pathway towards accomplishment. We can encourage them not just to learn from us, as experts, but support them in the process of learning how to become experts. That's an excellent tool to have in the face of uncertainty. 

I've learned of someone at Adelphi University who teaches video editing including to several students with cognitive differences. Now, online and sheltered during a time of COVID, he has pivoted so his students are filming what exciting things and ways they see anew in their restricted and socially distanced lives--on walks alone on formerly busy city streets; or talking to grandparents they live with; or video'ing the different forms of friendship that blossom on Zoom. They are making interesting films and also they have a tool for coping with the new social distancing constraints of their lives.

I know political scientists whose students are modeling fall voting patterns and coming up with positive (nonpartisan) ways to get out the vote, despite sheltering. Or safe ways to stand in line at polling places. This gives students agency.  In a COVID world, we all need agency.

I know a lit and history prof, Steven Berg at Schoolcraft Community College, who begins his early American culture class with the 1793 Yellow Fever plague in Philadelphia. History helps us understand the present and feel a little more optimistic that there will be a future too.

I know an urban planner who has challenged students to reimagine urban space in the short and long run, from outside seating at entertainment venues to rent control and subsidized housing to redress gross inequities that existed in NYC long before COVID-19.

I know a critical learning theorist (i.e. me) who invited students, after reading extensively in Indigenous and decolonial pedagogy, to collaboratively write the course "learning outcomes" for remote learning during a global health crisis.  

A distinguished professor of African American literature, Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin of Columbia, maintained a sense of community in her large lecture class by asking them to write one or two sentences online in answer to profound questions such as:  What one book from class would you want to take with you? 2. What, if anything, from your old life do you want to leave behind?" [See "Comments" below for all the questions]

And we all know artists and writers and performers putting their own creativity out there online for free. Students as consumers and makers of all the arts provide an ideal antidote to isolation and anxiety. A little joy is a wonderful "learning outcome" to build into a class design.

There is almost no field untouched by this COVID pandemic or irrelevant to it. I do not mean we all have to suddenly become trauma therapists. That's dangerous (unless we are trained to that role). And it doesn't mean making every class "about" the pandemic (that would be awful). It means being sensitive to the devastating historical moment in which we are now living.

Before we even think about a syllabus or videos or Zoom, think about what it means to be a student. Now.

First, what defines higher education, more than any other feature, is that it is voluntary.  No law forces you to be in school. Your parents may want you to be but, if you are over 18, they can't force you.  Humans are terrible at voluntary activities that are good for us (our gym is based on a business model of 80% of annual, paid members not showing up after Feb 1).

Add to the difficulty of volunteerism the pressure of trauma, anxiety, illness, economic hardship, and dislocation. Think about attending college without the social enhancements that help support students in schools. I predict that, with an abolition of extracurricular activities, even the wealthiest, most elite private residential schools will soon be seeing higher drop out rates, some perhaps even comparable to public commuter schools (where students face such pressures all the time--and now exponentially so). 

Before we begin to design our fall syllabus, before we make clever instructional videos, we all need to think from a student's point of view.  We need to try to understand what it means to be studying for a future you don't know that you will have. No one knows what lies ahead in the best of times. Now, all the predictions seem like some dystopian futuristic novel. Total social breakdown? Total economic collapse? A health emergency in which millions die over the next three or four years? How do you study to prepare for this future?

What do our students need now?  That is the essential question for going on line.  Whether teaching algebraic geometry or sociology or literature or art or religion, we need to begin with the question of: what would I need if I were a student in this historic moment?  A great place to start?  Ask them!

Asking that question also turns it: what do I know that will be most of value to my students now? What have students learned that they can share?  Maybe it is a study skill, a focus trick, a way we have discovered meaning amid uncertainty that we can pass on.  Perhaps it is "meta reflection" (the single best way to ensure retention and applicability apart from applying, experientially, what we learn):  have students think, talk, communicate with one another, about what they learned in class today or last week and what it meant for them.

Or, even with videos and other asynchronous learning, reduce some of the homework while adding a component: ask your students to apply what they learned in class today to some aspect of their life and write a 25 or 50-word "report back" on a course blog or other secure course site on what they did and how it worked out.  This is far better for learning than studying for a test.  The report-back helps students communicate with others, see their work in school as relevant and meaningful to their disrupted lives, and lends a sense of community when that is exactly what this pandemic has shattered.  It helps them realize why they are in school, why it is worth it to make the effort.

Whatever you are feeling and experiencing, it's likely your students are too--and probably in a greater degree. If you, as a professor, are having a hard time concentrating, being productive, think about a student just beginning the way to mastery who suddenly has to stay focused on a field, a subject, that seems utterly tangential to their traumatized lives, at home, with parents, no job, internship canceled, paying tuition for a bunch of idiotic videos, etc etc.

Adjust accordingly. We need to be human first, professor second.  We need to design as humans for humans in a global crisis. We need to design our courses with the awareness of pain, dislocation, uncertainty, and trauma now central to all our lives.  It's a lot to ask. It is the one and only essential as we design our courses for this disrupted fall. 

Beginning by addressing students where they are now, in Fall 2020, at this historical moment, means providing a space and structure where they can think powerfully about themselves and the world beyond Fall 2020, beyond this plague, beyond trauma. It does what the best education is designed to do: it offers students a tool that helps them be stronger in the present and build towards their own and society's better future.







Cathy, this is a wonderful statement that orients all teaching faculty toward the right way to think about what is and is not going to happen in and beyond the classroom a few short months from now.  I shared this post with all of my faculty colleagues, right at the moment this week where we are beginning to focus on what is being referred to as "hybrid resilient teaching." We all get "hybrid."  Your post reminds us that "resiliency" means far more than keeping the trains running. 



Thanks, Paul.  This has gone viral.  I think we all were so deer-in-headlights about going on line and so quickly that we forgot the human part for a while.  "Hybrid resilient teaching" is a fascinating term.  May we all be resilient!


Thank you so much for writing, Paul.


This beautiful essay--with its log of wonderful and inspiring assignments--is exactly what I mean about responding meaningfully to this pandemic and offering students an education that empowers them to find a better future in its aftermath.  Thank you Prof Griffin!

Professor Griffin asked her lecture class in "Introduction to African American Literature," once it moved online post-COVID:

"As we pass through this portal, let’s think about what we might take to the other side, and what we want to leave behind. One or two sentences per question. No more.


1. What one book from class would you want to take with you?

2. What, if anything, from your old life do you want to leave behind?

3. What do you appreciate that you would like to take with you?

4. What change, if any, would you like to see, and commit to bring about, on the other side?