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10 Reflections from Online Teaching

10 Reflections from Online Teaching

1: Utilize breakout rooms/small groups for difficult questions or problems for which students need time to process. 

Small groups alleviate the pressure of speaking in front of the group. Furthermore, it gives students the opportunity to work on a problem or question together, and importantly the chance to gather their thoughts before speaking to the class. Sometimes, students need more time to sit with something, especially a text, and aren’t immediately ready to answer every question, so this structure works really well.

For online courses, I’ve utilized both Google Slides and Microsoft Teams for live collaboration; they both work well, and Slides seems more intuitive, but MS Teams is a great alternative for students who, due to geographically specific internet restrictions, may not be able to access Google products or services. For future teaching, I think I will allow students in my classroom to utilize their computers to live-edit documents together, and project those during discussions.

2: Online or off, asynchronous lectures are still valuable tools.

Producing and filming asynchronous lectures may take more time than preparing a few notes for extemporaneously-led, synchronous lectures for students, but it has many advantages: you can attempt to include all the material you want to cover; students will be able to watch and rewatch it until they process the content; and, importantly, it opens up space and much-needed time in the classroom for discussions about and questions that emerged from the lecture itself. Instead of being primarily about delivering information, in-class sessions can focus on processing and working through the ideas emergent from that content. 

3: Free-writing exercises provide a low-stakes way of generating content.

I have found 5-/10-minute free-writing sessions to be crucial to my course this semester. They are ungraded opportunities for students to focus on simply writing — not editing, nor trying to make their writing sound acceptable for somebody else — and it gives students the chance to start thinking about and answering any questions you may want to address during the session. Writing practice is always valuable, and free-writing can even help alleviate the stressors of writer’s block by allowing students freedom to simply get as many ideas on paper as they can, no matter how it might sound.

This was especially valuable for discussions, as students had ample time to think of an answer before we reconvened as a group.

4: Utilize Calendly for setting up office hours, and embed them within an assignment. 

Calendly [link here] is an amazing tool that alleviates the stress of scheduling via emailing back and forth. Instead, Calendly integrates with your calendar, blocking off times already scheduled with events; you can select blocks of time windows (ex. 11am-2pm on Mondays and Tuesdays only, etc.) wherein students can schedule a meeting with you based on what works for them. It saved me a lot of time!

Additionally, for my first and second assignment, I made meeting with me via an office hours appointment required; I utilized the time to discuss their projects at whichever stage they were in, but also built in time to simply check in with the students and establish deeper relationships with them to understand them better as people with individual and unique perspectives, learning styles, and scholastic drives.

And the added bonus is that requiring office hours, at least once, helps to normalize office hours as an available resource to be utilized; rather than some kind of scary or confusing or pointless meeting wherein students may be discouraged by not knowing what questions to ask, a scheduled/required meeting will help them be able to utilize future faculty’s office hours.

5: Provide ample, low-stakes opportunities for students to present their research and interests to their peers. 

I loved most the class sessions where my students shared what they learned from their assignments with their peers. I asked everyone to say a few words, one to two minutes tops, about what they found, as well as what difficulties they experienced in the researching, writing, or editing process.

This provided me with valuable insight into their academic interests, provided students with accountability over their learning, and provided the class as a whole the chance to air grievances related to the writing process such that I was able to see which skills we needed to continue practicing and cultivating.

Students were able to learn from each other, and I was able to determine patterns in knowledge gaps. If you’d like something a little more recorded, ungraded-but-required or low-stakes discussion posts, such as on Canvas, especially if due before class, can ensure that students come prepared with some remarks or moments from the material they’d like to address.

6: Providing video feedback is a handy — and faster — method than providing hand-written or typed feedback.

This may not appeal to everyone, but if you feel that you’re able to better deliver critique through speech than writing, then video feedback might be useful for you. I utilized this after a colleague suggested it during a pedagogy seminar, and found it to be quite the time-saver. Video feedback also lets students hear your thoughts and explanations, something they may schedule office hours with you to understand, were it written instead. 

7: Polling, student feedback, and mid-semester evaluations can save a class.

I recommend using something like Google Polls, or even the ungraded quiz function on Canvas, to set up surveys in order to evaluate how the class is going. I utilized this several times throughout my class this semester and was able to “course-correct” our direction by knowing where we needed to slow down and what we needed to revisit.

Mid-semester evaluations help students also take accountability over what they want from the class, and gives them the chance to tell you specifically what is and isn’t working.

I asked them to provide specific, concrete feedback and actionable suggestions — rather than vague grievances — and the results allowed me the chance to entirely restructure our third unit around what they most found interesting about our course thematic and what they most wanted to work on.

8: Consider the capaciousness of accessibility. 

Accessibility extends into many realms, and should be a top consideration in the preparation of a class. For instance, textbook prices may be a limitation for some students who might not be able to take the class otherwise, so it is important to determine whether there may be free or supplemental material available. Computer policies in the classroom may need adjusting, especially because if laptop usage is dependent on accommodation-status, then those with accommodations would be “outed” by being able to use their computers.

There are concerns with accessibility when it comes to lectures and powerpoints — whether the visuals and text are legible, for instance. Furthermore, some students’ learning styles may prevent them from getting a lot out of one activity, and so it’s important to remember that not all assignments and exercises fit all. Consider, additionally, how you might be able to incorporate revisions and allow students the chance to revisit assignments they might want to improve.

9: Include podcasts, films, and multimodal content beyond just text. 

You don’t always have to produce an entire asynchronous lecture about something you’re covering in class. No need to reinvent the wheel if there’s something else out there that does the job well enough, after all.

My students were excited when I had them listen to podcasts or watch films to help break up the readings, and told me as much in my mid-semester evaluations. It’s quite important in terms of digital, textual, audio, and/or visual literacy to engage with different kinds of content and forms in order to cultivate the capacity to “read” different kinds of writing.

Additionally, some students simply learn better by hearing something rather than reading it, or by watching it rather than being told it in a lecture. It also allows students the chance to bring their own digital expertise to the classroom.

10: Emphasize that students are not just writing or producing for you.

One of the biggest struggles my students experienced was the idea that an English class was primarily about writing essays for the instructor. I suspect that their previous education, unevenly distributed as it may be, when it came to writing focused on writing for a specific person — the grader.

What I’ve tried to emphasize is that I am not the intended audience for their assignments; instead, I’ve encouraged them to consider who their imagined audience might be, or who they would like to write to. This kind of resituating helped their writing tremendously, because they became less concerned about whether I would give them a good grade and more about if their writing would be legible and accessible to a particular audience.

One effective strategy for this is of course peer review and low-stakes comments on other peers’ posts in discussion threads online.


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