This blog post is authored by Samantha Dressel, faculty in the English Department of Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.
When faced with suddenly switching to online teaching, I had several layers of panic. First, I don’t consider myself particularly tech savvy and do not like being under the gun for new technology. Second, I have never taught remotely before, and did not know any best practices. In this blog post, I’ll discuss how I’ve tried to overcome these challenges in a state of lockdown.
Before I could start delving into different tech options, I had to decide how to run my class and what best practices for remote learning are. In those first few days, I felt bombarded by resources, many of which were espousing different viewpoints. Ultimately, however, I made the decision to move to an almost-entirely asynchronous format. I chose this option for reasons of equity and accessibility: students’ home situations can differ wildly and I wanted those who were responsible for younger or elderly family members, those who have to work jobs in these dangerous conditions, and those with limited internet access to all be able to participate in course activities at their own paces. I am offering a once-weekly meeting for each class framed as supplementary enrichment (my “Virtual Coffeeshop”) as well as Zoom office hours by appointment for face-to-face contact as well.
Given the choice to make all classwork asynchronous, I then needed to figure out how to reframe my discussion-based classes. I have a literature survey class with some discussion, a writing and theory class that moves between deep discussion and writing workshops, and an upper-level discussion-based seminar. I have ended up creating daily discussion board assignments supplemented with video lectures for all of these classes, with a lot of success.
The easiest class to switch to a discussion board, oddly enough, was my Shakespeare seminar. I had an existing assignment where students had to prepare a discussion question for each class period, so now rather than submitting them to me, they submit to the Discussion Board. They then have to write at least five replies. I also add a few questions they can answer, and respond publicly to many threads so that they can have the same professional insight as they might get in class. This high number seems to work well for a 400-level course, and the students end up having detailed, meaty discussions. They also now have a written record of things they’ve come up with, which can serve as inspiration for their final papers. In my other classes, for the most part I have been generating discussion questions and asking students to respond to two to three peers. These discussions are somewhat less in-depth, but that is also commensurate with the lower course levels.
One technological change that has been immensely useful for facilitating these discussions and other forms of asynchronous contact has been Canvas. My socially-isolated self very much thanks my prior self for switching to Canvas over the break! The format of Canvas Discussion Boards makes posts much easier for students to skim through and add to, so that they don’t have to repeatedly click links to choose a thread for their responses. Additionally, Canvas allows for various grouping methods, which can be applied to those Discussions.
Canvas Groups, combined with the Peer Review feature is one way I have supplemented writing workshop time for my two sections of a writing class. These too are both mercifully simple tools to use, and I integrated them with the potential for synchronous contact. For one peer review cycle, I posted a number of times in the Groups page and allowed students to choose their group. I assigned group members as peer reviewers, meaning that they could all access and comment on each other’s work. Then, at the time they chose over the next few days, I met with each group via Zoom to talk through their comments. I acted simply as a facilitator as they talked through suggestions, also answering technical questions about the assignments.
The final piece of the puzzle in my asynchronous classroom has been video lectures made through Panopto. I’ve found Panopto to be a very simple tool once I got it set up, and it is extremely flexible. The majority of my lectures have been my speaking over a powerpoint. When I asked my classes about that format as opposed to one in which they could see my face, the response was pretty unanimous that they just wanted something with audio that they could take notes to; they didn’t care much about the visuals. That said, I did have particular fun in my Shakespeare class giving a lecture about possible moments of audience contact, using a dragon stuffed animal as a scene partner!
For all of my lectures, however, I have steeled myself for imperfection. This is one place where I could spend hours upon hours of prep time. Some weeks, I’m posting up to seven or eight 15-20 minute videos. Prepping for these already takes longer than my normal lecture preparation. Given that, I have decided that it protects my time, and doesn’t take away from the student experience, to stress over every single “um” ever uttered and spend lots of time editing each one to perfection. I’m sure I don’t only speak for myself to posit that in-person lectures are never completely perfect; online ones need not be either.
In conclusion, the student feedback I’ve gotten has been extremely positive. They find Discussion Boards a useful way to stay engaged with classes and dig up final paper topics. Lectures give them the ability to take notes and get additional context. In particular, students have said that they appreciate continued regularity and a similar rhythm to our prior class schedule; in these turbulent times, consistent coursework becomes one of the few things they can count on and use to structure their time.