By Julia Henderson:
Now in week five of isolation, my panic has eased slightly. Until recently, a goal for many of us was to finish up courses in progress by whatever means we could. Some of us have had some profound insights, some of us merely survived. Many of us feel saturated with “top tips” commentaries. So, I sit at my computer again, grappling with what to write that feels meaningful.
I have to admit I am struggling to keep up as my 5-year-old and my 13-year-old are tasked with learning online. They need assistance, support, guidance, and encouragement. It feels disorderly and haphazard. Sometimes this relates to their teachers’ efforts to deliver online curriculum. Other times it is due to our ability (or more accurately, inability) to uptake all the new requirements. How am I supposed to work full-time, revamp my postdoc research to be done without participants, and become the classroom aide to my two children?—never mind also take on the roles of house cleaner, pet keeper, and full-time cook—all jobs I had outside help with before. As I write this, my five-year-old has entered and asked, in tears, if I could PLEASE read him stories.I feel overwhelmed.
So, in this state, I think ahead to the summer term which will need to be delivered fully online. Since these courses will be virtual from their outset, learners are likely to have higher expectations for slick course delivery. However, many instructors still lack experience teaching online. I keep returning to the question “how can we make teaching meaningful, achievable, as efficient as possible, and not overwhelming to our students and ourselves?” Below, I’d like to offer some thoughts I’ve had and some things I’ve learned from my family’s online experiences so far during lockdown. Thanks to my friend and colleague Ash McAskill, Postdoctoral Fellow at Guelph University, for talking through some of these ideas with me.
DON’T TEACH REQUIRED CONTENT IN REAL TIME
Unlike previous online courses which students opted to enroll in and instructors (usually) chose to teach, now students and teachers are forced to participate in online courses. This brings new considerations. In the past when students chose to take an online course, we could assume they had good online access. Now we cannot make that same assumption. Not everyone has a device available to them at any time of the day. Families are sharing, Wi-Fi is sometimes overloaded and sketchy, some students are trying to do their work on phones. If you want to include optional real-time check-in sessions with your students, by all means do so. One-on-one and small groups work best in my opinion. But for the love of god/goddess do not deliver required learning in real-time online lectures at this time! It causes undue stress for many students.
KEEP IT CHUNKY!
It is way easier to digest course content in smaller chunks. Instead of recording one-hour lectures, prepare 4 or 5 mini-lectures. Instead of assigning lengthy readings, choose shorter ones, or break the long ones into more manageable chunks. Perhaps assign summaries of certain readings instead of the originals. Find ways to design shorter assignments or divide longer ones into distinct tasks. We must keep in mind that many people are no longer able to find lengthy, uninterrupted work blocks.
THINK ABOUT ACCESSIBILITY
My older son is in 8th grade and as such has 8 different courses, and 8 different teachers. Looking at his course content and communications, it is abundantly clear that most of his teachers have little to no training in making online content accessible. First, there is just TOO MUCH TEXT crammed in. The fonts are too small. They often don’t use hyperlinks. Images do not have an alt-text description. The colour combinations of font on background are sometimes difficult to read. My son, who is a straight-A student, finds the online content overwhelming. So, for anyone not used to designing courses online, I would strongly advise two things. First, take a look at some tips on writing for the web. There are simple ways you can adapt your writing to make your materials more approachable/readable. Secondly, look into tips on accessible online course design. Some simple strategies make a big difference to many learners.
TEST OUT YOUR TECHNOLOGY!!!
So, my son’s English teacher decided to have a real-time group session online. I’m not sure why, but she combined 4 classes in the one session (that’s A LOT of participants!!). She then asked some students to help her with the technology. Well, I don’t know if it was the boredom of isolation, or the general mischievousness of teenagers, but the students started posting comments and drawing pictures (you can imagine) on the online blackboard, and she didn’t know how to stop it. She eventually just left the session and we got an email the next day beginning with “Well I won’t be trying that again!!!” Although this whole episode was immensely amusing to my son and his classmates, it did not achieve learning of any course content, and I am sure it was humiliating to the teacher (who fortunately had a good sense of humour).
The moral of this story: test out your technologies before using them with your classes. In depth. For real.
Another of my son’s assignments was for students to reflect on some of the things they had learned during isolation. My son came to me rather incensed because the teacher had commented to students that they should avoid being negative and come up with some positive things they had learned. I agree it’s important to think about some of the positive things we have learned during this pandemic (the extent of our over-consumption, how profoundly we affect the environment, how much we are typically over-scheduled, etc.). But insisting on positivity is not productive or healthy; we need to talk about our hurt and fear and dreariness, and we need to try to avoid toxic positivity. As my friend and University of Toronto PhD Candidate Rena Roussin writes,
“Optimism, positivity, and gratitude are all wonderful things. I’m striving to practice them as much as I can . . . But it’s okay to have moments when you just can’t. It’s okay to be sad for a while. It’s okay to take a moment or an hour or a day to grieve for whatever you’re missing right now.”
As instructors, we need to make real efforts to hold space for our students to talk about their experiences of difficulty, anxiety, pain, and grief. If we are going to ask students to reflect on how they feel, we must be prepared to give supportive, empathetic feedback, not simply advise them to be more positive. Experiencing a global pandemic is a form of trauma and it will affect people in different ways to different degrees. It is not our job (or within most of our skill sets!) to become counsellors, but we need to be able to deeply listen even though we are not physically present, and we should be prepared to refer students to counselling services as needed. For many students, remember, it is simply helpful to have a place to express their struggles right now.
DO WE NEED GRADES?
This may be an unpopular opinion but I think we really need to think about what we are grading, how we are grading, and whether we really need grades at this time. If people are showing up right now, that’s a lot. At the very least we need to re-evaluate our usual grading systems, and lighten the burden for ourselves and our students. We need to keep in mind what the real consequences of the grades will be. Are students trying to enter second year or grad school?
Although we are settling into this New Normal, we have to remember that these are trying times with constant undercurrents of instability and stress. The following quote, which has been circulating on social media, spoke to me (the original source eludes me):
“You are not working from home; you are at home during a crisis trying to work.”
We must remain gentle with ourselves and each other, open to new ways of doing things, accepting of resistance, curious, and even sometimes frivolous – just because! In the spirit of frivolity, as an antidote to all the online learning, and at the risk of toxic positivity, to conclude I would like to share the duck eggs I am trying to hatch in my homemade incubator!