Teaching Remotely? Forget about Perfect

2020 marks my 28th year of teaching. Over the course of my career, I’ve had the privilege of working with over a thousand teachers across different school districts and universities. This post is for you.

In my assessment, you are some of the hardest working, dedicated individuals anyone would want to work with their son or daughter. I say that as a parent, as a taxpayer, and as your colleague. And I know that this pandemic is keeping you up at night. I feel your pain.

Like the vast majority of the teachers I’ve worked with, I know you are motivated to plan the perfect lesson, organize the perfect activity or create the perfect assessment. You’re people who come to school way before the school day starts to prep a laboratory. Or stay long after the school day is over to grade papers so your students get feedback the next day. You’re cut from the same cloth as Ms. K., who I saw disassemble and reassemble an entire set of exams because there was a typo of one of the pages. “Was it critical to the question?” I asked. “Not really,” Ms. K said. “I just didn’t want my students to see a mistake like that.”

Ms. K is your people.

Mr. B is your people, too. I was once working in a shared planning area when I heard an audible grown from across the room. When I looked over, I found Mr. B. with his head in his hands. “Are you okay?” I asked, worried that something serious had happened. “I just spent the last hour prepping a lesson for tomorrow and I thought of a better idea,” Mr. B explained. “I can’t do this lesson anymore.”

You’ve probably felt like Mr. B. I know that I have. Mr. B is our people.

To most readers, these stories probably sound a little out of the ordinary. But as a teacher, you know they’re not. It’s just how most of the teachers we know and work with roll. They’re focused on perfection. And this pandemic is throwing us all off our game.

Instead of expertly crafted lessons, we’re hastily moving lessons to learning management systems. We’re quickly searching for websites, recording videos and developing engagement activities. We’re in educational triage mode and we’re quickly trying to put lessons together that can help our students learn.

But then we hear those reflective questions that always force us to reexamine our work.

“Was that lesson perfect? Could I do it better?”

And in your heart, you know the answers. And it’s causing some of the existential dread you’re feeling.

This post is a plea for you to set those questions aside for now. Put them to rest. We can revisit them in a few months. Right now, I want you to focus on a few different questions.

“Was that lesson effective? Did my students learn?”

In the midst of the chaos of this pandemic, change your focus. Instead of perfection, work on being effective. Work on helping your students learn your content in a safe, supportive space. Focus on making your class the best part of their day. You always have. It’s more important now than ever.

And then, tend to your family. Care for your loved ones. And get some sleep.

Perfect is a topic for another day.

Teaching Online? Consider Immediacy.

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from August 2019 that outlines the importance of teacher immediacy. Enjoy!

This week, I’m heading to Madison, Wisconsin where I’ll be presenting at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference. On Thursday morning, I’m leading a presentation titled Humanizing the Online Learning Environment where I’ll be sharing some strategies for making the online classroom (and online teaching) a little more of an affective endeavor. Most of the quality checklists that online teachers employ focus on design and facilitation elements that can make the online space more effective. While these are important, I think we as online teachers also need to attend to the emotional and human side of our instruction.

I’ve been thinking about this stuff since I read The Spark of Learning (Cavanagh, 2016) a few years ago. The book examines “the science of emotion” and discusses how different teaching strategies impact students’ motivation and emotional engagement and foster student learning. While the book focuses entirely on face-to-face classroom instruction, I kept thinking how it really relates to all classrooms, online included.

One of the emotional constructs that Cavanagh discusses in the book is called “teacher immediacy.” Online, we talk about “teaching presence” a lot but I think teacher immediacy is a little different. In the book, Cavanagh defines immediacy as “behaviors that are both spoken and unspoken that communicate to students that you are interested in them, the material, and the process of learning” (p. 100). In contrast, the concept of “teaching presence” (which comes from the Community of Inquiry framework) is defined as “the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educational worthwhile learning outcomes.” While there’s definitely some overlap between these constructs, I think the focus on emotions is a much-needed addition to online teaching conversations.

So, how do we develop teacher immediacy online? Cavanagh (and others) actually subdivide the teacher immediacy concept into two separate areas: verbal immediacy and non-verbal immediacy. Here are some ideas for both:

Verbal immediacy:

  • Consider including humor in your video and audio recordings. I have some colleagues who wear funny hats in their videos or have amusing music playing during their introductions.
  • Disclose relevant information about yourself. A few months ago, I shared a blog post about research that showed teacher rapport increased when teachers and students shared common interests.
  • Use inclusive pronouns and first names.

Non-verbal immediacy:

  • For video and audio recordings, be mindful of your facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures. Instructors can communicate powerful positive and negative emotional content with a sarcastic comment, an eye roll or a hand gesture.
  • For email and discussion posts, consider the tone you use. Last fall, I wrote a post about “leading with empathy” and “assuming positive intent” helps to frame my written communication with students.

References:
Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.

New to Online Teaching? Be VOCAL!

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from October 2014 that outlines a helpful acronym to guide online instructors’ work. Enjoy!

I came across an article in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning this weekend that discussed the characteristics of online instructors.  The author, John Savery from the University of Akron, examined the types of interactions that engaged students and promoted their learning.   To contribute to a successful learning environment for students and instructors, Savery argues that instructors need to be “VOCAL” – Visible, Organized, Compassionate, Analytical and a Leader-by-example.  While the acronym itself might be easy to follow, I thought some explanation may be needed to connect the descriptors to online instruction.

1.  Visible.  Students need to interact with their instructors, especially in online learning environments.  While it can be difficult to have a “teaching presence” in a digitally mediated space, it’s not impossible.   Instructors can start by participating in online discussions and by providing opportunities for students to engage in synchronous chats.  I spoke with a colleague recently who is taking an online class through a major university with a renowned online college.  She rarely interacts with the instructor and often feels isolated.  By being more visible, instructors communicate that the students’ work and participation is valued.

2.  Organized.  Learning management systems offer opportunities for organizing content and communication easily.  While an instructor doesn’t necessarily have to use all of the organization structures available, it’s critical that s/he communicates the organization clearly to students.  Making the organizational structure transparent for students will help them find materials and will promote more participation in class.

3.  Compassionate.  I worry that many people confuse “compassion” with lowering expectations.  In Savery’s work, being compassionate means providing opportunities for student-instructor and student-student interaction.  A compassionate instructor recognizes that all classes, even online ones, have a social component that needs to be fostered.

4.  Analytical.  If I were to rewrite Savery’s framework, I would replace analytical with assessment, since this is really the critical activity that’s needed in online course.  Analytical instructors provide clear expectations and guidelines for planned assessments and offer timely feedback on student work.

5.  Leader-by-example.  Online instructors model good behavior and participate fully in the online class.  While there is some overlap with being visible, being a leader-by-example extends the instructor’s role a little further.  For instance, if you provide discussion board expectations, don’t violate those expectations yourself.  Returning to my colleague who feels isolated in her online class, the instructor rarely posts the types of in-depth of responses she expects from the students in the class.  When instructors ask for thoughtful critical reflections but only communicate “Agreed” or “I concur,” they’re not being leaders-by-example.

While some could argue that much of the VOCAL framework is simply a rehash of the Community of Inquiry concept, I like how efficiently it promotes good online instruction.  The acronym is easy to remember and focuses on some of the most widely violated aspects of online instruction.

References:
Savery, J. R. (2005). BE VOCAL: Characteristics of successful online instructors. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 4(2), 141-152.

The Introverted Student Online

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from January 2018 that examines how interverted students navigate the online learning envrionment. Enjoy!

I’m teaching an online class over the winter semester and I’ve been particularly impressed with the level of engagement and involvement from my students. The class is a graduate course on Designing Online Learning Environments and we’ve spent a great deal of time discussing the needs of students and how best to support their learning online. One of the students in the class remarked that she really enjoys online classes because she’s an introvert and that the structure and organization plays to her strengths. While I try to create my online classes following principles of Universal Design for Learning, I hadn’t really thought about how online classes could specifically benefit introverted students. After doing some digging and reading, however, I came away with a few critical thoughts that educators should keep in mind when working with students in online and face-to-face learning environments.

1. Introverts aren’t “shy students.” Psychology Today published an article identifying some behavioral signs of introversion. Across the signs, it’s clear that introverts aren’t people who have social anxiety or dislike other people.  Instead, introverts are drained by social encounters and energized by more solitary pursuits. Introverts are also the last ones to share their opinions in social settings. “Whether it’s a family discussion around the kitchen table or a staff meeting to decide how to market new products, people high in introversion will keep their views to themselves and let the noisy extraverts take control.” Instructors may see this play out in online and face-to-face learning environments with introverted students often being the last ones to raise their hands or post to discussion boards.

2. An introvert offline is an introvert online.  In another article from Psychology Today, Sophia Dembling discusses her use of social media. As a self-identified introvert, Dembling writes, some people are surprised that she uses Facebook and Twitter and even blogs.  While the tools give introverts “control of our airspace, and time to think before we respond,” Dembling also talks about her limits. With technology, she’s able to shut down when she gets “the same kind of tiredhead I get at a party.” Computer-mediated communication isn’t going to instantly make an introverted student more extraverted.

3. Introverts prefer online classes. After hearing from my graduate student, I wondered whether any research had been conducted to examine introverts and learning environments. I found a 2010 study reported in The Internet and Higher Education. In the study, Harrington and Lafredo examined 166 collegiate students and compared their responses on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and their “preferred teaching modality.” Results revealed that a statistically significant majority of introverts preferred online classes and extraverts preferred face-to-face classes.

4. Online classes offer introverts an ideal learning environment to be successful. After reading that introverts need “the opportunity to reflect quietly on a problem,” it’s clear why introverts (like my graduate student) enjoy online classes, especially asynchronous ones.  As Tony Baldasaro writes on Edutopia, “The asynchronous environments found on the Internet can provide introverted students with the ideal space needed for them to learn. The freedom to explore their passions, the ability to connect with similar learners, and the time to participate at their personal pace and depth, all with the solitude needed by the introvert, can make these communities the ideal space for learning and creativity to blossom in the introvert.” By offering the time to process information and craft responses, online classes provide introverted students with an environment that is better suited for the personality.  They can still interact with their classmates to socially construct their understanding of content but the environment gives them the time and space to be successful.

The Magic Pill of Online Learning?

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from January 2016 that discusses the importance of recorded orientations. Enjoy!

As a regular online instructor, I know how powerful online orientations can be.  In every one of my classes, I include a short video that walks students through the basic elements and features of my online classes.  I try to make the organization transparent for students and make it clear for them how to access course content, find their grades and participate in discussions.  To make sure students watch the video, I assign it as one of the first activities in the class and release the rest of the content only after I know students have accessed the video.

Initially, my rationale for including orientation videos was purely selfish.  I wanted to reduce the onslaught of emails I received at the start of online classes.  Many students wouldn’t know how to navigate the online learning environments and I’d get bombarded with questions about how to access materials.  But then I started becoming more knowledgeable about the best practices that are promoted by organizations like Quality Matters.  By including an orientation video, I found I could tackle several of the QM standards at once, which ultimately would help make my online classes stronger and more pedagogically sound.

I came across some research recently that adds more evidence for including orientations in online classes.  In research conducted at Excelsior College, several instructional designers targeted some of the worst performing online classes.  These classes had the highest withdrawal rates and some of the lowest overall grade distributions on campus.  While a variety of techniques could have been implemented to change the students’ performance in the classes, the instructional designers chose to include short orientation videos to target “common technology frustrations of beginning students.”  In the videos, instructors “covered basic navigation, such as posting to a discussion board, submitting an assignment to a drop box, reviewing a grading rubric in the grade book, and opening a graded copy of an assignment to view instructor feedback.”  The orientation videos also included interactive components so students could check their learning of the skills covered in the videos.  To promote rewatching and remediation when needed, the videos were accessible by students throughout the whole semester.

While it seems like a pretty simple strategy, the results were really compelling.  The researchers found the withdrawal rate dropped measurably in the online classes after orientation videos were included.  They also found that the overall grades in classes increased.  Although no other changes were made to the online classes, more students chose to remain enrolled in the courses and students were more successful.  With the ease of creating orientation videos with tools like Jing, Camtasia and Screencastomatic, this practice needs to be promoted as a “low investment, high reward” strategy that all teachers should incorporate in their face-to-face, online and blended classes.  In a lot of ways, orientation videos offer a “magic pill” that can cure a lot of the ills that students encounter when navigating online spaces.

References:

Taylor, J. M. (2015). Innovative Orientation leads to Improved Success in Online Courses. Online Learning Journal, 19(4).

Applying the Seven Principles of Good Instruction Online

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from May 2012 that discusses how to transition face-to-face practices to an online environment. Enjoy!

Almost 25 years have passed since Chickering & Gamson offered seven principles for good instructional practices in undergraduate education.  While the state of undergraduate education has evolved to some degree over that time, I think the seven principles still have a place in today’s collegiate classroom.  While originally written to communicate best practices for face-to-face instruction, the principles translate well to online formats and can help to provide guidance for those of us designing courses to be taught online.

1.  Encourage contact between students and faculty.  Students need to know how to contact their online instructors and should be encouraged to communicate with us when needed.  In my online courses, I identify multiple means of contacting me (email, Skype, Twitter, etc) and clearly post times when I’ll be available to chat during online office hours.  While few students utilize the online office hours I provide, offering this time communicates to students that I am available if they need assistance and that I value this interaction.

2.  Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students.  For those of us who believe that people learn through socially constructing their understanding based on their experiences, this principle is critical.  Online courses should not be independent study classes.  Online instructors need to build collaborative structures into their courses to promote student-to-student interaction.   In my experience, I find that students who feel isolated in an online course have difficulty being successful.  In my online courses, I incorporate collaborative and interactive ventures early on.  I also try to foster discussions where students communicate with one another, share ideas and debate concepts.  While interacting with the instructor is important in an online class, it is also important that students have a space where they can discuss concepts with one another as well.

3.  Encourage active learning.  Learning is not a passive activity.  For students to learn, they must actively engage with the content in thoughtful, purposeful ways.  As you develop your online course, consider ways to build active learning into the course content.  This can include utilizing tools with a course management system (discussions, for instance) or not (GoAnimate, Animoto).  But active learning isn’t limited to technological avenues in online courses.  Someone teaching science online could utilize hands-on lab activities developed with common everyday items.  Someone teaching psychology or sociology online could have students conduct observational work at a park or at the mall.

4.  Give prompt feedback.  This can be tricky, especially with instructors teaching larger online classes.  While tackling hundreds of papers can be overwhelming, students need to receive prompt feedback to know whether they are being successful or what they need to do to improve.  If you see that there are larger assignments in your class that will take you some time to provide quality, constructive feedback, communicate this to your students.  You should also include some smaller assignments that will not take as long to assess. While some experienced online instructors use the course management system to build automated responses into their courses, I believe that some students still need personalized feedback on their work that comes directly from their instructor.

5.  Emphasize time on task.  Learning takes time.  Students and faculty working in online spaces need to realize this.  Just because an online course may be more flexible schedule-wise does not mean that it won’t require a significant time commitment.  It’s important for instructors to communicate expected time commitments but also be realistic with their expectations.  Assigning students to read a 500 page book in a day may not be completely realistic.  Have high expectations but respect students’ need to have time to interact with the content and learn.

6.  Communicate high expectations.  While it’s important to have high expectations for students, it is also critical that these expectations are clearly communicated to students.  It is also helpful to communicate clear expectations for participation and for interaction. Do you want your students to log on daily?  Do they need to submit assignments in a certain format?  Is it okay for them to use emoticons in their discussion posts?  These are just a few of the areas that online instructors need to consider as they develop an online course for the first time.

7.  Respect diverse talents and ways of learning.  Students learn in a variety of ways.  While there will undoubtedly be some text-based content in an online course, it cannot be the only mode of delivery or assessment.  Draw on the host of multimedia options available online to deliver content to students and to assess them.   Instead of typing out some long lesson on the Middle Ages, check out YouTube or Vimeo for some available videos.  Or better yet, use a screencasting tool like Jing to record a customized lesson.  Instead of assigning a 10 page paper, have students create a video where they demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Note: This post was also published on Faculty Focus in February 2013.

Reference:
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE bulletin, 3, 7.

Strategies to Improve Online Accessibility

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from March 2016 where I outline some strategies for making online content more accessible for students. Enjoy!

A few weeks ago, my institution’s Director of Online Programs and I offered a professional development session for faculty to help them make their online classes more accessible.  One of the challenges with teaching online is that many faculty members rely on text-based instructional material.  While some adventurous online instructors may include videos to support multiple learning modalities for their online students, the reality is that most of the content offered online is not really accessible to students with special needs.  If you’re an online teacher, I want you to take a second and ask yourself a few questions:

Would a blind student be able to fully participate in my online class? If one of my students had a learning disability, would they have trouble accessing the content in my class?  Would a deaf student be able to fully access all of my online course content?

You can use the questions to do your own soul searching. Based on the answers I hear from most online instructors, I wanted to pass along some basic accessibility strategies that are easy to adopt.  While these won’t solve all of the accessibility issues that may arise in an online class, it will help the majority of them.

  1. Use page formatting.  If you’re creating your own content in your learning management system, use the Headings and Paragraph formats appropriately.  While many instructors think that these options just change how text displays, the formatting also communicates important information to readers that visually impaired students would use.  Think in outline form. Header1 communicates the highest levels of an outline.  Header2 communicates the next level down and so on.  This formatting structure allows visually impaired students the ability to navigate the pages more easily.
  2. Use PDFs with Optical Character Recognition. I know several online teachers who scan articles and simply post them online. While this may help students without visual impairment, a blind student wouldn’t be able to access the content at all.  Use Adobe Acrobat or a site like Free OCR to convert the visual picture into readable text.
  3. Provide Alternative Text (ALT TEXT) to communicate relevant, educational information. Most learning managements systems require Alternative Text whenever an image is uploaded.  If an image is decorative, not much information is needed.  If the image conveys important information that is relevant to the class, you’ll need to include some succinct but descriptive language.  Here are some tips from WebAIM to get you started.
  4. Offer captioning and transcripts whenever possible.  Think about how a deaf student would be able to watch that great screencast you just recorded.  Without captions or a transcript, they probably wouldn’t be able to.  Consider using the captioning options through YouTube. While the process isn’t perfect, it may provide enough detail to support students with hearing impairments.
  5. Avoid using color to provide contrast.  When you’re creating pages in your learning management system, remember that conveying information with color differences may be a challenge for students who have color blindness.
  6. Use tables wisely.  Some web developers use tables to creatively layout content.  Depending on how they’re created, however, these tables can be challenging for some screen readers.  Use tables only when you want to display data and go with the simplest configuration possible.  Also, understand that what may look good, may not display correctly for an online reader.  For some more tips, check out these tips from WebAIM.
  7. Apply accessibility strategies to all files.  While these strategies apply the content you build in learning management systems (LMS), they also apply to content you upload into an LMS.  For instance, if you’re uploading PowerPoint slides, use Alternative Text to convey the information displayed in text.  Also, use the basic formatting offered through the program to better communicate the structure of your presentations.  Adding textboxes on blank slides rather than using one of the default slide formats will create distinct challenges for screen readers.