Remote Students Speak – Part 2

In last week’s post, I shared that during the first class in one of my courses I asked my students to respond to two prompts in the chat feature in Zoom.

  1. Name something your professors did in the spring that helped you succeed during the remote transition.
  2. Name something that your professors did in the spring that you found ineffective.

My goal for asking these questions wasn’t to spy on the instructional decisions of my colleagues. In fact, I specifically asked students to not identify professors by name but instead to focus on the practices that they found supportive or ineffective as students during the remote transition. Last week, I discussed the ineffective practices. This week, I focus on the practices that students felt helped them succeed.

Being flexible. While many of the students responded that they appreciated when their instructors provided clear deadlines and expectations, they also explained that appreciate the grace their professors showed during the transition to remote instruction. One student responded that he appreciated professors who “were more forgiving with due dates, so if it was due one week originally it would end up being allowed back to the week after just to make up for peoples now changed schedules.” Another wrote that several professors “loosened the schedule so people could work around their workplace and being home.” From an instructor perspective, it may be challenging to walk the fine line between giving clear deadlines and offering flexibility and grace, but it’s a practice that our students appreciate.

Being Present. I’ve written about the importance of teaching presence and immediacy in other posts (see Teaching Online? Consider Immediacy and New to Online Teaching? Be VOCAL). Looking over the student responses, it was clear that the students valued professors who made the effort to be present. One student wrote that he appreciated when professors “took time to make individual meetings to make sure we were doing okay.” Another shared that a professor held “did one-on-one zoom sessions with us whenever we had questions about an assignment that way he could help us all the way through.” While teaching presence can be shown through synchronous sessions, the students also valued professors who were demonstrated their presence in other ways. One student wrote how she appreciated professors who were “always checking email and willing to help with everything I needed.” Across the responses, it was clear that students value when their online instructors are present to assist with the challenges the face.

Providing Instructional Supports. While the remote transition was a chaotic time for professors and students alike, my students communicated that they appreciated when professors provided supports to help them stay on track. One student shared that his professor provided a “weekly checklist of what needed to get done.” Another wrote that his professor sent “a weekly overview in the beginning of the week.” While strategies like checklists and overviews may seem like simple practices, they help students self regulate and better stay on track with the learning expectations in courses. This is true during a global pandemic and during any type of instruction, both in online and face-to-face instruction.

Remote Students Speak – Part 1

Our fall semester started this week and I greeted a new class of students bright and early yesterday morning. This class is traditionally taught face-to-face but with the pandemic still impacting much of the country, I’m teaching the class online with a blend of synchronous and asynchronous interactions. It should be a fun class.

Since it was our first class meeting, I thought it would be a great opportunity for us to discuss their experiences from the spring. Like many instructors, these students were thrust into remote learning environments without any advance notice or preparation. I thought I’d ask a couple of reflection questions to inform my interactions with them this semester.  Using the chat feature in Zoom, I asked them to reflect on two separate prompts:

  1. Name something your professors did in the spring that helped you succeed during the remote transition.
  2. Name something that your professors did in the spring that you found ineffective.

I advised them to not identify specific professors but I also asked them to be specific as possible. As I read through the student responses, I realized I had some great material for a blog post. Or actually blog posts. This week, I’m going to focus on the practices that students found ineffective. I’ll share the successful practices next week.

Lack of communication. Several students reported that their instructors didn’t communicate as frequently as they hoped. As one student shared, “My one professor did not answer his emails very quickly and so it was hard to understand what to do.” Another student wrote that it “took forever for (the instructor) to answer back emails.” Reading through the responses, it was clear that students wanted/needed a level of communication from their instructors that they didn’t receive. Thinking about the student responses some more, however, I wonder how many of the instructors provided students with expectations regarding their response times. I’m betting many of the instructors were in triage mode in the spring and were more focused on getting their content online and figuring out how to teach remotely. With more advanced preparation for the fall semester, my hope is that more instructors clearly share expectations regarding response times and are also better situated to communicate more frequently with students.

Disorganization and lack of clarity. In their responses, several students communicated that their online classes were disorganized and that the assignments they were given were unclear. One student wrote about “links that didn’t work” and another shared that an instructor provided study guides “that didn’t match with the content on test.” Again, considering the rush to put content online in the spring, these student responses are understandable. But the responses also identify the critical role we play as teachers, both in online and face-to-face classes.

Poor modeling. In a post from a few years ago, I wrote about being VOCAL. VOCAL is an acronym that can help online instructors develop a “teaching presence.” The L in the VOCAL acronym stands for being a “leader by example” which means that as instructors, we model the behavior and expectations we hope to see in our students. We’d never want our students to skip lessons and just read the text. But in the haste of the spring’s online transition, that’s what some students reportedly encountered. One student responded that their instructor didn’t offer any “recorded or live lessons” and another wrote that his teacher “just stopped teaching and depended on the text to do everything.” Another student shared that their instructor was always “extremely late for zoom and then going over the class time.”

If you’ve read my blog for any amount of time, you know that I communicate the importance of grace and empathy. And the spring challenged all of us in ways that we never anticipated, requiring more grace and empathy than usual. I totally understand that some instructors navigated the hasty transition to online teaching better than others. My hope with sharing these student responses isn’t to chastise or criticize anyone. Instead, let’s learn from the experiences of our students and agree to do better this fall.  I’ll share some examples for how to do that next week.

Planning for Reality

For many local schools, the start of the school year is a week or two away. As the pandemic schedules are becoming more of a reality, I’m receiving many emails from panicked friends, colleagues and former students who are asking “How do I do this?” For some, they’re facing class schedules where students are alternating between remote and face-to-face instruction on different days. For example, one local district has broken the student body into an A group and a B group. The A group attends face-to-face classes on Mondays and Tuesdays while the B group participates in asynchronous instruction during those days. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, the groups flip. Group B attends face-to-face classes while Group A participates in asynchronous instruction. On Fridays, students in both groups attend synchronous sessions remotely.

Administratively, this may seem like an ideal way to provide similar experiences to students while being mindful of social distancing protocols. From an instructional perspective, however, this can present enormous planning challenges. One teacher I spoke to compared it to creating two independent classes for each period during her school day. As I’ve considered how I’d navigate these challenges as teacher in that district, I thought it would be great to share some ideas here.

Identify “bookend” experiences. You’re right. I made up that term. But as I thought about how I’d plan for a non-traditional hybrid model like this, I’d want to identify experiences that could act differently for students depending on where they were in the learning cycle. For some students, the experience would set the stage for learning. For others, that same experience would act as the closure. That way, I could schedule the same experiences for both groups of students and could avoid planning double.

Let me provide an example. Let’s say I was teaching two-dimensional motion to high school physics students. One of the classic teaching examples is dropping a bullet while simultaneously shooting one horizontally. When I used to teach this topic, I’d show a demonstration which would set the stage for our classroom discussion. Teaching this concept in the non-traditional hybrid model, I’d create a demonstration video for students to watch and provide several questions for students to answer. For the students who navigate the asynchronous modules first, the video and questions would set the stage for our discussion in class, similar to how I’d traditionally teach the content. For the students who navigate the asynchronous modules a few days later, however, the same video and questions would act as a formative assessment of the material they learned a few days earlier. It would be the same experience but would “open” or “close” the learning for different students. Hence, the “bookend” terminology.

Build shared artifacts across groups. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I feel like things are going to go back to normal at some point this school year. For our K-12 schools, that means transitioning these split hybrid classes back into a single holistic environment. We can prepare for that transition now by avoiding seeing the groups of students as being discrete and independent of one another. We can create opportunities to share learning artifacts across groups. For example, a group A student could be paired with a group B student and act as “virtual notebook buddies.” The pair would both contribute to a shared notebook in Google Docs or Office 365. This would be great for science labs or for multiple-day activities that span both group’s face-to-face days. It would also help to build community for the day (hopefully) when the two groups of students are combined into one face-to-face class.

Provide structure. Like most online learning, these hybrid models create a “transactional distance” that needs to navigated. Let me explain. Developed by Dr. Michael Moore in the 1970s, transactional distance theory sees online learning as “a psychological and communication space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner” (Moore, 1993). To close the transactional distance, teachers need to provide clear communication and a lot of structure. Considering the phases of online and face-to-face learning trough which students will cycle, teachers will need to provide supports to help their students self-regulate and stay on track. Think online checklists, rubrics and calendars.

Talking to different teachers from many different schools, it seems like there are a variety pandemic schedules that are being adopted. While the ideas I’ve shared may not be suitable for all of the pandemic schedule, it may provide a starting point for all of those teachers who are planning for the start of a school year unlike any other. Good luck.

Online Learners’ Needs

Last week, I moderated a panel discussion at the 2020 Distance Teaching and Learning (DT&L) Conference. Usually, the DT&L conference is held in Madison, WI but with the pandemic still impacting travel, the conference was moved to a virtual event for the first time. Over 900 educators, instructional designers, librarians and administrators gathered throughout the week to discuss online learning. Needless to say, the rapid move to online instruction was a common topic in many sessions.

During the discussion I moderated, I was joined by several experts who spoke on different aspect of distance learning. The discussion was titled “The ABCs of Distance Education” and was intended to provide an introduction to people who may be new to the concept. One of the experts on the panel was Penny Ralston-Berg, senior instructional designer at Penn State World Campus. Ralston-Berg got the session kicked off by provided a continuum of different distance education delivery modes from face-to-face instruction to the recently popularized Hyflex model. With different institutions use different terminology to describe their online modes of delivery, Ralston-Berg’s discussion helped to situate the overall conversation and provide a common vocabulary for the attendees and presenters.

While the panel covered a lot of territory (Universal Design for Learning, Community of Inquiry, Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction), I found Ralston-Berg’s discussion of the “Top Five Online Learner Needs” to be some of the most beneficial aspects of the session. In some unpublished research she had conducted with her online students, Ralston-Berg found that online students reported the following “needs.”

1. Orientation: Students need to be introduced to their online courses and how the instructional space is going to be used. A short orientation video has been shown to have a significant impact on student success in online classes.

2. Transparent Technology: When courses are online, there’s a tendency to use a lot of technology to support student learning and interaction. In her work, Ralston-Berg reports that students need to clearly understand why specific technologies are being used and what value they add to the learning environment.

3. Clear Expectations: This student need is pretty straightforward. Students need to know how they’ll be assessed, how they can communicate with their instructors and how they’ll receive feedback on their work.

4. Consistent Navigation: As students move from module to module and course to course, they need to interact with consistent navigation and organization. This consistency lowers the barriers for students and helps them dedicate more of their cognitive energy to learning.

5. Alignment: While students interact with individual modules in individual courses, they may not always see the purpose of the work they’re doing. Providing instructional alignment across the courses within a program helps students to see the value each course contributes.

While these “learning needs” may reflect the work found in some other documents (QM standards and OSCQR, for example), I found the outline to be a good reminder of the ways to design online courses for student success.

Teacher Dreams and Expectations

It’s early August and I’m starting to have my “teacher dreams.” If you’re an educator, you probably know what I’m talking about. At some point in late summer, my subconscious starts to remind me that school is starting soon and that I need to start getting prepared for the school year. For me, “teacher dreams” usually consist of missing the first day of class or showing up to teach in my pajamas. Or some fantastical variation of these. To get the dreams to subside, I’ll dedicate some time to prepping classes and preparing syllabi. I spent a few hours yesterday and completely prepped one of my fall classes. Last night, I finally had a restful night of sleep without a “teacher dream.” But I’m sure the dreams will return soon.

As I’m prepping my fall classes, I have to admit that I’m struggling a bit. Two of my classes are ones that I’ve taught in face-to-face manners in the past. With the pandemic upon us, however, my institution has moved almost all of its classes to completely online delivery for the fall. As I’ve thought about how to redesign the classes for effective online instruction, I’ve decided to offer a mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction for the students in these two classes. I’m hoping that the mix of flexibility and consistency will meet the students’ needs. That’s the plan, at least.

So, where am I struggling? As I’m working through my syllabi, I want to include some expectations for our synchronous class meetings. Looking at my social media feed, I’m seeing a lot of my colleagues and teacher friends who are sharing all sorts of things that burrow deep into my brain and get me thinking about my role as a teacher. One friend shared the following meme credited to Dr. Brad Johnson.

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I have to admit that these concepts really resonate with me. Regular readers know that I advocate for teachers to “Lead with Empathy.” especially during these stressful times. I know that my students (and my colleagues) are struggling with all sorts of challenges right now. I want to be mindful of these challenges and offer grace and empathy as I can.

But I also want to set clear expectations in my classes. If I’m designing my classes to include some synchronous components because I know its pedagogically sound and in my students’ best interests, I have to clearly communicate what expectations I have for students’ attendance and participation in our synchronous meetings. Thankfully, my social media friends have given me some things to ponder there, too. Here’s an image shared by another teacher friend that offers some clear expectations for students who participate in a synchronous setting (in this case, Microsoft Teams).

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As I examine these two documents, I’m struggling with how to align these two. While the synchronous expectations presented above are clear and concise, do they reflect grace and empathy? Do they focus on relationships? Do they communicate patience? While the expectations are probably achievable by the majority of students, I worry about those students who may not have a “quiet room” in which to work or may not have the opportunity to “eat a healthy breakfast.” I worry about the students who struggle to “stay focused” in an online environment or the ones who may not have regular access to all of the expected tools (headphones, charged computer, notebook, pencil, webcam).

So, there’s my struggle. How do I clearly communicate my expectations without also communicating from a position of privilege? How do I outline my requirements for participation and attendance without also ignoring the challenges that my students are likely to face? I don’t have the answers, yet. I think I need to sleep on it some more.