The Paradox of Flexibility

The summer semester started this week and I’m teaching two graduate classes online this semester. I’ve spent the last week or two preparing to get the courses ready for the first day of class. This preparation process usually involves copying and revising materials from previous iterations of the courses. I’ll move around modules, change deadlines, and retool different assignments. I try to get most of the course built before the first day of class so that I can focus on facilitation once the class has begun. I’ve used this metaphor before, but I view online teacher like planning to host a party. If you prepare a lot of the stuff in advance, you can enjoy the party once it’s happening. The same goes for online teaching. When an online teacher prepares a lot of their course in advance, they can focus more on the facilitation aspects once the course has begun. Online teaching as party planning. Or at least that’s the metaphor I’ve used in the past.

But I came across a term recently that has me re-evaluating that metaphor. A student’s paper referenced “the paradox of flexibility” of asynchronous class and I felt the need to find the original paper where the phrase was used. After some quick Google searching, I found a 2018 study by Janine Delahunty in Linguistics and Education. Delahunty uses the phrase early in the paper when she explains the challenges with asynchronous discussion boards. Delahunty writes:

“While the ‘anywhere, anytime’ mode of delivery can attract interest from prospective students, this may have implications for the sociality of ‘learning to connect’, or the opportunities to develop a sense of belonging to a learning community through quality in relationships between group members who may never (physically) meet.” (pg. 12).

Delahunty elaborates by saying that the flexibility of asynchronous delivery “provides just as many opportunities not to engage with others as it does to engage.” Which is where the “paradox of flexibility” emerges. While students can choose to participate whenever is best for them, that flexibility can inhibit the formation of a cohesive learning community where social interaction is fostered. If you believe (as I do) that learning is dependent on social interaction, the flexibility of asynchronous classes can also impact the overall learning experience. Hence the paradox.

So, while I like to describe my online class preparation as planning for a party, I’ve planned “a party” where students attend and participate flexibly and on their own schedules. Which doesn’t make it seem like much of a party at all. Or at least not one where everyone is gathered and interacting at once. That’s not to mean that asynchronous classes can’t be valuable learning experiences for students. I feel that they are. It’s just that I have to more fully accept that how I describe and visualize them may be a far way removed from how they actually are.

Citations:

Delahunty, J. (2018). Connecting to learn, learning to connect: Thinking together in asynchronous forum discussion. Linguistics and Education, 46, 12-22.

Needing Netiquette

When I created my first online collegiate class fifteen years ago, I read several online teaching standards that set clear design and implementation guidelines for online classes. They offered guidance so that instructors would state clear, measurable learning objectives and would include course assessments that were linked to the objectives. These online teaching standards also advised that instructors broaden their course accessibility and include diverse instructional materials. In those early days of my development as an online teacher, those standards became invaluable tools for my instructional design. In designing my first class, I followed the standards to the letter and incorporated all of the elements in my first course.

One of the standard documents included guidelines for course etiquette expectations.  They called these expectations “course netiquette,” so address this standard, I created a list of student expectations for online discussion forums, email, and other forms of communication that might occur in an online course. It’s been such a long time ago, that I really don’t remember if I wrote all of these or whether I searched for some examples and combined and tweaked a few for my use. But here are the “netiquette” policies I included at the time:

“All students pay tuition and deserve a positive and courteous learning environment. Students should be aware that their behavior impacts other people, even when interacting online. I hope that we will all strive to develop a positive and supportive environment and will be courteous to fellow students and your instructor. Due to the nature of the online environment, there are some things to remember.

1. Think before you write and reread your writing before you post anything online. Without the use of nonverbals with your message, your message can be misinterpreted. Sarcasm and humor can be difficult to interpret online and should be avoided.

2. Keep it relevant. There are places to chat and post for fun everyday stuff. Inside a discussion board, stay on topic. Make sure your responses answer the question provided, expand the discussion to other relevant areas, or build on the work from your classmates.

3. Never use all caps. This is the equivalent of yelling in the online world. It is also hard to read. Only use capital letters when appropriate.

4. Make sure that you are using appropriate grammar and structure. Some people in the class may not understand things like “CU L8R,” not to mention it does nothing to help expand your writing and vocabulary skills. Emoticons are fine as long as they are appropriate. A smile ☺ is welcome; anything offensive is not.

5. Treat people the same as you would face-to-face. It is easy to hide behind the computer. In some cases it empowers people to treat others in ways they would not in person. Remember there is a person behind the name on your screen. Treat all with dignity and respect and you can expect that in return.

6. Respect the time of others. This class may require you to work in groups. Learn to respect the time of others in your group and your experience will be much better. Always remember that you are not the only person with a busy schedule, be flexible. Do not procrastinate! You may be one that works best with the pressures of the deadline looming on you, but others may not be that way. The key to a successful group is organization, communication and a willingness to do what it takes to get it done.

7. In discussion boards, do not respond with sentences like “I agree” or “Me too”. These add nothing to the discussion.”

And honestly, for the last fifteen years, I’ve included that policy into every new online class I’ve created. I remember revising them five or six years ago because some of the language became dated, but otherwise, they were mostly a vestigial element from my initial course design. I copied and pasted them into new course shells. I referred to them in my course introduction videos and Getting Started modules and that was about it.

Recently, however, I realized how important netiquette guidelines are. I won’t get into the specifics here, but a student posted something in a discussion forum that didn’t align with the course netiquette policy. Dealing with that situation made it clear that while I state the norms of communication in the course, I don’t clearly discuss any potential ramifications or consequences. I also don’t outline my role as the instructor when dealing with communication that doesn’t meet the netiquette standards. Do I delete a transgressing post?  Do I allow students to revise a transgressing post, even though the guidelines weren’t initially met? Do I replace the transgressing post with a message like one that would appear on Facebook or Instagram when their “community standards” are violated? I honestly hadn’t given it any thought prior to this incident, which forced me to create policy on the fly. After the semester ends, however, I plan to think through this more deeply and set a more comprehensive policy for the future. I might not need it for another ten or fifteen years, but I’ll probably be glad when I do.

Promoting Personalization

I recently finished reading Jose Antonio Bowen’s book Teaching Change: How to Develop Independent Thinkers Using Relationships, Resilience, and Reflection (2021). The book presents a deep dive into cognition and discusses how our roles as instructional leaders can foster supporting learning spaces where students can thrive. As the title suggests, Bowen believes that one critical way to create independent thinkers is to form positive relationships with our students. He presents a ton of research on the science of emotion and outlines how teachers can create better conditions for learning when we spend less time delivering information and more time getting to know the students with whom we’re working.

One of the “teaching hacks” that Bowen outlines that can foster student relationships is personalization. Personalization, Bowen contends, can impact both student mindset and motivation. When students receive more personalized communication from their teachers, they’re more inclined to listen, pay attention, and engage with course content. I was introduced to the “personalization” concept a few years ago at an online teaching conference and have been incorporating different pesonalization techniques in my classes. While Bowen introduces a few personalization strategies I haven’t tried before, there are a bunch that I’ve used in my face-to-face and online classes. Although I haven’t really assessed the impact on student learning, they seem to have an impact on student engagement and participation. Here’s what I’ve tried:

Use student names. I’m a big proponent of using student names in my classes. In face-to-face classes, I hand out name tents so I can easily remember students’ names. In my online classes, I regular begin my replies to discussion board posts with students’ first names. Bowen writes that using students’ names “reduces threat assessment and encourages paying attention” (pg. 200). I also find it helps to foster a warmer, friendlier learning environment for students.

Make feedback appear personal. This may pull the curtain back a little on the “magic” that happens in some of my classes, but I use “replacement strings” a lot in our learning management system. If you’re familiar with Mail Merging, the process is similar. If I type something like {FirstName} in feedback within a gradebook item in our LMS, students will see it as their first name. While I offer lots of individual feedback to students, I also find that students will often make mistakes that require similar feedback. In those situations, I can automate feedback by copying and pasting feedback to several students but personalizing the feedback with the replacement string. Bowen suggests that using names like this can “increase the attention the attention given to the rest of your feedback” (p. 200).

Try video messages and feedback. This is a strategy I use a lot in my online classes, but they’re rarely recorded for individual students. Instead, I record brief video messages at the start of the week to provide an overview of the readings and assignments for the whole class. I also record videos at the end of the week to highlight the work students have contributed. In both situations, I’ll identify specific students by their first names and discuss the exemplary work they’ve done or questions they’ve asked. While this strategy helps to make the course feel more personal for students, it also helps to establish a regular teacher presence and communicates to students that I’m engaging with the course discussions.

References:

Bowen, J. A. (2021). Teaching Change: How to Develop Independent Thinkers Using Relationships, Resilience, and Reflection. JHU Press.

Back in Zoom

This semester, I am teaching a shortened, seven-week class for undergraduates that started in mid-October. Over the last month or so, I’ve found the class to be highly interactive and engaged. They’re a group of teacher candidates and, due to the cohort nature of our program, they spend a lot of time together as a group. By the time my course started, the group had already coalesced into a community. They knew each other and seemed to have their own inside jokes and back stories. During our first class together, I felt a little like an outsider who was late to a party that started weeks ago. But those feelings have subsided as the students have made space for me in their learning community.

When I say this class is highly interactive and engaged, I mean that there are times when I feel like I’m surfing a wave of conversation and discourse and I don’t always have complete control over where things will go. They’re a lively group with a lot to say. They’re working through their identities as beginning teachers and I’m grateful that they feel comfortable enough to use our classroom space to talk through their successes, their wonderings, and their challenges. Despite our short time together so far, I feel like I’ve really gotten to know this group of students and connect with them.

This week, I had to move our class online. After an entire academic year of teaching through Zoom, I wasn’t really that excited about teaching a synchronous class again. But I was interested to see how this class would interact in the Zoom space. For most of my classes last year, I didn’t have any prior experiences with the students. I met them through Zoom and relied on the Zoom space to support our communication and interaction. This experience would be different, though. I had already worked with this group for several weeks in a face-to-face environment. The students also knew each other well. I was hopeful that our online class would reflect the engaged classes we had during our face-to-face interactions.

I’d love to say that the class was as equally engaged and interactive, but that would be overstating reality. While the students were definitely involved, there were several times when I waited in silence for students to answer a question. I started the class with an ice breaker and with my regular Rose/Thorn/Bud check in. In our face-to-face class, these would prompt all sorts of conversations. Today, only a few students regularly contributed. Some students didn’t share their voices at all.

Just to be clear, I’m not blaming the students or myself. They’re a great group of students and I worked to engage them as much as possible. Even though I’m a proponent for online teaching, I believe we need to recognize that fostering community and engagement online is hard. We also can’t be confident that the rich and deep relationships we have with our students, colleagues, friends, and family will easily translate to other modes of interaction. That’s a harsh reality, but one of which I’m sure many teachers are becoming acutely aware.

Pacing and Timing

If you’re teaching in a face-to-face classroom again, I wonder whether you’re experiencing the same sort of dissonance that I am. After spending an academic year navigating online synchronous spaces, I’m back to figuring out how to teach in a physical one again. And I’m finding there is some relearning that’s been required. Let me explain.

Last fall, like many other educators, I was asked to move courses that I traditionally have taught in a face-to-face format online. And there were some growing pains. Since I already knew how to use most of the tools for online instruction, most of the technical aspects were easy. The challenge really came from my pacing and timing. I found that some activities that would take 30 minutes in a face-to-face classroom, now took a fraction of that time online. And some face-to-face activities that would take a few minutes of time, now took a lot longer. I know I’m speaking in general terms, so let me give an example. One strategy I use regularly in my face-to-face classroom is “think-pair-share.” If you haven’t heard of the strategy, the name basically describes it. A student turns to a partner. They spend a minute or two discussing a question or topic. After their discussion, one of the partners shares their conversation with the whole class or with another group. This is a quick active learning strategy that helps to engage students in the learning process and can foster larger discussions on course content.

While “think-pair-shares” are easy to implement in a face-to-face classroom, they’re harder to do in Zoom and much more time consuming. You have to set up the groups within Zoom and then send students to their groups. After a few classes of small group discussions, I learned that I couldn’t always depend on pairs of students to have rich conversations online without support. After some experimentation and discussions with colleagues, I found that students in small group, online settings worked better in groups of three and four, instead of in pairs. I also found that a lot of these discussions worked better if the students had to produce a collaborative artifact. So I started using Google Slides and Padlet for students to collaboratively author a document while they were engaged in their small group discussions. Which just added to the length of time this conversation would take. So, while a “think-pair-share” may take a few moments in a face-to-face class, they usually took five or ten minutes online.  If you’re interested, I wrote about some of my learning journey last fall in a post titled Learning about Active Learning Online.

Jump ahead to this fall and I’m back in a face-to-face classroom. I’m finding that the year of synchronous online instruction has really messed with my timing. A few weeks ago, I only got through about 60% of what I had planned for one class. In another class last week, an activity that I had estimated would take students twenty or thirty minutes to complete actually took the class less than fifteen minutes to complete. It’s still early in the semester and I’ll know I’ll get better with my timing and pacing. For now, I’m doing my best to learn and relearn. I just worry that if our institution needs to pivot back to online delivery due to increased COVID-19 infections that I’ll have to readjust again.

When I was first starting out teaching decades ago, a mentor told me that teaching was all about “monitoring and adjusting.” It became her mantra for me as I navigated the first few years of teaching. “Monitor and adjust. Monitor and adjust,” she’d say. I guess I never anticipated that I’d still be embracing those actions after decades of teaching.