Schools throughout the country have reacted to the spread of the coronavirus by pushing for “alternative delivery methods of instruction.” The goal is basically to get people away from one another while not having to cancel class. For most of us that means online instruction, a concept that some folks know well, others have had a little experience and still others react to with a level of freaking out that would impress Beaker from the Muppets.
I’ve taught online for more than a decade now, providing content through various delivery systems for multiple classes. I also am currently teaching courses I’ve taught for upwards of 20 years. Still, I’m probably at the freakout stage, primarily because nobody around here has been willing to pull the trigger on this yet and say, “Look, we’re making the call now. You get an extra week off after spring break to get your stuff together for online delivery. Plan for a month’s worth, but be ready for the whole term.”
I’m also one of those stupid people who likes to help other people, even as I’m drowning. Either I’m as dumb as a bucket full of hammers when it comes to deciding how to prioritize my time, or I’m way too old-school Polish-Catholic, in that we feed everyone else around us, even if we’re starving.
Either way, as my friend Allison would always say when taking on some sort of Quixotic do-good adventure on behalf of her blog: We’re from the internet and we’re here to help.
With that in mind, starting on Monday, I’m turning the blog into a pile of stuff that anyone who wants it can use for free. I’ll link to previous exercises I’ve built, stuff I’m building to teach my students, previous posts on the site and other stuff. Take whatever you want, use as much of it as you want and bastardize it for your own purposes however you want.
In the mean time, either post comments below or contact me through this form to tell me what you need and I’ll see what I have.
For those of you who have never taught online before, or who have limited experience, below is a list of things I’ve figured out over time that might be helpful:
YOUR BEST BET IS ASYNCHRONOUS CHUNKS: The argument of how best to reach students and make sure they’re keeping up with things often emerges when we’re dealing with online classes. If we do live-streaming stuff, we can force people to stay on track with certain parts of the class. If we do a full class dump online, we can let students work at their own pace.
Both of these approaches have benefits and drawbacks, and I’ve found that the drawbacks outweighed the benefits in both cases. This is why I’ve come up with a system meant to allow freedom of access while still creating firewalls against students who wait until the day before the class ends to try to do the work: Asynchronous chunks.
Here’s what I do: On day one of week one of the class, I open up everything the students will need for that week’s “chunk” of the course. Any lectures I do, any powerpoints they need, any quizzes they need to take, any readings they will need and any assignments or tests they need to accomplish. The due date for this material is usually Friday by noon of that week.
The students can do whatever they need, however they want, just as long as they meet the deadline of Friday at noon for dropping their work into the drop box for that week or finishing the online quiz portions. I then spend my weekend grading like crazy to try to get this stuff back to them as quickly as I can without making a mess of it. Once they get their graded stuff back, usually Sunday or Monday, I unlock week two and the system starts all over again.
What this does is it allows students to work however they want within a set of parameters. It prevents people from blowing off the work to the last minute, but it also prevents those “go-getter” students from drinking 27 Red Bulls and trying to do the whole class in 72 hours. The lazy ones are what we’re used to, so we might have a plan to deal with them. However, the quick-moving students will likely cause you a problem by screwing up something in week one and then repeatedly screwing it up in the work for weeks two, three, four and five because you didn’t have the opportunity to correct them on it. This “chunk” approach helps with that problem.
KNOW WHAT TOOLS THEY HAVE: “Go online” sounds like a great idea, but then again, I’m sure “Let them eat cake” sounded like a plausible solution at the time as well. We have students out here from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances and I’m sure we’re not alone in this. Depending on where your students will be sent, home might have the technological wizardry of the U.S.S. Enterprise or of two cans and a string.
A number of folks on various teaching message boards I frequented were talking about how their students were trying to get a month trial of the Adobe Creative Suite for a reduced price. Others talked about how certain video sharing services were allowing campuses free access to some of their higher-end tools to do virtual meetings.
My bigger question was, “Can students even run any of this stuff on what they own?” I’ve seen a number of my students carrying some of the jankiest laptops on Earth. In addition, I have students who live in rural areas where DSL is barely available, let alone anything with a true high-speed to it. If you are fortunate enough to work in a place where everyone is required to buy the same tech or where everyone is rich enough to have their own survival bunker, that’s great. For the rest of us, it comes down to a MacGyver approach of making do with what we have:
If you are still in your regular class periods, ask around to figure out what people have and what they don’t. If you’re not, it’s worth emailing your students before you launch and asking them what they have the capability to accomplish with the tools at hand.
One of the bigger reasons I went to the “chunk” approach was that I had students who were taking my class in areas where they would have to go somewhere to get internet access. (Last summer, two students who took my editing class online were living together in a converted SUV while selling fireworks at a roadside stand. At the start of each week, they would trudge to town and use the wifi from the laundromat to download all the stuff. Then, at the end of the week, they’d repeat the trek and upload their finished work.)
Knowing what kind of tools the students have is vital in limiting frustration on both of your ends.
GO BACK TO THE NOUN-VERB-OBJECT FOR YOUR GOALS: When I take students online, the goal is to give them an experience that is as valuable as the one they would get in the classroom. That said, I know full well it won’t be the same experience as they will have in the classroom. It can’t be.
What helped me in building my online courses was the same thing that helped me write books when I had trouble with communicating a concept: I went back to the basics of noun-verb-object. In short, I tried to figure out how to finish the sentence “Students need X” or “I must give students Y.” Doing this allowed me to re-calibrate my thought process on what I was actually accomplishing within the classroom and what needed to come out of that for the online kids. Once I nailed that down, I was able to build things specifically for that class to accomplish that goal online.
Case in point: When I taught media writing online, what I wanted students to get out of a news writing assignment was the issue of balance among sources. To do this in the classroom, I had the students individually interview people (one interview per student) and then I would collect those interviews into a giant pile that everyone in the group could use to write from (think the old “bring a dish to pass” approach).
Online, I couldn’t do that as easily, nor could I employ my “pitch a topic” approach I used in class. For a while I was stuck because I kept trying to replicate the entire assignment online and found I couldn’t do it. Eventually, I realized that I wanted them to a) write a story and b) use multiple sources to c) create balance between viewpoints. When I figured that out, I rebuilt the assignment. I gave them the transcript of a speech I made up, along with two press releases that “reacted” to that speech from various perspectives. (Pro and con) They then had all of that material to use for the assignment. It ended up working just fine.
Did they get the interviewing experience? No, but I realized that wasn’t the point of the assignment, so I didn’t go nutty trying to force that in here. Instead, I found a different way to get them that experience when I had the chance.
Figure out what you want them to do in that simplest way and you’ll be in much better shape as you reconfigure this for a different environment.
RE-EXAMINE YOUR EXPECTATIONS: People who see this point might be thinking, “He wants us to lower our standards of grading and work quality!” Not really. It is about trying to determine how best we want to assess our students in this new environment.
Think about it this way: Let’s say you’re catching a flight overseas for a two-week vacation. As the plane is taking off, you’re thinking, “I hope they get us there on time for me to make the opera I have tickets to,” or “I hope they have a good meal for us for dinner” or “I hope that the movie on this flight is good.”
Then, 20 minutes into the flight, all four engines quit and you’re in a total stall over the Atlantic Ocean. You probably are now thinking, “I hope I don’t die.”
That re-examination of expectations doesn’t mean you’re lowering your standards. It means you’re dealing with the reality of your circumstances. If your last thought as the plane crashes was, “Oh, God, not another damned ‘Avengers’ movie…” you have some serious issues.
This point can dovetail nicely with the previous one. A photo colleague and I were talking about this before classes began today. He noted that his students were supposed to be doing studio work at the exact time the university would likely be moving everything online. He thought about re-configuring his class to move the studio assignment later in the semester in hopes things would come back to campus. However, he said if that didn’t happen, he didn’t know what he’d do.
I said I’d dig around and figure out what I MOST wanted out of that studio experience and see how it could be replicated somewhere else. If the goal was to shoot photos against a neutral background, could they use something other than the studio backgrounds to do it? If the goal was to shoot still life images with certain lighting situations, would they have stuff around the house they could use to replicate that? In other words, how could we improvise and adapt the expectations of the work to get them the key aspect of the experience?
Not everything can be done this way, clearly, but in terms of looking at it less as “The assignment demands X, Y and Z” and more in terms of “Here is what I want you to get and that’s what I’m going to grade you on,” the better off you both will likely be.
Clearly, there is a lot more to this than these tips, but I hope they’ll get you started or at the very least, confirm what you already know about this. In between now and Monday, please send me any needs or concerns or pleas for help and I’ll do my best to make this work.
We’re all in this together, so let’s see what we can do.
Vince (a.k.a. the Doctor of Paper)