Online Teaching on an emergency basis

My two previous posts on online teaching in philosophy were written in a context of reflection about the accessibility benefits of online teaching. I believe that online learning is a good thing, and that it can be enjoyable and intellectually stimulating for both students and instructors. But, of course, everything that I have learned about online teaching, and how it differs from face to face teaching, I have learned over time. I did not learn any of it (or very little, in any case) the first time I taught online. I learned it by reflecting on my experience. And I learned to do it better with each iteration of an online or hybrid course. Building an effective and pedagogically thoughtful online course takes time.

In the current pandemic push to online teaching, we do not have that time. In the last week, and especially the last 2-3 days, dozens of universities and colleges in the US have decided to close their campuses and move to remote learning models for an indefinite time period, effective immediately.

In many ways, my previous arguments in favour of online pedagogy in general and online philosophy courses in particular still apply:

  1. Online and distance education foregrounds accessibility. It meets the student where they are. (It is designed to go to the student, rather than requiring the student to come to the classroom).
  2. It pushes us to think about the pedagogical purpose of each piece of content, and to think about the best delivery methods for each of those pieces of content.

But these virtues are not innate to the medium of delivery. We can deliver drastically inaccessible courses online. Moving online does not force us to think about pedagogy; it merely nudges us in that direction. Indeed, many of the suggestions and resources that are being offered- especially the oft repeated suggestion that we use zoom for everything from virtual meetings and conferences to seminars to lectures to office hours – seem to prioritize replicating the ‘feel’ of face-to-face learning, at the expense of attention to what is distinctive about online learning. (NB – if you decide to use zoom to allow students to synchronously attend a live lecture, you will also have to set up an autocaptioning program, and will likely have to record and download the live lecture, edit to correct mistakes in the captioning, then upload again.)

Switching from face-to-face to online delivery midstream is something of a Herculean task. This is because so much of best practices in online teaching occur at the design stage, prior to any interaction with students. Some of the things that we might have done differently if we had expected to switch to online part way through include: choice of content; choice of readings; choice of methods of assessment; registration caps.

There is no part of switching to online delivery that is automatic. For the most part, it cannot be automated except to the extent that existing content was already being delivered in a hybrid format. Every single piece of course content that is moved online needs to be re-thought. So, in this pandemic moment, when university administrators are requesting that we just switch delivery formats, they really are asking a lot. Ideally, they ought to also empower us to rethink the remainder of our course material and start again, if need be. They ought also empower students to be involved in this process. 

My two cents about what to ‘keep’ as we move online: try to keep the learning outcomes constant, and be willing to radically change the content, style of delivery, and methods of assessment in order to do so. Switching formats without paying attention to the learning outcomes will tend to change or undermine existing learning outcomes, lose student interest and engagement, or overburden instructors.

Despite what your university may be advocating, 1 hour lectures synchronously delivered via Zoom are not best practices for online teaching. Online conferencing software such as zoom may work in some cases to replace some sizes and styles of in-class discussion, but their capacity to work for anyone may be compromised by the simultaneous overwhelming demands being put on servers, and on the zoom platform in particular. This is your chance to re-think your use of, and the format of, lectures.

Some best practices for online content:
  • Scheduling: Don’t assume synchronous login. Design for the likelihood that some students will have to access content in their own timing.
  • 10 to 15 minute content blocks, ideally accessible to students at times of their own scheduling. Add a checklist or to each module or group of content blocks.
  • You may need shorter, more accessible readings and videos that you might otherwise have relied on.
  • Matt Crosslin’s Emergency Guide to Getting this Week’s Class Online in About an Hour suggests devoting some time to searching for this content in a pre-existing format, rather than building content pieces from scratch.
  • Amongst your 10-15 minute content blocks, vary the activity format. Some text-based (reading), some text-based (writing), some video (captioned).
  • Frequent check-ins with students! “Here is what I am going to be doing today, here is what I hope you will find the time to do in the next 3 days, here is what I am hoping you will have done by the end of the week. If any of this is going to be a problem for any reason, I am available in the following ways at the following times.” These supplement your checklists, but also help students gauge expectations.
  • lots of small low-stakes or no-stakes assignments. Some of my favorites are:
    • 240 character summary of the article. Share with a friend in the class/compile into a document for all students in the class.
    • Short, opinion based writing prompts. Compile via a shared google doc or post to Learning Management Software Discussion Boards.
    • Open book multiple choice question auto marked by course management software: which of the following best approximates the thesis/central claim of the article? (These questions take time to write well, but force students to do a close reading.)
    • Paraphrase a key claim that you (as instructor) want to emphasize, and ask students to find a quotation (correctly cited) that matches the the paraphrase. Have students email you or (better yet) set up a discussion board such that other posts remain hidden until a student posts their (initial) response. This might be too tech-y for those who have not used online LMS before.

Here are some great resources, some of which are already linked above:

  • Focusing on the principles of effective instructional design for online courses, rather than the micro-level mechanisms.
  • This is the best single resource that I have found explaining very concretely how to effect accessible online pedagogy. Online teaching can be accessible, and should be accessible. Includes an incredibly helpful sample questionnaire to check in with students.
  • Concrete techniques to avoid be overwhelmed by the tasks involved in ‘switching’ to online teaching. Includes a link to an accessibility check tool that can be added to your browser.
  • This offers very nearly the opposite of my advice above, but we agree on a lot of things. We agree on frequent check-ins with students, on involving students in the conversion process, and on taking stock of available resources. Betsy Barre advocates doing your best given your experience, your skill set, and your starting point mid-semester, and I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. She writes: “The resources I shared above, and that will be shared in the coming days, will have a lot of information about how to teach an online class well (yes, it can be done!). Some of these tips might be helpful for you, but most will be far beyond the scope of what you can or should do in this situation. You’re not going to teach a well-designed online course in this scenario. And that’s OK.”

I’ll add more emergency online pedagogy and best-practices in online pedagogy links as I find them.

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