20/20 vision indicates good visual clarity, much like the year 2020 has done for me. 2020 made me look very closely at what the teaching-learning process was truly about. I wondered about the affordances and challenges of a brick and mortar school, the unique challenges and opportunities presented in sudden shifts, and about online education more generally.
These wonderings were manifest especially in one undergraduate course that I lead in Spring 2020. In a typical quarter, undergraduate students enrolled in this course would spend time at internship sites and write essays/create multimedia presentations based on reflections from their experiences. The suddenness of the shift to online learning and the lack of internship opportunities was the driving force for reimagining this course.
The urgency of this task coupled with what was happening in the world at the time forced me to think about teaching-learning like never before. In this post, I will share some insights and also wonderings about two questions: How can students take charge of their own learning? What can instructors do to facilitate learning especially in times of abrupt transitions?
I articulate how students and instructors may approach each of these bulleted points. Here the terms, students and instructors are not used as binaries. Rather, students and instructors are viewed as being on a continuum.
Get support when you need it
Students: The shift in modality meant that the way that students are ‘seen’ by instructors shifts. Hallway conversations about family situations, late assignments and happenstance encounters could not happen. Instead students have to be purposeful and ask for help. Writing an email to an instructor might not have been required in the past but reaching out with questions/concerns/clarifications became more imperative than before.
Instructors: Find opportunities to connect with students and really try to hear. Reach out to students when you see anything amiss!
Find opportunities to connect with class peers
Students: Building connections with peers through online communication and reaching out via online interactions; responding to each other’s discussion posts, small group participation during synchronous/asynchronous class work, participating in class forums became all the more important to develop a sense of community. Building a sense of connection and reaching out to peers with diverse experiences and backgrounds does not happen automatically even in a face-to-face classroom. However, being more purposeful and connecting with peers through these virtual modalities became all the more important.
Instructors: Be thoughtful about creating opportunities for meaningful peer connections. It does not happen ‘naturally’ so be purposeful and articulate about ways to make this happen in online classes.
When need be, step away
Students: Class meetings online can be exhausting and if the content you are learning seems to get overwhelming, take a breath and step away. Give yourself grace as you are working through unprecedented times, take a moment, gather yourself.
Instructors: Allow students to turn off their cameras and carefully think about attendance policies. If possible, record your class meetings. This allows students who might not be able to engage in the moment, engage with content when they can and are able too.
Plan in some way
Students: Learning online can be overwhelming. The present moment, family, childcare, other obligations might push class work in the background. Finding a way to organize yourself and keeping tabs on what is coming up helps. This is especially important for pacing yourself with regards to your assignments. This prevents you from getting overwhelmed while juggling multiple responsibilities.
Instructors: Provide some wiggle room for late work. If your learning management system allows, put due dates on the course calendar. Share how you organize your own work — shows your humanity while also normalizing your student concerns about assignment submission timelines. Share how you give yourself some grace in your own work!
Create some sort of routine for yourself
Students: While there might be no apparent need to get up at a certain time or do tasks at a certain time, creating a routine helps develop rhythm. It gives a sense of calm and being in control while also allowing you to accomplish tasks.
Instructors: Set your courses so that there is some predictability; for instance, assignments due on the same day every week. This reduces stress for students while also helping you set your own grading routine.
Students: Rewarding yourself for accomplishing mini-goals will help you stay on task without getting burned out. So if you complete all the work that you set forth for the week –viewed required videos, completed course assignments, take some time off for doing something that you enjoy.
Instructors: Acknowledge student work. Be timely in your feedback. If possible, share how you are taking care of yourself. Self-care is not a luxury but indeed important to allow us to continue doing things we love (teach!) with care.
Students: Worrying about your own health, your loved ones, your family members and friends can and does take a mental toll. Acknowledging that this is ok and expected but still finding ways to look forward to something that is coming up, finding ways to connect with your inner self and staying positive helps.
Instructors: If possible, consider providing some outlet for students to share what is happening in their lives. A quick check in at the beginning of your synchronous meetings, journal writing, or other course activities that allow students to process what is happening can help.
Students: Distractions while completing learning tasks are prevalent even in physical classrooms but this can be even more daunting when you could watch a video, read materials unrelated to class content, do other tasks that are required (folding laundry?) but can take away from your learning in the moment. Finding ways to allow yourself a distraction-free learning environment; both mentally and physically can help accomplish the goals you have set forth for yourself.
Instructors: How can you leverage online tools for increasing engagement with learning? Consider providing authentic learning activities where students can see the meaning and importance of tasks. This can be a strong motivator for students to be focused with their learning.
Remind yourself of things that make you happy
Students: Often things can seem overwhelming in the moment, it might appear that this will NEVER go away. At times it might seem like there is a huge hole and digging out of it is impossible. At times like this, reminding yourself of something that makes you happy ( a vacation you took, your loved ones) will help you put things in perspective. Reminding yourself that this is a moment in time and this will pass while reminding yourself of good memories can be helpful.
Instructors: How can you provide opportunities for students to share something that is important to them? How can you help celebrate the small accomplishments? How can you be authentic in your praise? How can you build student self-esteem?