03.15.20

This post was contributed by Dr. Troy Hicks, advisor to Writable and author of ‘Achieving Writing Proficiency: The Research on Practice, Feedback, & Revision’, on his blog at hickstro.org

 

After conversations with colleagues and family in the past few days — and awkward pauses during a conference on Friday, moments which would have normally been filled with handshakes and hugs — I, too, felt compelled to write about the topic everyone is talking about.

As we (collectively, read “we” here as “the education community”) make decisions about how we might cancel face-to-face courses/school sessions and move them online for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, I urge a bit of pedagogical caution.

That is, I hope that we don’t simply try to push teaching and learning practices that are often evident in poorly designed instructional settings (both face-to-face and online) in front of students, from kindergarten to graduate school, who may not be interested in, let alone prepared to, learn online.

For those who would encourage me not to bury the lead, here are my three main ideas that we need to keep at the forefront of planning online instruction:

  • Plan for less time consuming content, and more time for students to create it.
  • Invite genuine dialogue with students, and listen intently to their responses.
  • Establish and strengthen relationships with students by communicating clearly and providing feedback in a timely manner.

And, before going any further into this post, I need to acknowledge those who have lost loved ones, and those who are first responders and medical staff on the front lines of managing the crisis. Empathy and appreciation are in order for all.

And, for those who are in positions of power at schools, colleges, and universities (among other institutions), each dealing with COVID-19 in profound ways, both personal and public. The fact that so many universities and K-12 schools around the world (and now beginning here in the US) are thinking about how to continue educating our students in a time of emerging crisis shows their deep dedication to these students and our society’s common good, even in a time when panic could be the default. For that, I thank all of you, and know that we share the goal of continuing to educate our students

Yet, we need to do this in a productive, engaging way.

As we hear announcements (as well as rumors) that some schools and colleges might tell their students to stay home after spring break (and, indeed, some already have), this creates major implications for teaching and learning. If we are going to move our courses, quite literally overnight, from the classroom/campus to the cloud, there are a number of important things for us to consider. Here are just three, all of which deserve more attention as a way to think through what we will do in the days, weeks, and months to come.

Point 1: Poor Teaching in Face-to-Face Settings is Even Worse Online

First, we know that the vast majority of “online learning experiences” are designed to meet only the basic needs of content delivery, effectively keeping students’ learning at the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and not fully engaging them in the critical and creative capabilities that technology has to offer. This is why “lecture capture” technology has always bothered me. If we are just capturing screen recordings of didactic lectures, what are we really doing to help engage students with technology in substantive ways?

Put another way, whether content is created and delivered synchronously or asynchronously, the more important question is this: what do we want students to do with what they are learning? If we might be asking students to sit in front of their screens for hours and hours, consuming educational content, what will we ask them, in turn to do to demonstrate their learning in meaningful ways, possibly employing collaborative learning and principles of effective instructional design?

In other words, we don’t just want us pushing streaming video content, screencasts of slideshow presentations, and multiple choice quizzes at our students. We need to see them create, which connects to point number two.

Point 2: Students Must Have a Voice

Second, even though students may not be the ultimate decision makers in this, please take the lessons we have been learning over the past few years about how important it is to listen and invite dialogue from everyone. All voices matter.

Additionally, there is nothing worse than simply inviting dialogue and summarily dismissing it. If you are moving classes online, then consider what students want (and need), which may likely include time and tools for engaging in conversation about the content they should be learning (as well as how they are feeling about the outbreak itself, the effects it is having on society, and the effects it is having on them and their families).

So, while going through the process of making the decision to close schools and move online, at the very least I would encourage school leaders to welcome conversation on social media, to take a survey of parents’/students’ needs and wants, and to think critically and creatively about how to help students and educators who are new to learning/teaching (or reluctant to go) online.

This is a real concern, as I can point to colleagues at my own university who still refuse to teach online, in any capacity, and I have heard many stories that echo this sentiment from my K-12 colleagues. Also, I hear horror stories of students who basically clicked their way through terribly-designed online courses, only to still end up with an “A” at the end and nothing to show for their learning.

Even if the institution has made the decision to go online, then we all need to figure out ways to keep the conversation with students and stakeholders going.

Again, this needs to be genuine dialogue and, eventually, will likely mean that people come together face-to-face as soon as it is safe to do so. While this may not be for everyone, and it may only be for a short time, if the risk-to-benefit ratio for reconnecting is significantly higher than the possibility of illness, then we need to learn all we can about the psychological effects of pandemics and how to mitigate them for our own students.

Going online for learning, if someone really is hoping to be in a face-to-face environment, needs to acknowledge students’ humanity, and respond appropriately.

Point 3: Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

Perhaps as a way to summarize the two points above, I reiterate a theme that I often share when people ask me some version of the question, “What is it like to teach online?” Depending on how the question is phrased, my pat responses are usually something to the effect of “It’s all about relationships,” or “relationships, relationships, relationships.” This is just as true in face-to-face settings as it is online, of course, yet online relationships take a different kind of effort for educators.

No matter what we do as educators, we need to act as leaders and facilitators, helping our students see the goals we have set for them through our activities and assignments while, at the same time, listening to their ideas, needs, and wants. We need to give them timely, specific, and goal-oriented feedback. We need, in short, to be present in all the ways that matter.

Moreover, we know that not all students are interested in or eager to learn online. Even for those who are, they may not know how best to manage their time and ensure that they are staying focused.

To that end, we need to engage in a variety of practices to open lines of communication and stay connected. For me, whether teaching face-to-face or online, I use a few consistent practices to help students know what I am thinking and to invite their questions. Each week, I aim to:

  • Provide a substantive announcement, pointing to new course content and readings as well as reminding them of upcoming deadlines.
  • Send at least one individual email or message (using Voxer this semester, though other tools could do the same) to students at least once every two weeks, either providing feedback on an assignment or praising them for participation in class activities. This might also be a “check in” message if I haven’t heard from them.
  • Update my appointment calendar so students can connect with me (without a series of “are you available” and “how about one of these times” emails). Personally, I pay a subscription fee of about $120 a year for a service like this because my university doesn’t offer it, and it is worth every penny in terms of the connections I can build (and time I can save).

Conclusion

This is all just a bit of thinking on a weekend as I catch up on headlines from the week, scan my education-related newsletters and blogs, see what’s happening on the Edu-Twitterverse, and reflect on conversations with my wife and colleagues.

Of course, I am still learning how to be a better teacher each day, and my hope is that we can use this specific conversation about school and university closures as a means to move broader conversations about what it means to teach and learn in a digital, interconnected world.

We owe it to our students to do this work well, and even more so in a time of crisis and confusion. If we are, indeed, going to move our classes online in response to the crisis, then we still need to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning, ensuring that we are meeting students’ educational, social, and emotional needs in the process.