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Confessions of a Blissful Online Instructor (And Can We Help Students Feel the Same?)

~By Associate Professor of English Literature Shelly Jarenski

This post is part of a series from the Hub Department Liaisons Program, Winter 2023 Focus: Offline/Online Teaching Strategies

I have what I suspect might be an unpopular opinion: I love teaching online courses. I often hear from colleagues who lament the shift toward online learning that happened during the height of the pandemic, which has not shifted back (and I suspect it will not). I hear things like, “We have got to find ways to get students back in the {brick and mortar} classroom.” “I can’t connect with students online.” “Too many of them disappear and I can’t do anything to help them when they’re online students.” Some instructors miss the vulnerability and spontaneity of brick and mortar interaction, “A simple question can trigger subtlety in (in person) class.” These are extremely valid concerns and I hear them almost every time I gather with my colleagues, sometimes in person ourselves, but, most often, on zoom. 

I sometimes offer my counter arguments, and sometimes, I keep them to myself. Counter arguments such as: how much more connected I feel with my students when I *have* to hear from every one of them. How much more engagement there is in an environment where attendance can never mean just being in the room. How online pedagogy helps me emphasize process over product. How much I agree with my colleagues’ frustration and sadness when they cannot reach a student they want to help, but how often the same thing happens when a student in an in-person class stops showing up and won’t respond to emails. 

Online teaching has been such a good fit for me that when I saw the topic for this year’s Hub Liaison Program, “What teaching strategies work best in person for Dearborn students, and what strategies work best online for Dearborn students?,” my secret motivator for applying was to get some ideas for the in-person teaching environment that no longer feels as logical and natural to me as it once did. When I held conversations around the liaison program topic, I heard the converse confession from some of my peers: “I’m really here because I would love more ideas for making online classes work.” Thus,from the beginning of this year’s liaison program it became clear that the Covid shift has made pedagogy uneasy for everyone. 

After participating in the Hub liaison’s program this semester, it seems clear to me that the results of the university’s Fall 2022 Student Experience and Student Needs Survey would come as a surprise to folks on both ends of the “strongly embrace online learning” and the “strongly resist online learning” spectrum. According to the report, “student comments make it clear that they have concerns with course quality and teaching effectiveness across modalities” (emphasis mine).  Despite the belief of many faculty that they are more effective in the brick and mortar classroom, a “high number of students [noted] that they would like in person time to be used more effectively.” Despite the belief that students connect more to faculty and to one another in in-person environments, “Some students…expressed dismay that there was little student engagement in their in-person classes.” On the other hand, instructors, like me, who love reading the discussion posts of students week in and week out, may be equally surprised, even dismayed, to find that “Students seemed particularly unhappy with the use of online discussion assignments; many feel that the assignments are repetitive, do not achieve the stated goal of fostering student interactions or engagement, and do not achieve learning objectives.” 

While the survey doesn’t settle the debate about which modality is better (and in fact, it does the opposite), it certainly raises the question: how can we use these results to improve pedagogy at U of M Dearborn? Especially now that we have a new set of norms that are just beginning to stabilize in this current phase of the pandemic, a clear shift to online learning that isn’t going away, and  a crucial desire to keep education relevant and students engaged in such an environment. The conversations I held with colleagues last spring engaged with the larger issues raised by the survey and offered specific strategies for teaching in this unique and challenging environment. 

Contextual Concerns for a New Normal

Before I get to some of the specific strategies offered in the conversations I had with my peers, I want to address and to share some of the larger issues these conversations opened for those of us who participated in them. For this blog, I will use direct quotes but not specific names of the faculty members I spoke with. I made this decision in part to help my peers feel comfortable speaking candidly, and in part to make my own note-taking during these sessions more natural. 

The contextual concerns raised in these conversations can be broken down into three categories:

  1. Faculty buy in: In a variety of ways, my peers expressed concern about how to reach our faculty peers with these results. Are there ways to invite larger swaths of the faculty to make changes to their pedagogy and engage in conversations about the evolving needs and expectations of students? For example, one person pointed out that it is often the same people we see over and over again who attend Hub events, participate in workshops, and apply to be Hub liaisons and affiliates. Is it possible to make broad changes in curriculum and pedagogy without more people at the table? Another way that this concern was expressed was in discussions about the Foundations program and that program’s explicit focus on teaching students how to learn. The Foundations program has been built around meta-conversations with students about what it means to be a student, especially at the university level.  One faculty member involved in this program wondered, “How do we spread the pedagogy and the values of the Foundations program to other programs?”
  2. Structural challenges: Another broad concern that was expressed by the faculty I was in conversation with was the existence of substantial structural barriers to learning and teaching. The Student Experience and Student Needs Survey revealed some of the barriers students face. But faculty are also facing significant challenges at this moment. Faculty expressed concerns about burnout and a lack of support. They expressed the need for more financial support, but also the need for time away from service, and sometimes, the need for more support for inclusive pedagogy in their departments. In addition, they felt that online teaching demanded a great deal of unrecognized time, “in person, I am doing one thing for 40 people, and online I feel like I am doing 40 things for one person.” Another structural barrier is inequity. For example, some faculty of color, young faculty, and women find that some principles of inclusive teaching erode their authority when students are often, unconsciously and consciously, reluctant to grant them authority in the first place. Practices that are discouraged within inclusive teaching conversations–such as having disciplinary policies for lateness, attendance, and late work–can be an important way to set academic boundaries, especially for faculty who aren’t automatically treated with respect by students. 
    • Students also face significant, in some cases insurmountable, barriers to learning. We know from previous surveys of our students that many, if not most, work 40-50 hours a week, and that many have additional responsibilities, such as care-giving, on top of work. At the same time, students are encouraged to take 4 or more classes a term by our financial aid system. Students end up taking more courses than they realistically have time for. One of my colleagues put this challenge succinctly, “Do we just collude in the lie? We do know our students are not able to do all of the work, so do we just lie, to ourselves, and to them, that they are doing the work?” 
    • Most faculty felt that these structural challenges to learning and to teaching must be acknowledged by the university and mitigated when possible, not only by faculty, but also by administration, if we are ever going to be able to meaningfully address the student needs expressed in this survey. 
  3. Student buy in: Faculty I spoke with also expressed concern with how students’ motivation affects the faculty member’s ability to teach. While students’ feedback is important and valuable, students don’t always know as much about pedagogy as we do, and some activities that they may not like in the moment may still be the best activities to help them learn the material. One faculty member asked, “How do we balance valuing student input with doing what we know is best?” Another joked about having a “rate my students” website like they have a “rate my professor” website and expressed the need for students to work on expectations for themselves as well as for us. 
Specific strategies shared by our colleagues

In response to the specific question of this year’s Hub’s liaison program, “What teaching strategies work best in person for Dearborn students, and what strategies work best online for Dearborn students?,” the faculty I spoke with had lots of ideas and lots of enthusiasm for online and in person environments. 

Within both modalities, colleagues have found success by

  • cutting content and minimizing lecture. For example, one faculty member noted that in their in person class, “I never lecture. I give students a guide book of questions for every single reading. They have to come in with responses to those or additional questions. And I give context or background or add to what they are saying.”
  • being transparent, which means being transparent with both yourself and students. Students see the value in the work they are doing more often if they understand why you are asking them to do it. In order to tell them why, the faculty I spoke with emphasized the need to ask themselves why, just as often. To ask themselves:  why is this specific content needed, or is it needed? why this exercise and not another? We need to understand the purpose of what we are doing and asking them to do and work on communicating that why to our students. 
  • communicating with students, one on one when possible. Such communication must be balanced with protecting instructor time, but when possible, establishing one on one contact through required meetings (in person or over zoom), reaching out to students directly (via email or by engaging with individuals before and after class), and responding promptly to students through feedback or when they reach out, is crucial. Just reaching out directly and infusing your language with care (in your syllabus, in class discussions, for example) can go a long way toward creating an environment where students feel engaged with you and their peers.
  • Incorporating choice. This might take different forms depending on the modality. For example, in an in person class, one colleague said that they will give students the choice of working in a group or working alone, or of handwriting in response to discussion questions or putting their answer in a google doc shared with the class. In online classes, choice might take various forms, for example, students might be able to choose between doing a forum post in response to a discussion question or recording a video in response to discussion. Or, to cut down on repetitive discussion prompts and make prompts more meaningful, students might be given 15 weekly prompts throughout the term, but given the choice to answer, say, 7 of those prompts throughout the term. 
  • Being intentional about community. One colleague discussed devoting 30% of class time in their in-person classes to students speaking about themselves, and overtly addressing their safety and comfort. “I spend a lot of time building trust.” In online courses, having explicit conversations and activities around preferred language and discussion guidelines can also help to alleviate concerns about online spaces being more difficult to manage when it comes to controversial and uncomfortable content. 
  • Incorporating authentic assessment, such as giving them material from past classes that they can annotate, support or counter,  or use roleplaying such as “you’re a podcaster and you’re interviewing the author of a text we studied.” “I don’t teach to the quiz, I teach through the quiz. I let them take it as many times as they want. I really make sure the questions reflect what I want them to know so they’ll at least go and look for that information. if you don’t care how they learn or how they get it, as long as they get it, that allows you to be more flexible. The best assignment is the assignment where I can see what they learn in what they turn in.” These kinds of assignments can also help alleviate concerns about generative AI and academic dishonesty. 
  • Teaching students about learning and not just about content. We take for granted that all students come in with the skills we want college students to have. But this is their first time being college students for some, and for others, it is their first time making it this far in college, so  teaching students confidence, teaching them process, teaching students how to use Canvas for *your* course, teaching reading strategies and other skills can help engage with your course the way you want them to. 

Above all, the faculty I spoke with talked a lot about the need for grace in our current learning and teaching environment. No matter the modality, the faculty I spoke with emphasized the need for empathy, care, and seeing students as individuals. They also talked about wanting to be shown empathy, care, and to be seen as individuals, by their peers, by administrators, and by their students. Grace, if we can find it, could be an enduring impact of Covid-19.

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

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