Perhaps few people know that I graduated from a fully online, cyber high school in 2007. I have taken online courses at the high school, college, and graduate levels. This year, 2020, is the first year I will be teaching fully online, and I am trying to bring my knowledge of the student experience to my teaching.
Here are five things I have been reflecting on as I TA this semester:
- I loved asynchronous classes, and hated synchronous classes. It took me many years to learn why, but a big part of preferring asynchronous classes for me has to do with differing abilities when it comes to visual and auditory processing, attention spans, and for lack of a better word, “zoom fatigue.” I knew in high school that more than 30 minutes in an online course that was mostly lecture or 1-2 students talking at a time was pure torture. It only took 1 course for me to figure that out and I never took another one again! This year I am trying my best to make sure that all the material that students need to know is available in print in addition to being discussed in synchronous sessions.
- As part of my enrollment in online high school I received every piece of equipment I needed, for free. I had a printer/scanner, a computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and headset. The school knew exactly the specs of the computer they sent me, so all of the software I had to use, and any webapps were tailored to work with the hardware I had. My printer was stocked with ink and paper, and I could write to my instructional supervisor to request any additional supplies as needed. None of my students received any of these provisions, so I have to assume they are operating from a 3-4 year old smart phone that can barely hold a charge for an hour of sustained use. I assume they have a shared computer, no access to a printer, headphones without a built in microphone that works (if that), etc. When I consider what kind of activities or assignments we can do in our synchronous sessions, I have to remind myself that the video or audio may cut out for students, that they may not be able to have more than one tab open at a time, or be able to run word and chrome at the same time. They may be using a phone and switching back and forth between apps. All that to say, finding ways to do asynchronous activities is all the more important, since synchronous activities just may not work how we plan.
- The best online course I took was the best because it required a lot of discussion board posts, and they actually dug into the core of the content of the course. The instructor was able to do this by having us all end our posts with questions. She would model what that looked like during the first week, by commenting on all of our posts and ending with questions. Then we were expected to write questions on 3-4 other people’s posts throughout the week. This was extraordinarily successful.
- The worst online course I took was the worst because the instructor was entirely checked out. She did not respond to emails for days at a time, and would not put up away messages when she would be unavailable (PLEASE use away messages if you’re not going to check your email for 24+ hours, it really does help students know what to expect!).*
- I made one friend in the equivalent of a zoom chat when I was in high school in the only synchronous class I took. Your students likely don’t know each other if you’re at a large university, so it’s worth giving students opportunities to connect with each other during synchronous class times. Breakout rooms are great, and not something we had when I was in high school, else I think I would have made a lot more friends! Encourage students to create discord servers or other group messaging threads to communicate about classwork, proofread each other’s papers, study together/tutor each other, etc. At the very least, you’ll know you did well if students end up with some sort of community at the end of the semester. We surely could all use a bit more community these days.
Thanks for reading!
*In fact, your students will greatly appreciate it if you have an away message up all semester that says something like “Due to the high volume of emails I receive for my courses in addition to my other duties, I will respond to student emails between the hours of X-Y on XYZ days. If you email me with an urgent matter on another day, please indicate the urgency by marking the message as “important.” I will do the best I can to respond in a timely manner, but please be patient during this very uncertain time. Thank you for understanding.”