Transitioning to online courses mid-semester poses some logistical and pedagogical challenges, especially for humanists who value seminar-style classrooms. Adapting to a virtual course does not mean you have to radically revise your learning objectives or course materials. Rather, it is an opportunity to check-in and ensure your course is centering on students and their learning experience. Here are some tips and resources for navigating the transition online:
1. Be flexible
Some students are facing housing, food and financial insecurity. Some students are caretakers and providers. All students are dealing with the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, and may even become sick themselves. Prioritize accessibility by removing any formal attendance policies, late policies and firm deadlines. If any of your students have documented accommodations, ensure that they are in contact with SSD to arrange for additional support.
Communicate all policy changes in a revised syllabus. Ask students to share with you privately concerns they have or accommodations they need to be successful in this new learning space. Be sure to frame this as a request and respect students’ right to privacy under FERPA.
Resources: The Hope Center at Temple University has a helpful guide for faculty supporting students struggling to get necessary resources. Refer students to Student Emergency Services or SSD if they need assistance.
2. Be available
Regularly reach out to your students with updates and course changes. For students without stable access to the internet and/or a computer, consider alternative communication methods such as conference calls. Identify your new office hours, and allow students to sign up for appointments through Canvas.
There’s never been a better time to set up regular, brief check-ins with your students to gather feedback. Check-ins could be as simple as creating a short quiz or discussion session to take the pulse of your students (e.g., to check understanding of an advanced concept, to determine if you might need to offer additional support, to check if online tools are working for them, or to simply ask how your students are doing today).
Avoid attaching a grade or points to check-ins, which may add to rather than reduce stress and anxiety. Instead, consider offering additional feedback for completion or acknowledge helpful student perspectives in message blasts to students.
3. Simplify class technology
Introduce new technology with caution. There is a learning curve for every tool, for students and teachers. Before adopting any technology, poll students about their digital literacy and experience with desired tools.
Consider streamlining your lesson plans through Canvas, the learning management tool that all UT students can already access. Rather than asking students to sign up for new accounts and learn new tools, maximize your Canvas site. Upload reading materials, videos, audio files and Powerpoints.
Seek out readily accessible content such as podcasts (on Spotify, iTunes, etc.), TED talks or other open access materials.
Avoid potential glitches or errors by pre-recording lectures. If you choose to virtually host class, use the Zoom tool within Canvas, and establish video conferencing protocol with students. Build in troubleshooting time the first time you go live.
Resources: UT offers free courses about using Canvas on LinkedIn Learning, and the Faculty Innovation Center has helpful tips and guides for adapting courses to online platforms. Zoom hosts live and recorded training, and has a helpful guide for educators.
4. Seek out alternative classrooms
Many cultural sites and organizations have digital archives they have made available. Seize this opportunity for students to interact with primary texts, tour heritage sites, or listen and watch world class performances. Not sure where to look? Reach out to a research librarian or campus archivists and curators to identify appropriate materials.
Resources: A sampling of organizations offering virtual experiences or access: Berlin Philharmonic, Google Arts and Culture (over 2,500 sites), Great Wall of China, Guggenheim, Harry Ransom Center, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; LLILAS Benson, Louvre Museum, Museum of Natural History, National Gallery of Art, National Library of France (BnF) and their fantasy exhibit, NASA, Newberry Library, Tate Modern, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum’s virtual Rembrandt exhibit, and Yellowstone National Park.
5. Encourage collaboration
Consider grouping students to foster dialogue. Encourage informal virtual meetups or digital peer reviews. You can support such interactions through Canvas’ discussion feature, or use the embedded Google suite of tools—the live-updating features facilitate group work and conduct peer review.
6. Replace exams and consider alternative forms of assessment
Because testing environments cannot be controlled online, move away from exams. Consider replacing exams with reports, creative projects and content creation. When possible, offer options for completing major assignments. The same creative project that energizes one student may build anxiety in another. Now, more than ever, is the time to reward student learning and shift away from precise grades. Make the majority of your assignments credit/no credit. For major assignments, consider only giving letter grades (A,B,C) and adopt your assessment mentality from pass/fail courses.
Remember, grades are used to determine students’ scholarships and financial aid, admittance to graduate and professional programs, and even some job offers. For students struggling with basic resources, grades can be another source of anxiety and a potential detriment to their professional goals.
Be gentle with yourself and your students: making the switch to all-online instruction in the middle of the semester affects everyone. Reducing concern about high-stakes assignments will alleviate your anxiety as an instructor adjusting to a new teaching format and your students’ worries about their future.
Resources: See this Chronicle article on strategies for better assessment before adopting a new grading plan. Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning offers ideas for alternative assessments. Check out the Hybrid Pedagogy journal for more guidance.
7. Incorporate social media
Although social media might be a distraction in traditional classrooms, for online learning it provides a platform applying, evaluating and creating content. Depending on your media literacy, consider using Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or YouTube. One suggestion, that limits the need to blend personal and professional, is to create a separate account for your class. Share the logins on Canvas. Have students manage content as part of their class participation. This is another way to facilitate dialogue, receive feedback and diversify content.
Resources: Ten Steps to Using Twitter in the College Classroom offers step-by-step guidance and Kelli Marshall offers Twitter do’s and don’ts. Jon Ernstberger and Melissa Venable have great suggestions for Snapchat assignments, and Natalie Andreas adds ideas for Snapchat and Instagram.
8. Form a teaching support group or find a teaching partner
If you don’t already have one, reach out to colleagues and suggest meeting virtually at regular intervals to advise and encourage each other. Invite faculty from different disciplines, and include graduate students, adjuncts and lecturers! Share materials, lesson plans and help each other troubleshoot. This is a great opportunity to collaborate and engage with colleagues while practicing social distancing.
Amy Vidor is an Andrew W. Mellon Engaged Scholar Initiative postdoctoral fellow. Currently, she is partnering with Liberal Arts Career Services, Texas Career Engagement, and the Faculty Innovation Center to develop resources and a pilot course for humanities graduate students interested in pursuing diverse career pathways. She has assisted faculty with the transition to hybrid courses, and the implementation of new technologies in their curriculum.
Caroline B. Barta is a Ph.D. candidate in Department of English. She has taught courses implementing digital pedagogy in a Digital Research and Writing Lab (DWRL) classroom, and mentored graduate instructors as an assistant director of lower-division writing. Alongside Amy Vidor, she was awarded The John Slatin Prize for “Mastery of Electronic Media in Education” (MEME) in 2017. She contributed a chapter, “Rhetoric of the iPhone: a 21st-Century Writing Course” to the forthcoming MLA volume Options for Teaching the History of the Book (2020).