Into the Unknown — starting the Fall 2020 Term Online

This will be the first term when I’ve taught all of my undergraduate courses online. I even took on a freshman-level class (“first year” in my college’s new parlance) that is at its cap of 30 students.

My college is focused on opening in-person, but I’m in a higher-risk category, and I also predict that our “in-person” courses are going to end up being online or hybrid. So I opted to teach all three of my classes online. Since I’d already taught three online and hybrid courses for graduate students, I have some comfort with creating online courses. Last term, when everyone else was panicking in March, my graduate students I just kept on keeping on. I honestly think I’ll be able to cultivate more interaction and collaboration in an online course than I would in a classroom or outdoor tent where everyone is sitting six feet apart, mumbling through masks, and squinting to see what is projected onto the screen in the front of the room. Nevertheless, our college’s in-person focus has meant that most people are focused on getting students into the dorms, creating a socially-distanced new-student orientation, mask and distancing protocols, COVID-19 testing before students are allowed on campus, getting students to log their symptoms on an app everyday, etc. Our Instructional Technology Department’s collection of tutorials for technology skills and our library’s quick turnaround with digitizing necessary resources have been a lifesaver. But aside from that, those of us who went straight to online instruction are mostly figuring it out on our own.

In Star Wars — The Empire Strikes Back, Luke attempts to learn to be a Jedi via online instruction
In Star Wars — The Empire Strikes Back, Luke attempts to learn to be a Jedi via online instruction

Creating an online course for up to 30 undergraduate students — especially new ones — is harder than I’d thought. All of the things I would have told them in class now need to be in the directions, and the directions ideally need to be in multiple formats (such as written and with a screencast explanation), and need to be in locations where 18 year-olds without any college experience can find them.

The day before classes start, I’m entering the term with lots of questions:

  • Will students be able to use the course management system (Canvas) on their own?
  • Will they be able to make synchronous meetings so I can show them?
  • How many people will be able to make Zoom meetings?
  • How many people checked their email and will use the Zoom link I sent them to show up for the synchronous classes I set up for each class?
  • If I put a screencast explanation at the bottom of the page, will they figure out to scroll down to the bottom of the page?
  • Will students find information that is in the modules but not on the course calendar? This has been an ongoing problem, where people only look at the calendar, which shows assignments that are due online but not other kinds of assignments or other information, such as pages with information. When we use Canvas in my in-person class, I get “Wait, what is everyone else looking at?” at least once a class, and that’s when I’m there to show them on the projected computer where we are and how we got there.
  • Are my written directions clear enough that students can follow them independently?
  • Will the people who need to watch the screencast have the bandwidth to stream it? Will they be able to find it? Will they take the time to use it?
  • What technologies will students be using? Will they all have the bandwidth to use Zoom? Will they be using their phones and will they run out of data? Will the internet be reliable in the rural communities I serve?
  • I’m opting to do a lot with small groups. But I’m not sure how I’ll be able to schedule 10 or more small-group meetings a week. And will all of my students be able to go to these meetings? What make-up opportunities will I be able to provide in my packed schedule if they can’t?
  • What is the best way to invite multiple classes to office hours via Zoom?
  • What is the best place to put Zoom invitations to synchronous classes or small-group meetings that students will be most likely to access?
  • How do I make sure information, due dates, and content are responsive to students’ needs, AND are provided in a consistent and predictable format?
  • How do I plan for what students need in November in August, before the course even starts? With online courses, we were supposed to have the entire course posted two weeks ago. But that wasn’t possible because I’m still trying to figure out what our K-12 field experiences will be for two of my classes (I started this process last May), and I just got my other class about 10 days ago.
  • How do I set up policies and course structures that give undergraduates taking a course online enough structure to be successful, but that provide enough flexibility to accommodate people during a term that is almost guaranteed to be a wild ride? I’m opting for broad assignment categories so that no one assignment is “make it or break it” and lenient late work policies PLUS a policy of providing extensions and make-up options for any documented issue. But will that be enough?
  • What is “enough” anyway? This is always a question for teachers and educators, but this term there aren’t even precedents to fall back on. I know that this term we’re supposed to be extra flexible, adaptable, and accommodating, but I’m a person too, I’m going through the pandemic too, and my needs matter too. What will my responsibilities be to a student who doesn’t use the resources I provided? So far, I’m made to feel like I’m lacking empathy if I even ask.
  • If I’m going to be teaching three classes to 60+ students this term (which is still a luxuriously small number compared to many teachers and professors), and if I’m going to be doing that on top of advising (because the advising department got cut) and extensive committee work (because that’s the reality for Associate Professors), how much time will I have to make a lot individual accommodations for a lot of different students?
  • How do I do everything that is being asked and stay sane?

And my biggest questions:

  • How will my students be different this fall? How will I meet needs I am still unaware of or working to understand?
  • Who is going to fall through the cracks?
  • What could help prevent this from happening?
  • What additional resources do they need? What do I need to provide and what does my college or someone else need to provide?
  • How am I going to address these issues on my own while the campus manages bigger issues?

Meanwhile, in our “week of meetings” last week, our campus had hyflex breakout sessions where we discussed diversity and inclusion. This is also important, but don’t the above questions intersect with issues of diversity and inclusion? Our department spent 2–3 hours sharing favorite songs, favorite quotes, and writing responses to quotes on pieces of butcher paper that I couldn’t access because I was Zooming in for health reasons. That left us to discuss our Zoom norms and online organization and communication in long email threads over the weekend. Most of the emails from our administrators have been about how students are successfully moving into the dorms and how it’s going to be a great term.

Written by

Suzie Null is a former middle and high school teacher and current professor of Teacher Education. Follow her on Twitter at WritingontheWall @NullSet16

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