By Stacy Palen
I’ve been talking to a lot of people about the transition to online instruction. Most of these conversations have been with people who are not academics and who seem to have the idea that I sit around eating bonbons and drinking bourbon in the afternoon now that I don’t have to “actually” work. Once I take a deep breath, I find myself saying, “I hate it,” which gives me the opportunity to reflect about why I hate it.
I had not taught an all-online course before, so there was an enormous learning curve. This problem was magnified because I was moving five distinct courses online between the spring and the fall. So I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think hard about what I was doing in any one of them. Just keeping track of what I had finished and what I had just thought about took multiple “to-do” spreadsheets. So that’s part of it: feeling like it’s the first time I’ve ever taught, and it’s all too much.
But there’s something else, too, something more fundamental. I’m missing the “Aha!” moments. When I teach in person, much of the time is spent moving around the room, listening to conversations, and nudging students to think differently or ask different questions. Most of the “lecture” time is spent answering questions and having wide-ranging discussions sparked by the material. At least once in every class period, some student would say, “Ooooohhhh!” or “Aha! I get it now!” as we finally figured out where they had gone off track, or what misconception they held without knowing it.
I miss that. It turns out that those “Aha!” moments were a primary motivator for me, as a teacher. That’s where I found joy. More than once, I’ve told friends, “If this is what teaching was when I started, I never would have done it at all. I would’ve been an engineer, instead.”
Well, so...enough complaining. Nobody would have asked for a giant global pandemic. What can I do about it? I’ve poked around a little bit, looking at “best practices” for student engagement in online courses and haven’t found my own “Aha!” yet about how to find what I’m seeking. I’ve had a couple of thoughts, but I’m still mulling over the direction I want to go.
I have discussions open in Canvas every week and have managed to mostly respond to comments posted in those discussions, but students generally don’t respond to my responses. These are “graded,” but I set them up to be, fundamentally, a participation grade. In Astro101, I’m using open-ended “What If?” questions to spark discussion, and students do occasionally talk to one another there. In other classes, I’ve made them prompts about their struggles with assignments; however, students rarely comment on those. Going forward, I can modify these discussion prompts and grading practices for the upcoming semester to see if I can make them more useful but not onerous.
I’ve been available for students in my Zoom-room 15 hours a week, and I often have students drop in for a minute or two to ask a specific question (or I have students from the Physics with Calculus lab who stay signed in for three hours while they work through the lab and occasionally ask me questions). But much of the time, I’m doing other things—like grading, or chasing down why my Kaltura links are broken—while the box in the corner of my computer screen stays empty. I could make some of those times into synchronous instruction, or make it required for students to drop in and talk to me. But I hesitate because some of my students are already so stretched…so I’m not sure about it.
I’m still thinking about this problem, and I welcome ideas from professors who’ve taught online before. What practices are you using to help stay connected to the things that bring you joy in your teaching? I’d love to hear about them in the “Comments” section below!