In this post I reflect upon what I’ve learned teaching four courses I was teaching in the fall semester. Although I’m no longer working for this university or in the field of higher education (which I will explain further in a future blog post), I hope that my blog post will provide some ideas for other educators as they continue to grapple with the challenging teaching scenarios of fall.
Differing Student Needs & Expectations
In the small university English language program where I taught, the fall scenario likely looked much different than it did for larger university classes. For instance, I had one class with Saudi students whose government was requiring that the only way that they could study abroad was that they be in the United States and attend classes in person, while a few other students were in China and unable to physically traveled to the U.S. and therefore were completely online. Other international students had elected not to return home over the summer and stayed on campus, so the small numbers of those students attended in person classes and the live Zoom classes. What I found was a group of students with vastly differing expectations for what kind of classroom experience they were desiring for the fall.
Most challenging was the issue of creating an equable experience for all students enrolled in my courses, especially those fully online in countries like China. Many of the students logging in from China and elsewhere had a considerable lag time when using Zoom, so the pace of the class on Zoom slowed down considerably. The students who were logging in from the U.S. and from campus would often complete polls or other formal assessment activities way before the students in outside the U.S. The time zone differences were also a major factor for my students from China, who when attending afternoon classes I was teaching in the U.S., often had to be up in the late hours of the night staring at a screen that was often unresponsive. Students would often drop in an out of Zoom calls before disappearing completely and following up with an email that their connection wasn’t good.
Another student group were the ones who made the choice to be on campus, but had the option to attend or not attend class in person. Some students would show up to class expecting to have a more ‘traditional’ lesson in class and voiced opposition to being asked to participate in online activities while being in physically present in the classroom. A few even showed up without their laptops as a sort of way of protesting being online. These students formed the conclusion that learning face-to-face was a much better way to learn a language and felt they were being cheated by being asked to participate in online learning activities in the live classroom environment.
In addition to these students were the ones who elected to show up some of the time and then not show up in class but attend virtually. This meant with a small number of students who may or may not show up on a given day you couldn’t plan on set number of students to be in the physical classroom. What compounded this variability in attendance was that many of the online students were still in their home countries often elected to not attend the live Zoom classes. Considering the time zone differences and connectivity issues they were facing, I can’t say that I blamed them.
A consistent message that I was hearing through my online network of instructional designers in higher education was that a priority needs to be placed on designing and delivering the online learning modules asynchronously. Synchronous delivery through Zoom and even in physical class activities should be seen as an extra added bonus to the the asynchronous learning opportunities.
What was challenging about the priority being placed on asynchronous learning was that many of my students were unaccustomed to learning this way. My university and our language program had never placed an emphasis on asynchronous teaching nor provided adequate support and training for faculty. This meant even if I created well-designed modules in our LMS we needed resources and time for students to adjust to newly deployed LMS tools. Implementing a discussion board activity, for example, often meant that not only did I need to take time to create a meaningful discussion board learning opportunity, but I also needed to teach students how to use the discussion board tool itself.
From a curriculum standpoint our program was not equipped to adapt to these rapid changing realities. We still relying upon syllabi for our courses that reflected a teaching scenario that was very different from a COVID-induced reality that was full of constraints and shifting priorities. As a classroom teacher, I understood that our administration was still emphasizing the need for curriculum alignment, especially having recently gone through a major program evaluation through the CEA. Educators are often expected to create courses that align with the learning outcomes of the course, but what I was seeing was a need for my syllabi to be cut in half to reflect the demands that teaching both asynchronously and synchronously was placing on me. But university curriculum development often aligns with a waterfall development process and is not generally designed to be agile.
I began the semester by capitalizing on the lessons I’d learned from delivering lessons online for the summer semester. Over the course of the summer I taught one online advanced writing course for international students who were preparing for graduate programs at my university. These students responded well to the well-designed asynchronous modules that I created using the university’s Blackboard LMS. So my intent was to continue to devote my time carefully planning and developing modules in a similar way that worked for my summer course.
I quickly ran into problems with this approach when I discovered the many challenges described above. My administration scheduled live Zoom class sessions nearly back to back as a way to limit on site time of teachers and students, so I had little time to plan and revise my live sessions before moving on to the next class. Like my students, I struggled with the length of time spent on Zoom, not to mention the time it took afterwards to develop my asynchronous modules. I was still scheduled to teach 4 different courses with a workload that resembled a typical non-COVID teaching scenario.
This meant that in order to cover my learning objectives for my course I had to cover a lot of content, but did not have time budgeted in my schedule for grading and planning. It is worth noting that experienced online instructors and instructional designers often point out that the time it takes to plan and deliver an online course takes significantly more time than a traditional face-to-face course.
My solution was to trim down my courses to a repeatable pattern of delivering the asynchronous modules early in the week and then use the reminder of the week’s live Zoom classes to address student questions and have them work on the asynchronous activities. Still, in order to carry out this approach successfully, it required lengthy blocks of grading assessments and providing feedback along with time to plan the next week’s asynchronous modules. This was time that I was simply not allotted and did not have.
I negotiated with students to hold less Zoom classes per week as a way to provide me more time for grading and module development. I also used the Remind app tool as a means of providing a teacher and student work chat tool, since my university did not offer such a tool. This way students like those who were in China and couldn’t attend courses could quickly reach me and I could address any issues that arose with the online work assigned. It also was a way for me to cut down on the flood of emails pouring into my email inbox.
For each one of my live Zoom sessions I began using a shared Microsoft OneNote class notebook, which I posted the link to on my course LMS. This allowed me to provide a written record of each class meetings format and the major points covered along with questions and answers. Students could post questions on a Q & A note that was set up for each week in the course. I would then address those questions during our live Zoom classes or, if the class was already over, I would address those questions afterwards and include a link with any announcements in Blackboard and Remind. It might seem like overcommunication and redundancy, but I realized that many students had stopped responding and that email communication was no longer proving to be effective for them and myself.
I also set up a wiki in my Blackboard courses where I posted the Zoom recordings and the outline of the Zoom classes that I copied and pasted from the Microsoft OneNote document. This allowed students who could not attend courses an easily accessible way to access the Zoom classes that they couldn’t attend. When I had time, which was not often, I would add some curation notes to critical points in the Zoom lesson that I felt were important for students to review.
Ultimately, my efforts were marginally successful. While students appreciated the level of care I was putting into my courses, there were still a number of issues with my online course design and delivery because I still did not have ample enough time to plan my asynchronous modules and provide feedback. And all the while I was still expected to track and report learners who were disengaged in my courses. In the end I simply did not have the time, support, and resources to effectively teach my courses.