Making online teaching less painful

So many people have been thrown into online teaching and learning, and the most conscientious professors want to do a good job. And yet, as the holidays approach, many are weary of the online grind, and looking to make some changes for next time.

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Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Care for students, and professors, is different in a pandemic. Changes to online teaching methods can reflect that. This fall, teachers reported spending quite a bit of time soothing fears, making exceptions, and being kind. Many found that sticking to the syllabus and insisting on strict deadlines became too hard on them and on their students. So how can we build in the kindness that makes things less painful while still encouraging learning?

Keep the deadlines but remove the penalties

Deadlines have a number of purposes. They organize workflow to make it more reasonable and logical, set a pattern of expectations, and project an aura of professionalism. One would not expect a doctor or lawyer to wait for us because their time is valuable, and teaching professionals should not be kept waiting either.

Getting rid of all deadlines would cause chaos. Work couldn’t be assessed in a timely manner, sequential learning would be delayed, and teacher burnout would result from the crush at the end of the term. Besides, most students want deadlines to keep themselves on track.

The penalties for late work, however, serve a different purpose. They punish the student for wasting our time and making us wait, for delaying the steps in the learning pathway we laid out for them. But delay does not change the path, only the timing. In emergency circumstances, eliminating penalties does no harm: students who would ordinarily do good work will simply do it later, while those who do poor work will have a chance to do better.

Consider eliminating timed assignments

Assignments have a time limit for a number of reasons. We may want students to remember something instead of looking it up, or prove they can do a task at a particular speed, or not overthink their writing.

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If we want students to remember something in a short period of time, a pandemic is not a good time to do this. Mental capacity is reduced and tempers are frayed. If we’re concerned about them looking up the answer, it might be a good idea to consider whether there’s an alternative that would allow them to do so. Can an essay prompt be adapted so it is more individualized as a response, and thus unlikely to be mindlessly copied from somewhere? Can their process be graded instead of their product?

In general, timed assignments can seem punitive, especially for students who do not have set times and places where they can be alone or concentrate. This has always been true, but is a particular problem during a pandemic. Setting the timer may just add to unreasonable levels of stress, preventing learning and leading to more pleas for exceptions, which take up teacher time.

Treat cheating differently

Academic integrity is a serious thing, and no one wants to enable student cheating. There are many ways, however, to make academic honesty more likely and dishonesty less painful.

Consider the structure of the assignment. If there is concern that students will work together and cheat, can the assignment be rewritten so that such collaborations are assumed or acceptable? Can a self-assessment or review be added, so that the student is responsible for explaining the process they engaged?

In written assignments, phrases can be spot-checked for plagiarism using quotation marks in Google. If students are not supposed to lift phrases from the internet, or are supposed to cite them and don’t, it is a teaching opportunity. An instructor can prepare a short video talking about what plagiarism is, and give the student an opportunity to view and discuss the implications before giving a grade, then give an opportunity to do that assignment again or do another.

And for the humanities and social sciences, can the written assignment be revised so that the response is individualized and thus difficult to find elsewhere?

Convert some assignments to automatic points

Assignments that students turn in may include a review or recitation of facts. These can be graded immediately and automatically in a quiz or by assigning a set number of points to an assignment or forum post. An immediate grade lets the student know the task is complete and they can move forward.

Similarly, homework, journaling, and other work that calls for reflection can be automatically scored.

Automatic scoring does not mean permanent scoring. Giving points upon submission makes it possible for the professor to go back through the work after the student has received the grade, and request any changes necessary, such as expanding an entry to cover a particular topic. The pressure is off, and students who have the time will often be happy to make the changes. Up-front grading also gives the professor more time to go through everyone’s work, or to decide to accept the work as is.

Be available but ease off the synchronous stuff

If there was ever a time to be at the computer continually, or get a second cell phone or a Google Voice phone number, it is now. Student questions may be urgent or not, but they will feel urgent. The deadline is still there, and a student may need to ask for an exception to it (the answer is always yes unless it’s the end of the term).

If there is an open forum for the class, or students message the instructor, an encouraging response is crucial. All questions should be received in an appreciative tone (“I’m glad you wrote!”) and answered as kindly as possible. We have students who are ill, who are caring for others, who are overloaded, who are in unsafe situations. Simply writing in an announcement “office hours MW 11–12” or even “contact me any time” is not enough.

For students who are in unsafe living situations or who have job requirements they did not have when they enrolled, synchronous sessions are an added stressor. Likewise with students who have social anxiety, are unaccustomed to online interaction, or are experiencing Zoom fatigue. Lectures, required discussions, or calling out students to participate may not be necessary or desirable. Instead, synchronous sessions can be used to work on homework in each other’s presence, with cameras on or off, to provide support to each other, to discuss the social changes happening around us all, to exchange ideas. The sessions may be required by faculty contracts, but student attendance may be optional or made up in an easier way.

Tame the Learning Management System

Many Learning Management Systems are overly complicated. Most, for example, have too many default items in the menu (Canvas has 18). Any that aren’t being used (that can be most of them) should be made invisible to students.

Clear navigation is more important than ever before. Whether the system uses modules or pages or assignment numbers, the sequence of tasks should be obvious. It is important to keep in mind that in many learning management systems, the student calendar or to-do list mixes together all their tasks from all their classes. Naming assignments clearly (“HUM101 Quiz 1”) can make things easier for everyone.

More often than we think, missed assignments are the result of students not seeing them or knowing they are there. Continual reminders will be of little use when all classes are sending them, not only because they go into Spam folders and students rarely use email but because the mind cannot process all of that and organize it, especially in a crisis.

And, as the saying goes, if you have to write lengthy instructions, the task is not clear enough. When the mind is overloaded, excessive direction cannot be taken in. It’s better to have a brief description of the task, and more lenience with the result.

Don’t expect close reading

This one is tough. Professionals expect their every word to be understood, and their every instruction to be retained. “Read the syllabus” is all too often the response to student questions that are, clearly, answered in the syllabus. That response, however, is unkind when the questioner is frazzled. Simply quoting the pertinent passage from the syllabus takes little time and answers the question.

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When people are struggling to make ends meet, take care of people who are ill, work double shifts at work, it is important to ask whether the workload is reasonable enough that it is possible to learn what is being taught. This is particularly true of readings, which take time and concentration as well as literacy skills. Can less reading be assigned, but more importance put on that which remains? That would create less breadth but more depth, which could reinforce concepts rather than continually introducing new ones.

Is everything we’re assigning truly necessary to learning the skills and content when students are unable to absorb as much as they usually do? If not, it’s time for some pruning.

Caring more may mean doing less

All of these recommendations involve, to a certain extent, doing less, except helping students individually. While it may feel like professors are doing more counseling than teaching, that just could be the appropriate response during these difficult times, and may teach lessons beyond the academic subjects.

It is natural in a crisis to streamline ones workload, to focus only on that which is important. Students and professors alike are trying to reduce the load to make things less painful. To the extent that professors can help students stay organized but build in flexibility, the stress can be eased and learning can happen more readily.

Also published on Medium