This post was written by guest author Linda Larson.
“Hurry up and learn to teach online.” We felt the pressure last spring semester as we shifted from face-to-face to online classes. And now, as colleges spend time trying to figure to how to create an in-person experience, we’re losing focus on what we need to know—how to best teach online.
I made mistakes, and I’m sharing them with you because I wish I could have had some simplified and straightforward advice instead of the barrage of links and advertisements.
During the spring shift, many of my students didn’t have access to computers or Wi-Fi, so I made the decision to teach asynchronously with regular Zoom office hours. I felt like I failed my students. The shift was confusing for many students as well as instructors. Many students struggled with motivation. Some were disorganized. The majority felt disconnected and adrift.
This summer I made the shift to required Zoom meetings during regular class times. This worked better because I was able to see the students and take questions immediately. Yet it wasn’t perfect.
This fall I’ll teach online synchronously because students need consistency. I plan to have Zoom meetings during every regularly scheduled class time. Students need teacher interaction. The same days and times help with organization. Yet I don’t keep them on Zoom the whole class period, moving them to online discussion. I’ll use the online learning management system for content and assignments, in my case that’s D2L.
Here’s my advice based on my mistakes.
- Start with Introductions as an online discussion. Students shared a photo along with information about themselves. Students replied to others’ posts. Getting to know the students is always a highlight for me, and students got to know each other as well.
- Assign small groups early and have them meet often online during class time. In my mind, I’m calling them “support groups.” I should have done this the first week instead of waiting until the big project in the middle of the term. Student need social interaction, and they’re more likely to ask each other for help.
- Meet individually on Zoom during class time. The classes I teach are small, so this may be too difficult for large classes, but the positive energy this creates in a class is worth the time. Students told me they appreciated this time with me. I didn’t require this for each student in the summer, but I will for the fall.
- Keep teacher-focused online classes short. I found that students’ attention span online is perhaps half an hour. These are usually first-year students, so perhaps older students will be more focused. Zoom emojis are fun to use to engage them. When the content took longer than thirty minutes, I offered breaks where we muted our microphones and cameras.
- Dance! Our Zoom breaks were “dance breaks.” Yes, it’s a bit goofy, but it’s also bonding. This keeps them logged on for the most part. At first I chose the songs, mainly songs that encouraged movement because sitting is tough on the body, and later the students chose the songs. I suggested that they be rated PG-13 because I want the community of the online classroom to be respectful.
- Break up full class Zoom meetings with pairs and small group activities while staying online. I asked them to assign one person as spokesperson. It’s harder to jump in and speak in a large group online, perhaps because the format is new to them. If the group activity was long enough, I popped into their breakout room to take questions, especially at the beginning of the term.
- Send regular e-mails. After setting up that e-mail will be our communication tool, I plan to send one each class day. This plan helps me because then I know I’m reaching the student who didn’t make it to Zoom class or had a technology failure.
- Give pep talks. The most important thing I learned this summer is that I have to sell the Zoom meeting to students the first day because there is resistance. Once they’re in, it works as well as can be expected. Students seem to be able to adjust well. Yet they are disheartened, just as we are. Positive feedback and acknowledgement that this situation is not ideal helps students feel they’re not alone.
I’m no expert, but I thought sharing these mistakes would be a good way to cut through all the best practices and online apps and other offerings. We as teachers know our subject matter, and we can adjust to create good classroom communities despite the pandemic.
Linda Larson teaches English, mainly composition, as an adjunct at St. Cloud State University and for the summer Bridge program for Upward Bound at the College of Saint Benedict. She writes an opinion column for the St. Cloud Times and is the author of A Year in My Garden and the award-winning Grow It. Eat It.
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