As colleges and universities across the nation scramble to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, outstanding materials are circulating widely concerned with technological solutions to moving away from in-person teaching. Instructional continuity websites, many using the “keep teaching” nomenclature pioneered at Indiana University at Bloomington, are proliferating hourly — indeed, IU has posted generous and clear guidelines for how to reuse their materials, rendering a perfect example of the open-source world of instructional support, design and development that was, until sometime last week, pretty much invisible to many people in higher education.
Sizable and comparatively well-resourced IT divisions are rushing in with great agility to do the hard work of licensing and scaling the technology necessary to make the shift away from “business as usual” instruction, especially but not only at institutions that don’t have widespread fully online course offerings and the ed-tech infrastructure that goes with them. However, once we have the technological tools in place, we’ve got trouble, because the professionals who work directly with faculty to share how to redesign and deliver every single course at a given college/university with those tools are astonishingly, mind-blowingly few in number.
The people who actually support the current effort to keep teaching generally (but not always) reside in the campus Center for Teaching and Learning, Instructional Technology, or Instructional Design unit. Very few of those units nationally have more than three or four people working in them, and many are smaller than that (if they exist at all).
The work of these centers and units has come roaring into visibility over the past week, not only for the direct support they are providing on campus but for the unusual extent to which CTLs, invariably underresourced, participate in a sharing economy. Not only websites but instructional guides, videos, tool kits and other sorts of messaging are being shared in Google Docs, adapted for one’s own institution and pushed out to instructors at all levels, including graduate student TAs, reeling from the sudden ask to transition away from in-person teaching, often in a matter of hours.
If you’re asking, “Where are the helpers?” — well, now you know where to look.
Given how comically few of us there are to consult with instructors on campuses, and thinking about how to best use the limited resources available for direct support, what follows is an admittedly idiosyncratic list of things I don’t hear enough people saying to instructors and institutions, which might be broadly useful. These are low- or no-tech insights with which not all will agree, but which many, at least in my neck of the woods, have found instructive.
If you’re an instructor just getting started thinking about how to transition your course tomorrow (or, if you’re lucky, the next day, or next month) away from in-person instruction, before you reach out for a one-on-one consultation, and perhaps even before you open any of those amazing “everything you need to know about remote instruction” guides, here are a few things you might want to consider, which might also be of interest to department chairs and deans:
Stop saying we’re “going online.” We’re not. We’re moving to remote instruction — largely “real time” or synchronous remote instruction. That means most of us used to traditional in-person instruction are teaching our classes, with modifications, using videoconferencing tools. Online learning is often (though not always) self-paced, with students completing modules in their own time, often without a lot of contact with other students. While this is not the only model for online learning, it may be the one that jumps to mind when you think of an online class. One way to think of this is “instructorless” learning — again, a bit of a caricature, but one that helps explain why it’s important to be clear. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, online courses are carefully designed for that environment. While teaching centers and others all over the country are scrambling to get materials to support abrupt redesign for remote learning up and running, we need to be clear with ourselves and our students that we are not redesigning to create online courses.
Everything from institutional policy to international visa regulations, from instructional design to student and parent expectations, will be simplified if you stay away from the language of “online ed” or “going online.” The more specific we can be in describing the adaptation we’re planning, the better able we will all be to find the resources we need. Looking up a guide to designing an online class will not get you started in the best way in the current situation (though it may provide you with some good and useful information). Looking up one of the many guides being put together at your and other institutions that directly address the unique challenge of “going remote for COVID-19” will get you where you want to go the quickest. And make sure to be intentional in seeking out guidance about the issues of equity and accessibility — including accessibility of technology — that accompany this rapid large-scale shift to remote learning. No one signs up to take an online class without reliable access to a computer. We may just have signed up thousands of students for classes that will require access to both the internet and some form of device larger than a phone.
The synchronous/asynchronous distinction is more complicated than it looks. Even if you are shooting for synchronous remote instruction — everybody goes to class together at the usual time — every instructor and TA should have a plan for students to review class meetings asynchronously. That’s because students may not have access to the internet or to a computer if they head home, and also because some students may get sick and be unable to attend class. The fact that the latter is always the case is something we should revisit when this mess is over. Many of the guides out there split into moving to synchronous or asynchronous, but the fact is most instructors are going to need to make provisions for both.
Don’t go it alone I. Teaching, for many of us, is an individualized, privatized practice. We prepare our courses alone, design them ourselves and teach them with as little outside interference as possible. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, but the fact is that academic freedom in higher education has included a strong strain of “stay out of my syllabus and definitely stay out of my classroom.” This protectiveness, while not ill founded, is not helpful in the current moment. Many instructors are astonished to discover that outstanding teaching resources are available widely and for free all over the internet, whether from your own campus CTL or from another CTL or other resource library. Pro tip: if you’re going to google something like, “zoom dance course final exam,” include the phrase “higher ed” to help you separate out quickly from K-12 resources.
Don’t go it alone II. One quick way to get discipline-specific help is to ask colleagues in the same discipline. This could mean a department get-together centered around transitioning to remote instruction, setting up a department Google Drive to share teaching tools, reaching out to a colleague at an institution that has previously faced a significant disruption to instruction finding a social media group in your discipline like “keep teaching astrophysics,” or checking your professional organization’s website to see what resources they may have pulled together.
Don’t go it alone III. See if your campus teaching center or instructional design unit is giving online office hours or individual consultations. Attend them. Take notes and share with your colleagues. The people who work in these units have been trying to get your attention since the day they opened their doors. They will be delighted to see you now. Recognize that their numbers are almost certainly minute relative to the demand and do whatever you can to scale or share any great tip you got. If you are going to office hours to solve a fairly routine problem like, “how do I put my final exam in the LMS,” see if there are shared resources available before going for a consultation. Spending 15 to 30 minutes on your campus’s version of a keep-teaching website might be the best decision you make this week and could save you untold amounts of time trying to invent the wheel.
Stop worrying about testing and start thinking about learning. By attempting to replicate in-person assessments in online settings, we fail to recognize that a change of medium may require a change of design. Especially if your instruction is interrupted close to the time of finals, as for many of us on the quarter system, don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that you can or should just “put the final exam online.” Sorting students and rigorously determining what deserves an A-minus as opposed to a B-plus may not be the most urgent business in the face of a global pandemic. Give yourself permission to think outside the parameters of your original assessments and ask the question, what can we do here that keeps learning happening? What if our first priority in an emergency is not completing testing but giving an opportunity for students to integrate and demonstrate their learning? Remember that when you make any of these modifications, students with academic accommodations will still need those accommodations if you switch up the style of teaching or assessment. Consult your campus disability resource center to make sure you maintain accessibility and equity.
Stop obsessing about cheating and start talking about academic integrity. Research and experience suggest that developing elaborate plans to stop cheating — especially to stop cheating in digital environments — is a losing game, for at least two reasons. By focusing narrowly on the chance that a few students will cheat, we message to our students that we don’t trust them. They are likely to respond to those low expectations in kind. They see that we expect that at least some of them will cheat, and they do not wish to be disadvantaged by those who do. Furthermore, by transparently messaging the strategies we have developed to stop cheating, we, in essence, give students and other bad actors a road map to circumvent our cheating-abatement plans.
As naïve as it may seem, you may get better results by promoting academic integrity than by trying to stop cheating. You can find out more information about this approach on websites developed by MIT and UCSD, among others. Perhaps the most that you, as an instructor, can do under the present pressures is to present students with a strong argument for the benefits of maintaining their integrity, while developing minimally cheat-proof assignments. Other points you might touch on include: when you cheat, you circumvent an opportunity to solidify your learning. While this may benefit you in the short run, it will catch up with you eventually; once you have engaged in cheating, you will likely enter your next course unprepared and this will lead to the likelihood of further cheating in the future; the stress and anxiety that come from cheating on a test will almost certainly outweigh the stress of preparing to the best of your ability. Moreover, the stress and anxiety that come from cheating remain with you after you take the exam. Nearly all people who have cheated on a test remember having done so for the rest of their lives.
Talk to your students about becoming partners in learning. During unplanned events that affect instruction, one of the simplest and most effective ways to keep learning happening in your classes is to speak openly with students about being good partners in learning. Ask your students to reflect and perhaps talk with each other or you about why they are in school, what their goals are in the course and how they see their own agency in the teaching-learning dyad. Giving them a sense that taking control of their learning can be a way to help them feel less powerless in a situation that is beyond their control. Then link that reflection to a concrete plan for how they will go about accomplishing their goals in the event of unusual or even suspended teaching.
Provide students in advance with research-based learning support such as the fantastic free tools, videos, blogs and other materials provided by the Learning Scientists. These can help students learn how to study and take notes, prepare for examinations, and establish overall good learning practices, especially for those who have not taken remote or online classes before. Consider including student input at some level in difficult decisions you are making about the course. Poll them about options for demonstrating their learning (they may surprise you by how great their ideas are), about changing the due dates for assignments and about other hard choices you are making. You can collect this information and then tell students how you have used it to inform your decision making. You are still making the decisions, but you are allowing students to be partners in responding to unplanned events. This builds trust between instructors and students and allows students to practice using their agency to respond in difficult situations — a transferable skill if ever there was one. Another pro tip: ask your institution to make a keep-learning website to go with your keep-teaching website. Ask advisers, tutoring centers, student success professionals and other para-academic staff to use their expertise to centrally provide students with the information and resources they need to learn in a new way.
Be kind. I mean, extra, extra kind. Nearly everyone who works on a college campus right now is facing a world of pain, uncertainty and difficulty. People in support roles are working long hours and having to “lead” in a situation that is evolving quickly and for which most of us have made few or no preparations. Take a step back and marvel at the creativity and resourcefulness that are emerging moment by moment. Cooperation and collaboration are happening behind the scenes to make the lives of students and instructors as workable as possible under such unusual circumstances. Pretty much everyone in staff and administrative roles — especially low-level admin — is scrambling to provide support and solutions for others, even as you, as an individual faculty member, are scrambling trying to find solutions for your students, your courses, your lab or your research center. Keep your eyes peeled for the helpers, and take a moment to notice how wholeheartedly they are working to make your life easier in a difficult time.