When the pandemic “officially” hit in March 2020, the administration worked quickly in an attempt to negotiate how best to navigate the last six weeks of the semester. Faculty received a series of notifications during the last week before Spring Break, one of which informed us that we’d be extending the break by one week, and another that included the following from Dean Stachowiak, “At the request of President Beals, we have created a survey to assess our resident and adjunct faculty members’ readiness to offer remote teaching.”
The implication of the first notification was that we’d use the two weeks of Spring Break to prepare for a move to online instruction, and the survey was to check-in and make sure that we could actually pull this off. As a less techy, more traditional – read: “older” – professor, I had no real idea of how to make that move to “remote,” never mind doing so in sixteen days, but I finessed the survey as best I could and put on a brave face.
One of the tools of Canvas that I did use regularly at that point was the Announcements feature, so I immediately sent students an update, and the one I sent to my Short Story Workshop read in part as follows:
Given the many changes that continue to occur on a daily basis, I thought I would send you an e-mail, detailing plans to complete our spring semester course.
Since we won’t have a face-to-face workshop, I am thinking that we should implement a written version, i.e., a set of specific things that are working in the story and a set of specific feedback on how to improve the story. In other words, the same exact format that we’ve been following all semester, only in writing, rather than in person. So, going forward, please send me your notes, either as bullet points or as reading notes, and I will give you credit, then send them along to the writer. The writer will then have a week to revise the story based on those notes that work for their revision. (This is how low residency MFA programs work, so we are in good company.)
In other words, I turned this class into a correspondence course or, as described on the IFD website, a version of the Dirt Simple Online Class, which, in my case, might have been “dirt simple,” but was the closest thing I had to a lifeboat. This strategy relied on four components:
- Simple Word/Google Doc based assignments/tests
- A general discussion forum for course-wide discussions
- A weekly discussion forum for discussion/application of concepts
- A weekly announcement telling students what they need to do this week, and giving any general course feedback or updates.
So, in those first tentative weeks, my students and I exchanged e-mails, submitted work through Canvas, and responded to each other in writing. I posted near-daily Announcements, as we blundered our way forward. I followed a similar strategy in my other three courses as well. I didn’t Zoom because I had no real idea how to Zoom. I didn’t work through Teams because I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t hold class synchronously or asynchronously because those terms weren’t part of my pre-pandemic vernacular. In fact, now that we were relegated to correspondence, I did not see any of my students again before the year came to a merciful close.
The summer brought an opportunity to begin the learning process of how to teach remotely. Bonni Stachowiak and David Rhoads taught a pair of online courses designed to prepare us for virtual instruction. For a novice like myself, it was indispensable instruction. It was also trial and error in the best sense of the phrase, and slowly, gradually, I began to absorb the terminology and practice of putting together an online course. Some of what I learned was review: learning objectives and assessment. The rest of it was new. I learned that in this context, module didn’t refer to a spaceship, as in “lunar module” or “command module,” but referred instead to a term best defined as a unit of learning intended to organize course content. I learned to employ a “flipped grid,” which had nothing to do with cooking pancakes but was instead a way to socially engage students with video. I learned that Bloom’s Taxonomy had nothing to do with the great Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom; the controversial author Allan Bloom, who penned The Closing of the American Mind; or the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. Rather, it was defined as a “hierarchical classification of the different levels of thinking.”
Most importantly, I learned to beef up my Canvas presence. It was no longer simply a way to make announcements and assignments and to record grades in order to avoid end-of-the-semester challenges, but a means to navigate this difficult terrain of the pandemic. By the end of the summer, I had come a long way in my ability to teach in an exclusively remote environment, and my classes in 2021-22 reflected that leap in knowledge.
By the time we moved back on campus in Fall 2022, I was adept enough at this new virtual world that I could move from in-person instruction to online and then back again relatively easily, which constituted the core principle behind Hyflex learning. In a Hyflex course, students have the option of choosing to attend in-person or online, that latter option is presented as an equivalent asynchronous assignment for those students who didn’t attend the live session. In that respect, I was making progress, although it was clear to me (and many of my tech-savvy students) that I had another level to reach when it came to building and designing a Canvas course and shell. Reaching that level would require more instruction, which came by way of DT 301 in November 2022.
DT 301 required us to develop one course, and I chose a staple of the Core Curriculum (and the English department), Literature and the Human Experience; the intended outcome was to create a course that could be used by anyone scheduled to teach it. Given that I’d taught it many times, over the years, and I knew it frontwards and backwards, I believed that it would simply be a matter of transferring and converting its content into the virtual world.
My instructor for DT 301 was Paul Hwang, a kind and technologically savvy Kinesiology Professor, who proved a stickler when it came to the design elements of setting up the course. Previously, my Canvas course shells were bare, featuring the course name and term, but little else. In short, an unattractive advertisement for the course itself. I needed an image as a signifying symbol and as a way to “spiff up” the shell. Inside the course, Paul pushed me to make my indentations consistent. So, too, my spacing. He had me pay attention to fonts. Bold type. Italics. Highlighting certain words and phrases. Symmetry. It was imperative that my online course look inviting; if it didn’t, so went the reasoning, no one would want to take it.
Uploaded videos became critical. I attached scenes from the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing, Allen Rickman reading Shakespeare’s My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun, show clips from the Broadway version of Fences. I created and uploaded my own videos: I recorded one welcoming students; another on how to navigate the course; and a series of overview videos introducing each module. I made another that included a graphic of an iceberg, describing Hemingway’s theory on how to interpret literature.
Most importantly, DT 301 forced me to think about why I do what I do, why I assign what I assign, and how my curriculum enables students to learn the material.
Given my experience teaching this course, and the fact that my evals were consistently strong, I thought I knew how to disseminate the material, but this new world of online instruction required me to rethink everything. Bloom’s taxonomy was a huge help in creating modules with specific activities to activate the learning process, one that began with “understand/remember,” then “analyze/apply,” then “create/evaluate.”
So, instead of assuming that students would read a text prior to class, or face the consequences of a pop quiz, I had them perform annotations. Instead of relying on an organic discussion of a literary work, I created discussion posts, spelling out the pertinent questions, further activating the Hyflex aspect of the class. Students could attend the discussion and engage, but, if they opted for the asynchronous choice, they had the same questions and material to work with. The third part of Bloom’s strategy – create/evaluate – came through a response paper, which incorporated everything they’d learned about that week’s story, poem, or play. Many of these assignments and strategies, as implied above, were things that I was already doing in my classes, but DT 301 demanded that I put them into writing.
The result of all of this work and instruction is a more effective online presence. While I still prefer face-to-face instruction, especially in discussion-reliant writing workshops and literature classes, the ability to transition to remote instruction has proven a boon to my repertoire of teaching skills and strategies. Equally important, this “exercise” requires that we re-vision how we structure and implement a course. Like most of us, mid-March 2020 seems like a lifetime ago, and we’re not out of it yet, but the pressure of shifting to a remote world has helped to create a new set of tools through which to serve our students.