It is no coincidence that my last post here in the blog was just before I started up teaching again. It is my standard online summer class, and so there is no direct effect on my teaching from the pandemic except for the switch to take-home tests since our testing center is closed.
However, life has been busy beyond just the teaching. So, let’s catch up on a few things (maybe this one should be called “Life in a Pandemic.”
- I have been attending a number of workshops, conferences, and meetings (all virtual). I don’t think I have ever had as much choice of things that I can attend related to teaching, and I have been trying to do as many as I can, as free and professional development are two words that do not often go together.
- My youngest daughter is at a Montessori school. The school started a summer session in early July. They offered it for free to help the students catch up on what they might have missed from all of the disruptions in the spring. It lasted two weeks, then they shut it down for a week because one person tested positive, then it came back for 2 days, and then it was shut down for good when our county shut down all public and private (but not religious private) schools until September 28.
- My oldest daughter, who is entering her senior year of high school, was given the choice between going face-to-face or online this coming school year. We left that decision up to her. What she decided was to go online-only. When looking at all of the guidelines, she thought it was too uncertain to even try face-to-face. Of course, as noted in the previous point, her school will also be affected by the online only until September 28, but she was going to do that anyway.
- My sons, who both just finished up their freshman years at 4-year universities, have made the decision to go to my community college for the moment. I’m not going to go into the reasons specifically, but this was something we had all been hashing out over the summer. It is definitely hard to justify paying the money for a university (especially the one going to a private university) that may or may not be running and may or may not be having in-person classes. Both may stay as long as two years at my community college, as they can largely get what they need there for a while.
- Finally, there’s the question of what I’m doing in the fall. There is no official word from my community college that anything has changed. The schedule that students are signing up for now is the same as the one published prior to the pandemic with some more online classes added. I am scheduled to teach 2 hybrid sections and 3 online sections, which would be my normal Fall load. But there is just too much uncertainty to know how all of it is going to play out. I’m in better shape then many, as I have a fully ready online class, and that is over half of what I am teaching anyway. I do not know yet if my hybrid will actually be a class that meets face-to-face or not, but that is where we are going so far. With all of the uncertainty, that’s really all I can say at this point.
So, there we go. Everybody in the family is up in the air. All six of us are back to living in the house, although that’s not as much of an adjustment as some, since the boys were only gone from the beginning of the Fall semester last year through Spring Break. I guess we shall see if we get any more clarity as we move forward.
This is the first substantive post of my new series on student reflection. I have detailed where this series comes from in my previous post introducing the series.
In this post, I am going to describe the student reflection assignment that I have used for 4 semesters now. Later posts in the series will deal with why I use student reflection (Part 2), the student response to these reflections (Part 3), my thoughts on how they are going and what they can help with (Part 4), and then what use they can be in our new pandemic world (Part 5).
I started using student reflection as a part of my hybrid classes starting in Fall 2018. For the first year of using them, they were more aimed at making sure the students were paying attention in class, but they slowly morphed into something more than just a reflection on the class. Over the summer of 2019, I made the decision to move student reflection into my online course and to change up the use of them in the hybrid class.
In Part 2 of this series, I will delve more into why I use them and why I made the changes. For now, I just want to give you the format of them.
Each week, my students are asked to submit a response to the following 5 questions. I have no specific word count on this assignment, and I grade only on if they complete it.
- What did you do in the class in the past week? (After the first week, I add a second question: How does that match up with what you said you would do in the previous week’s reflection?)
- What are you planning on doing for this class in the upcoming week?
- This question relates to something going on inside the course. This can be something like:
- Have you started working on a particular assignment yet?
- Reminder to make sure they know something is coming up, like the drop deadline.
- Question about how they responded to a specific assignment, especially if I am trying something new.
- This question relates to something going on outside of the course, such as:
- How are the other courses going that you are taking?
- If it is later in the semester, what advice would they now give themselves at the beginning of the semester?
- What is the best piece of advice they have received about succeeding in college?
- What one change would they make in the course if they had the ability?
- Are you planning on attending/participating in this particular thing going on at the college?
- What are your plans for after you finish the course/finish at the college
- And, especially after the COVID-19 shutdown, this question became one about how they were doing and if they needed help with anything.
- Lastly, is there anything else you want to tell me, either about yourself, about the class, or about something interesting in your life? This last question is your free space to write whatever you want to. If you do not want to write anything, that is fine, but I wanted to give everyone some space each week to write whatever they want with no judgment on my part. I will read it, but that is all, unless you ask me for advice or have questions.
So, for each student (I start out the semester with about 200-220 and end up with about 170-180), I get a response back to these questions every week. As noted at the beginning of this post, I will be exploring aspects of this assignment as I move forward with this series.
One of the issues the I keep coming back to in thinking about the past semester is how we teach online. Much has been made of the difference between online teaching (which I have been doing for over a decade now) and remote learning that was forced on everyone in March of this year.
The difference between the two is vast, as a true online course is one that needs to be created from the ground up as an online course and cannot be a quick move over of face-to-face content to an online environment.
One of the real differences that I noted in the approaches to online vs. remote teaching is the question of how the learning takes place. In my online course (and as echoed by my friend Mike Smith at McNeese State University), I have taught almost exclusively asynchronously. Most of the design books that I have read and resources that I have accessed over the years have confirmed that this is the best format for fully online instruction, as it allows for the flexibility in completing work and interacting with material that many online students are looking for.
Before I go any further, however, I do want to provide some definitions here:
- Synchronous Learning – Learning that takes place in a format where both the instructor and the learner are in the same location in time and/or space. This can be a traditional classroom format or something like a Zoom session that delivers content in real-time.
- Asynchronous Learning – Learning that takes place where the instructor and learner are separated in time and/or space. This is seen very often in online courses, where resources and assignments are provided for students to access and complete on their own time.
As I stated above, my online class is completely asynchronous. The students are given the resources, assignments, lectures, textbook information, assessments, and discussion space all online with no expectation that there is a specific time or place where they will all come together for instructions. This does not mean I am not involved, as I generally work inside my classrooms for 1-4 hours each day, depending on the time of the semester, and am constantly monitoring both my classrooms and other messaging that I get from students outside of the classroom (such as email).
The only real point of direct, face-to-face interaction would be office hours. I also do hold more traditional office hours. This is a bit of sticking point for me, as my department had up to March of this year not allowed online office hours, which seems to me to be a blind spot to where our students actually are. Since March and probably for a while after, we now can have online office hours, which would actually be the only really synchronous material for any students who would come into those office hours and get instruction or have questions answered by me in real time.
One thing that I do differently than a lot of people in their teaching is hybrid learning. I have been teaching hybrid classes for about 6 years now, and my model is roughly a 70/30 model, with 70% of the learning taking place online and 30% in class. Thus, like what I noted above, all of the online portion for the hybrid course is asynchronous. That 30% is the hour and fifteen minutes that I meet with them each week, and that is the only synchronous portion of the course.
My hybrid students are more likely also to come to physical office hours than traditional online students, meaning that they do also have those synchronous options.
The Change in Learning with the Pandemic
As we moved to remote learning in the pandemic, everyone had to scramble to figure out how to make those changes. I have already detailed some of this in previous posts in this Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic series. Since a lot of those who were guiding this move were focused on how to move the face-to-face classes to online, much of the assumption was that the remote learning would be at least somewhat synchronous. Since this is the assumption that many have of what online teaching looks like when they have not taught online before, I saw this all over the place – the assumption that we would all just schedule Zoom sessions during our normal class time and then lecture to the students as we would have at the same time and same place.
For better or for worse, this has become part of the story of what has happened – with a narrative emerging of how challenging, or even ineffective, Zoom learning (as it so often came to be) is. In my opinion that is because online learning is not meant to be synchronous. There can certainly be successful synchronous elements in an online course, especially if students are notified up front and early that there will be certain times or certain assignments that are going to require their presence. I don’t use any, but I know of a number of successful online instructors that do use synchronous discussions, group work, and the like in online classes. However, even those classes remain heavily asynchronous overall.
So, What’s the Point?
Why am talking about this somewhat weedy subject? I think that why so many faculty and students were unsatisfied by what they saw in the spring of 2020 is because of this synchronous vs. asynchronous distinction. I have heard, even from my own sons in college, that the learning situation in the spring was not very good. Both of my sons recounted having to get up for 8am classes from home and then sitting there with a lot of random banter, technical problems, and then not learning much overall. Now, could I say that every class experience I have had has been worthwhile and engaging, but there is something different about trying to do it online vs. face-to-face. Especially for my son who is going to a very (VERY!) expensive private university, he felt he was getting very little value out of his education for those last months. A lot of the “value” comes from being on campus and having access to everything there. Sitting at home in front of a screen when that is not what you signed up for is going to be rough no matter what. The insistence on holding classes at the same time and in the same format as before seems to me to be a recipe for discontent overall. It’s not the fault of the professor or of the university, as everyone had to figure out how to do this in a week or two. So, if it didn’t go well, then it just didn’t, but at least everyone knew that we were all doing our best in a difficult time.
What I worry about in the summer and fall. The easy path will be to try to continue on as if nothing really happened and feel that we can all just turn on a dime and teach online again if a second wave breaks out. I only hope that some lessons have been learned about what works and what doesn’t. This summer has to be one of reflection and reworking of courses for everyone. If change isn’t made, it is the students who will suffer. Both of my sons have said that they are worried if it will be worth it to go back to their four-year universities if it is going to look like it did in the spring. I am certainly not trying to say that the question of synchonous or asynchronous is the only issue in making a strong course that can be presented online only or moved online if needed, but it is an issue that needs to considered by everyone who wants to teach in any online format for the future.
My last post was a general reflection on my teaching during a pandemic. It was on my own experience and how it affected me. Today, I want to talk about how my students responded to the changes that came this semester.
- As I noted in my last post, the online students’ experience didn’t change a huge amount, but really the experiences of both the online and hybrid students did change.
- The majority of students expressed a feeling of overwhelm and anxiety to me with the switch. For a lot of the hybrid students, they were taking hybrid because they did not want an online class, but they said that since the class did not change significantly that it was not a major issue.
- For my classes, the fact that we lost a week and had to make things up pushed assignments closer together.
- As well, while I do think students often take Spring Break to do some catch up in their classes in a normal semester, we extended the Spring Break by a week this year. This 2-week Spring Break was very unproductive for them because of how the world was overturned. Not only that, but it also took longer for them to get back into working on classes at the level they had previously.
- So, even though I moved some assignments to extra credit rather than required and moved the exam to a take-home, there still was a feeling that they were doing more than usual in my class each week.
- However, while many said they were working more for my class, almost all who were in multiple classes said that their workloads for school had gone up even more for other classes. I heard many say that the result of changing online out of face-to-face classes was that the expectations and workload seemed to go up dramatically. I have no insight beyond that, as few said why that changed happened and I did not want to pry into what other faculty were doing, but the universal feeling was that classes that were face-to-face that went online got both more demanding and more difficult to complete.
- Here is what one student said: “I got really behind this last unit, having more than one online class (since they all got put online) has been really hard to keep up with all the work. And effectively giving each class time in your day is very challenging, So with that being said, I did not participate in this discussion forum. I hope no one else is in the same boat and struggling to stay a float with all their classes being online! I miss face-to-face classes so much. A lot of my classes are 10 times the work online. Finish Strong!”
- A majority of students reported difficulties in prioritizing school work.
- For some it was because they were now working more because they are essential workers or now had time off to add hours to their jobs.
- As one online student put it: “I personally have 2 classes online including this one, but besides having these classes I have been working almost every day including weekends now because I have more responsibility for my projects. the quarantine didn’t stop the company I am working for because of the nature of what we do. However, I have been feeling like I am not productive enough and so I started to do some online courses, reading new books and also I started to do the extra credit assignment. So far I have tried to keep a daily schedule to keep up.”
- For others, the loss of jobs meant that they now had financial strains that impacted their ability to do their work for classes.
- I did not keep track of everyone who reported this, but I had a number of students tell me that either they had lost work or that people in their families had lost work.
- For some it was because they were now working more because they are essential workers or now had time off to add hours to their jobs.
- What I heard the most, however, was that the isolation was quite intense for the younger students who were now stuck at home with their families, especially those who relied on leaving the house to get work done because of chaotic home environments.
- For those who are older and have kids, they had the same experience that I have had – namely that I am now educating my kids and/or trying to keep them focused and entertained. We are now at home all the time, fixing way more meals at home, and having to run all sorts of educational and Zoom sessions for my kids. Those with kids noted that the shift to having kids at home and having to educate/monitor them was a primary distraction to getting real work done.
- As one online student put it: “Hello! I hope everyone has been staying safe and healthy as we are coming to the end of the semester! Summer is almost here and thankfully this week most states are gradually opening back up again so hello sun! These past few weeks have been crazy at home though I haven’t been working from there…So while having a family at home while I was working a bit more than usual school seems like a lot as all of my classes are coming to an end. This class has been great I have been working hard in this unit 5 I am actually almost done with it!!! I think the most stressful part about this class at the moment is the Final paper only because all of my other classes have a final paper due the week too. Anyways I hope everyone is doing great any comments about unit 5 or the paper please leave I’m interested to know where others are at the moment in the course.”
Those are just some of my thoughts about how the students have reacted to the situation in my own experience. For those of you who are teaching or for those taking classes, what was your experience?
We have come to the end of our semester of craziness. The breaking of COVID-19 and the push to abrupt remote teaching at Spring Break made this a semester like no other. I was luckily more able to make the transition than many, as 3/5 of my sections were already online. The other two sections were my hybrid sections, and those are already about 2/3 online in the way that I teach them. Thus, for me, the personal transition was not as hard as it was for many.
There were still some challenges, for sure.
- My three online sections were still somewhat impacted, as the extended Spring Break moved their assignments back a week and that pushed closer together a lot of the assignments for the last part of the class. It also grouped together my grading more and made it to where I did not have as much time to get comments back to students on their thesis and outline so they could work with them on the final paper.
- As I noted above, the hybrid classes were already about 2/3 online. It was, however, one of the most important components, the face-to-face discussions, that got dropped. To make up for that, I substituted online discussions each week and a weekly optional Zoom session. These went reasonably well. I don’t think it went nearly as well as if we had been in class, but it was at least acceptable. The big thing that I noted was that I did not have nearly as much time to devote to participating with them, as the pushing together of assignments that I noted with the online class happened here as well. I was grading more, and because of that, I was doing less other things in the class. There is another reason as well, that I will put in the third note here.
- The thing I spent an unusual amount of time on is the helping of others in the department and keeping up with both the changes and trends in higher education broadly and with COVID-19 in specific. My energy level and attention level were drained by both of these, and that also contributed to me not interacting as much in discussions with my students. I still did all of my Zoom sessions, held my online office hours, and answered student questions in a timely manner. I would even say that I got things graded faster than I would normally at the end of the semester. But I definitely participated less in discussion forums, both with my online and hybrid students. In fact, in grading them in the last couple of days, I see that I missed a number of places that I might have responded, either with information or with prompting questions to get them to go further.
Working on all of this from home was also a challenge, of course. While working from home did take out many expenses in time and gas for travel, sitting at the office, and eating meals/snacks there, there were also costs to being at home. I have four kids, two in college, one in high school, and one in elementary school. Everybody was home (and still are) since the start of Spring Break. The three older kids have had their work to do, but they are relatively self-sufficient with their work. We are, however, full-time teaching our 7-year-old. Her Montessori school has been sending home packets to complete, and they are keeping us busy.
Being at home all the time is not a big problem for my own work load, since so much of it was online already. But it still was quite different from the norm. How has everyone else’s experience been? For those of you who teach, what was the impact on your teaching?
I will be back for a couple of more of these as I reflect on the semester and start preparing for the next one, whatever it might bring.
I have been trying to ease back into working toward material to do with work as the summer continues to move on. I have an 8-week break this summer, as I am not teaching again until the second summer session. What that means is that I have a number of weeks to take off completely, which is largely what I have been doing to this point, but now it is starting to be time to think about academic work again.
I can’t say I have done a whole lot to this point, but I have made a few starts. For one, I completed a textbook chapter review yesterday, which was something on my agenda for the early part of the summer. I have also participated in a few activities with McGraw-Hill as part of my role as a Digital Faculty Consultant with them. And, in the past week or so, I have been trying to catch up on some of the blogs and e-newsletters that I read, as well as dabbling with some of the academic podcasts I listen to. Shortly, I will start working on my summer class, although I still have about a 3-week window before starting. I am not planning any major changes from last summer, so it will really just be a case of changing up the dates and making sure everything is in there. There are a few changes that I made last semester, including adding screencast videos for the online class, so those will need to be created for the summer session. Otherwise, summer prep is not too bad.
One interesting discovery I have made is the Student Caring project (studentcaring.com). I was turned onto the project from either a Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed blog about podcasts that we should be listening to. I came to this site through the podcast, and I will certainly make it part of what I am going to be looking at in the near future as I get back into thinking about my own job. The project is designed to help professors with all of the issues that we face in an environment that is aimed at helping us teach better, live better, and think better. I have only dabbled in it so far, although I have probably listened to about 15 of their podcast episodes so far. The general professor part of the site has both curated and guest posts on issues related to teaching in higher education. The podcasts (which are what I have accessed so far), are aimed at talking through issues on teaching in higher education. I have thoroughly enjoyed them so far and would recommend them to anyone teaching at a college or university. I am currently in the middle of the series titled, “What Your Students Probably Don’t Know,” which has been interesting and already given me a couple of ideas for my own classes, especially in formulating syllabi and course outlines for our students. I accessed the podcasts through iTunes, but I am sure they are available in multiple places.
Otherwise, I am just starting to do some thinking on my classes for the fall. I already do a hybrid American history class, and I am thinking of moving it to be even more thematic in approach so that the ideas hold together even better than I think they already do right now. I am teaching both halves of the American history survey this fall, and I am thinking of reworking the second half one. I already have a general set of themes, but not everything fits in with those themes right now. I am considering using a race/ethnicity/immigration theme, as over 1/3 of what I already have works with that theme, and I would have two writing assignments already ready to go to aim at that theme. It would help me feel more focused in what I am doing in the class and make it more apparent for the students how everything fits together. So, that is what I am thinking about.
Anyway, I just wanted to hop in here for a few minutes and update. I’ll be back for more later.
We had a presentation today from one of the major publishers, and in the process, we had an impromptu conversation about teaching history as well. It got me thinking about my own assumptions about teaching history, so I thought I needed to sit down and work out some things here.
What got me going was something that I have already encountered before and that really irks me, that history teachers at the college level can’t manage to cover the material that is in the assigned history course. We split up our American history course at 1877, but I seem to be the only instructor that actually tries to cover the time period of the course. As far as I can tell, the rest of the department usually gets to around 1850 in the first half of the course and to about 1950-60 in the second half. To me, that is outrageous, but I seemed to come off as some sort of traditionalist fuddy-duddy (if that’s really a word) for raising the idea that we ought to teach the period that we are assigned to teach. I cover the first half of American history to 1877 and get to 2001 in the second half of the course, and I just assumed that should be what everyone should be aiming for. Instead, everyone else seemed to be perfectly comfortable with the fact that teaching American history that covers a certain period of time does not mean that you have to actually cover that period. And the easy acceptance of that has me thinking if I’m somehow wrong in my own thinking. I remember having surveys that didn’t complete the time period going all the way back to jr high/high school, when we ended in around 1850 and started up in 1877, meaning that I did not have anything on the Civil War or Reconstruction. In fact, since I didn’t have to take the surveys, I didn’t actually take a course that covered that period until I took the actual Civil War and Reconstruction course at Rice. To me and my fellow history majors, this always seemed like a big joke that a person couldn’t cover the finite ground of American history and bother to actually complete the course, and I made that a priority in my own teaching that I would always make sure that the students got the full coverage. And this is not just because I feel that they should hear about everything, although that is something that I do believe, but that I think that if students are going to understand how history is relevant to their lives, you can’t just take a few bits here and there and leave out the rest and expect them to get a full picture of how the history of the country has affected how their own world is today. Yet, I seem to come off as naive in my department for believing that actually covering the Civil War and Reconstruction period or the period after 1960 is somehow relevant and something that the students should have as part of their course sequence. Some of them do argue that they cover all of it because they do assign all parts of the textbook and quiz them over the chapters that are not covered in class, but that seems to be a quite limited argument at best.
I was reminded that the current state standards for history don’t actually say anything about the subjects we are supposed to cover, but instead look at communication, social relations, and other aspects. So, maybe I am the one that is backward. If nobody but me believes that you should actually cover the material, then maybe I am the one who is wrong here. So, as I said to start here, I’m trying to think about why it is that I believe in full coverage in the survey. To me, it is just what you do, so it is hard for me to get my mind around not completing the course, so I am having quite a bit of trouble here. I especially am troubled by the fact that when others don’t complete the course, and I then get them, I am referring to material that they are then unfamiliar with, as they didn’t get that coverage in another course. But that is a fairly irrelevant argument really, as we all teach the class in different ways, so the emphases will always be different from one class to another. There’s also the argument that if we are more concerned with teaching critical thinking, writing ability, and the like, then the actual specifics of the subject we teach is irrelevant. But then, what am I doing teaching history at that point. I’ll just teach a critical writing and thinking course with a few historical examples instead and call it a history class. Is that where I’m supposed to be going? If that’s the implication, that the actual history we study is irrelevant to the teaching process, then I have really been doing it wrong over the years. When I say that I want to move beyond the lecture and flip my class, I am not talking about ditching the history all together, but that seemed to be the implication today, that you should just do your best to cover the material, but that the intention of turning the students into thinking people afterwards was more important than covering the material. I don’t know if I’m characterizing what I heard incorrectly, but I am just troubled by the implications of it.
Here’s an illustration of what I find a problem. This is from my syllabus, where I lay out the course objectives for my first half of American history course:
Course Objectives for HIST 1301
- Students will understand the following historical themes:
- colonization of the New World
- formation of the English colonies
- development of a unified colonial America
- creation of a revolutionary ideology
- development of a slave system
- creation of a national identity
- development and changes in religious, cultural, and social identity
- development of a divide between the North and South
- causes of the Civil War
- consequences of Reconstruction
- Students will understand the development of an American nation and how it is relevant to the world they live in today.
- Students will learn how to analyze historical evidence for validity, reliability, and bias.
- Students will understand how to use evidence to prove an argument.
- Students will understand the concept of historical significance, allowing them to put an event, idea, or person into historical context.
- Students will learn how to write coherent, well-thought-out material that presents their ideas and evidence in an organized manner.
- Students will be encouraged to question the standard assumptions of American history and use the history studied in this course to evaluate the place of the United States in the world today.
So, in what I understand about what I am trying to do in teaching American history would remain largely the same. I’d just lose 9 and 10 from the first learning objective (and pieces of the others as well). Is my course lesser because I don’t cover that material? Am I doing my job if I don’t cover those parts? I think so, personally, but, again, I seem to be in the minority. This whole thing makes me very uncomfortable. As one of the instructors in the room today said, there may be 17 chapters in the first half survey, but he only does 13 of them because he spends the first month going through the idea of “what is history” with the students, and that the time he has left over only allows him to get through Chapter 13 out of 17. When I objected to this, I felt like I was belittled because I found it important that the instructors cover all 17 chapters. But that’s really not it, it’s not that I think all 17 chapters are important, and I leave out a hell of a lot when I do teach a survey, as we all do. But, when these are things that I have identified as fundamental to what the students should do in the course, then I can’t help but question whether I’m wrong or what.
I’ll have to come back to this when I have had more time to think about it, as I’m still a bit bewildered at the moment.