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.
I often don’t have time to keep up with the various teaching articles and publications during the semester. So, these off times are often when I get to check in with what has happened outside of my classroom during the semester.
So, I’ve been doing some reading over the last week or so, and I have some blog post ideas lined up here for the summer.
The first thing that came to my attention was a recent post in Inside Higher Ed titled “Office Hours: Why Students Need to Show Up.” It was the first paragraph that really got me considering my own experience. As the author describes her experience with office hours:
Office hours: those moments when we are held hostage by our students, shackled to our desks, unable to tackle our mountains of other responsibilities. At crunch times, to better handle the line of students queueing outside my door, I’ve thought about installing a ticket dispenser, like at the deli: now serving number 17.
This is very much not my experience. And it goes back to a broader sense that I have about one of the challenges of teaching at a community college versus a more traditional four-year university. I have sat in my office week after week with almost no students ever coming by my office for thirteen years. I see students most often when they need a drop slip or a mid-semester grade check signed. Students certainly do not line up at my door, and I certainly do not feel held hostage by them. Instead, I have a required 10 hours of office hours every week, where I spend the majority of my time sitting there doing my own work and not interacting with students, except for what I do in my online class during that time.
I have my office hours clearly posted on my syllabus and in my online classroom. I sell my office hours to students at the beginning of the semester. I remind them of office hours multiple times in the semester and offer up advising time and draft-reading time often throughout the semester. And still, I have almost no students at my office hours.
And, do I complain about this? Of course. Instead of phrases like being held hostage, I instead bemoan the “students today” who don’t take advantage of the opportunities offered to them. However, I have more recently come to a realization that I need to approach the lack of students at my office hours differently, much like I have been trying to approach other things in my course differently. Although I can’t place the exact place that triggered the idea, I would say it probably came from one of the podcasts I listen to regularly:
The thing that I think is the biggest issue is the idea that if students are not doing what I would think is in their best interest, then it probably means the they do not know it is in their best interest. Instead of complaining that they don’t come to my office hours, I need to see the problem as one of them not coming from the academic tradition of understanding what it means to be a student. Students at a community college are often from families without a long tradition of college education. To them, we professors are unapproachable and intimidating. They do not see me as offering an opportunity for them to do better. Instead, without a culture of understanding academic life, like those of us who teach them who have become very comfortable with the ways that academic life transpires, many of them are first timers who are not comfortable with meeting a professor one-on-one in his or her office.
So, I know that I need to do something different to help bring students into my office hours. That’s because the article I started off is correct, the one-on-one interaction is important and often makes a big difference in student success.
Here are some of my ideas:
- Making an initial office hour visit a requirement at the beginning of the semester.
- Having students meet to discuss a project or paper as part of a progress report in the semester.
- Having more active office hours where there is a theme or object each week for students to participate in.
More radical ideas than that are currently not allowed by our office hour requirements – as I have to have 10 office hours on campus in my office each week. But I would be open to suggestions? Does anyone have any more success at getting students to office hours? Are there any things that we could do differently to get students in office hours?
So, hello again. Yes. I know. I have not been on here in a while. In fact, if you look back at the posting history on this blog, I have not been posting regularly since the fall of 2014. Here it is, the summer of 2016. So, what happened?
We had our fourth kid in the fall of 2012, and by the time I stopped posting regularly, she was up and running around the house. In fact, if I look back at my extracurricular work (blogging, Coursera courses, and the like), a lot of it stopped around that time. I was able to keep going through the first couple of years until she was very mobile and demanding on time. I can’t say it was a conscious decision, but it was something that my wife and I had conversations about. We discussed the constant pressure that I felt to be on all the time in my job. With a teaching load that is at least half online, there is pressure to be doing work 24/7, and, to a certain extent, I was. However, since that point, I have tried to incorporate more family time and more free time into what I do, so that I am not constantly expected to be working. I am not saying I was constantly working, but I was always work-aware, checking email, looking at my courses, and trying to fill my free time with relevant activities. That all changed around the spring of 2015, when I changed how I balance my work and my life to be biased more toward life. And, this blogging has been one of the things that has dropped off.
Another decision that affected the blogging came straight from this decision. I had always had Sunday evening online office hours, even though few students ever attended them. I took two hours out of every Sunday and sat in front of the computer in my office on a video-conferencing program to be available to my students. That was an ideal time to also sit down and write a blog entry, as I had to be in front of the computer doing work for that time. Of course, since almost no students ever came on, I had the time for blogging as well. After the fall of 2014, I dropped these hours because they were so poorly attended and because they were more of an inconvenience that a help to my own work-life balance. While occasionally productive, it brought work home even more directly than I do now, and it was something that became harder and harder as the toddler got more mobile. Dropping those hours is not something I regret, and it has again moved me more toward the life side of the work-life balance, but it has had an impact as well.
In looking back on it, I have mixed feelings about the change. I miss blogging regularly, and I feel more disconnected from my work at times. It also has made my actual work time more stressful, as there is more pressure to get things done in the time I am working. As well, when work does poke into life, as it did in the last semester because of a committee I was chairing, it is that much more stressful as well. However, the overall effect has been good. I do spend more time with my family than before, I think, and I am not as tied into work as I used to be while at home. As well, I have been reading more than I used to, especially of fiction, which I love. I have been using Goodreads to keep track of the books that I read, and during the last school year (September-May), I read 39 books. I consider that a success as well.
Lately, however, I have been feeling the need to get back into pushing myself more academically. I need to find a balance, and I have not yet figured out how to hit that balance. I do not necessarily think that I have leaned too far toward life at this point, but I do think that I have not committed myself to as much of the extracurricular work activity that I should be doing, such as keeping up this blog. I would like to take more continuing education-type courses. I would like to read more in my field (yes, of those 39 books, not a single one was a history book). I would like to work on course redesign, lecture rewriting, and new teaching methods. And, I want to do all of this without disrupting the balance too much. So, we shall see how it goes.
I guess you will see this result directly. If I am regularly posting on here, then you can see that I am working more outside of just teaching. So, keep me honest and let me know when I fall behind. Also, do you have any thoughts on this?
Today was another day of teaching. What can I say. My wife always asks me the same question every day when I come home – Was work exciting? And, I really never have a good answer to that. Rarely is work exciting, but rarely is it dismal either. Going in to work is a necessary evil in many ways. I teach exclusively online in the summer, and your standard community college student taking online classes in the summer is very unlikely to make it to on-campus office hours. In three weeks so far, I have seen three students. Now, yes, if I was not there, those three students could not have come in to see me, but does tha make up for the rest of it? I don’t know. It is a 25-minute commute each way to get to work, and I stay up there for around four hours at a time for office hours. And, for the most part, I sit there and do work. Or not. It depends on my mood, my attentiveness, my concentration, my guilt, and many other things as to whether a day in the office is a good, productive one, or a bad, unproductive one.
But that’s the thing, it doesn’t matter really one way or the other. I am going to get my work done, but I am not necessarily going to get it done during the hours I sit at work. As I am teaching exclusively online right now, there is no physical bounds on my work. It can be done anywhere and at any time. And, of course, being on campus on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10am – 2pm is probably the least likely time that my online-only students are going to be working on the course material, meaning that I am most available at the time they are least likely to need my help. But it is the requirement at my community college that we hold on-campus office hours, so I am there. But, again, is it exciting? No. Is it necessary? Apparently. Is it worth it? That depends on the day.
So, when she asked me today, when I got home, if work was exciting, what did I say? Not really. I graded some essay exams. I went to lunch. That’s what I had to say. But, the reality is that I did much more than that. I got there a little before 10 and cleared my email inbox, answering emails from students, including two who wanted to drop the class (because it is now time to take the exam) and one who wanted me to look at drafts of the essay questions for the exam. I clicked through the rest of the emails, most of which required no specific action today but are things I want to look at later. I have a folder rule set up in Outlook to send all of the newsletters and informational emails to a folder to be read when I have the time and interest in reading them. Then I checked in on my online class, looking to see what had happened since I had last looked at the class the night before. I double checked what I had fixed at 8am this morning when the Testing Center had called with a question about the exam, where I had not set the closing time correctly. It was fixed correctly, luckily, and four more students had taken my exam since that point. I then checked to see if the fix that is due from the textbook publisher had come in that would allow me to grade the written submissions of my students had happened yet. And, it had not. So, the publishers’ program that I am class testing still does not allow me to grade what my students submitted, which is getting to be more and more of a problem. I went in to talk to my Dean about it, but he had taken the day off. So, I sent him an email about it. By that time, I had been there about 45 minutes, and so I took a few minutes off to do some random web surfing. I am in the office by myself by that point, so I had turned on some music to listen to. I then started grading. I can grade about 3 exams at a time before I have to take a break. So, in the time between when I started and when it was time to go to lunch, I got 9 exams graded. As the exam actually does not close until tonight, I figured that really wasn’t too bad overall, as I’m ahead of the game there.
I went to my usual Thursday afternoon lunch with some colleagues, and it was 1:30 by the time I got back to the office. I chatted about office politics and the like with some people in my office bay until it was time to go at 2. I made it home in time to help my wife get all of the kids ready to go to the grocery store with her. We then realized that our elder daughter had math tutoring to go to, so my wife took the other kids to the grocery store, and I took the one to the tutoring. I normally sit at Starbucks and work while my daughter is in tutoring, which is where I started this post. However, my wife had gotten locked out of the house, so I had to go back and let her in, leaving me to finish this post later in the day. I entertained the toddler while my wife made dinner, then I went back to get the other daughter from tutoring. We had dinner; I watered the flowerbeds and garden; I did some laundry; and now I sit down.
So, was the day exciting? You tell me, but this was fairly typical.
Interestingly enough, I came across a recent article on a subject that I have written about before. I have debated the usefulness of online office hours here before, and a recent article in Inside Higher Ed raised the question again. Apparently, San Antonio College is considering going to online office hours because students just don’t go to regular office hours. As noted, professors these days are more likely to contact a student over email or something like that rather than them showing up to traditional office hours in an academic office. In this case, the professors still have to keep five day office hours on campus, but they are allowed to have five of their office hours off campus. However, my earlier issues are still there. I wonder about the actual office hours either way. If students don’t come to traditional office hours and they don’t come to online office hours, then what use are office hours in general?
I completely understand why we are supposed to have them. We are meant to be available. We are meant to be working. If we are not there physically, then we are not working in the traditional sense of the word. We have a board member at my community college who is already convinced that we do not work enough. According to him, our contract is only for 15 hours of teaching and 10 hours of office hours, so we are overpaid and overworked. If we were to move to even less “on campus” time, then the argument would be even stronger that we do not really work.
On the other side of things, there is the question of whether the office hours that we do have are useful at all. What is the use of simply sitting in the office. Am I filling a purpose sitting there? Am I fulfilling a purpose by sitting in online office hours that nobody attends. Or, as the article raises as the real question, is the real interaction that we do with students not in something easily classified as an “office hour?” Where are the real interactions with students? Here’s what I do with students:
- talk with them before and after class
- answer emails within 4-6 hours of receiving them, if not sooner
- participate in class sessions both online and in person
- consider myself on as a teacher from the time I get out of bed to when I go to bed
What do you classify all of those things as? They all take place outside of traditional office hours, except the that I do answer some of the emails and participate in online classes during what are my on-campus office hours. Yet, for the most part, the time sitting there is simply time for me to get things done. However, is doing those things on campus useful? Could I be just as useful doing them somewhere else? But if I’m not on campus, am I not fulfilling my duty as a teacher to be available whenever my students need me? If I’m not on campus, what about those 6-10 students who do come by my office during the semester for help? Or, if I was available in other ways, would those students not come by? What about the non-tech-savvy students? What about the students who want face-to-face interaction? Is it enough for me to be available before and after class? Or do I need to be there for them?
There’s also the question I did raise in my earlier post about the online office hours. I had only one person come to them all semester. Apparently they are not useful as I have them right now either.
So, what is the solution? I don’t know. Any ideas out there?
It’s the joy that anybody who is a teacher knows — the joy of the first major assignment coming due. It’s the point where students who have skated by not doing much are going to have to put up or shut up. And for me, that point has been reached. In my hybrid classes, their assignments are scattered and due over about a 2 week period, so it’s not quite as bad with them, but with the online classes, they are turning in their first big one tonight. And, since I’m in online office hours tonight, I am here and witnessing it blow by blow. What that has meant is that I have been hearing and seeing all of the excuses roll by as to why something is not working or why things will not be turned in on time. Actually, I haven’t seen that many of those yet, but it’s almost 8pm now, and the assignment closes at midnight. So, as it gets closer and closer, the fear-induced excuses will grow. On the positive side, I have seen a lot of drafts so far, which is very good. Drafting means higher levels of organization and preparedness and generally leads to better grades overall. Of course, even then, the assignment has been open for 5 weeks, and I am seeing even drafts only in the last couple of days. I know it’s a joke to say an assignment is open for 5 weeks, as very, very few students will do any work on something more than a week before it is due. Most will do it a day or two before, so a good number are working furiously to finish it right now.
I’ve also thrown in a different wrench this time to their plans (lovely mixed metaphor there). They get all of the information for their assignment from the textbook website, but they actually turn it in on turnitin.com. So, they have to take the extra step of making sure they turn it in to the correct place. As of right now, I have already been contacted by two who realized they turned it in at the incorrect place, and I’m sure there will be more who will realize it at a later point. As to excuses, I’ve had two so far — a child in the hospital and a crashed computer — both are probably legitimate (the first definitely so), and those have been dealt with. The more creative excuses come as we get closer to the time when everything is due. I do take late assignments at a 10-point penalty per day, but I don’t actually say that up front, as I don’t want students abusing that option.
For now, it is the time when I start to see who is really serious about the class and who is not. It’s funny that it comes to that, but it is true as well. A good portion of my students do not make it even to the first assignment of the semester. They are already lost before they’ve even gotten any significant grades, and there is not much I can do about it. I can notify them that they have missed the assignment (we have an Early Alert system that sends them an official email and letter from the college), but that’s about all I can do. This semester, there has already seemed to be a larger number in classes overall here at my community college that are not showing up. One of my hybrid sections is already down a third in attendance. I’ll have a better idea of how the online classes sit after this weekend, so I can’t say anything there yet. I’ve talked to some colleagues and even my classes themselves, and everyone has noted a larger than normal number of students who have signed up for classes and not even made it past the third or fourth week. I don’t really know why or what would make this semester any different than the others.
And so I sit and monitor my classes for now. I have some other projects I’m working on, so I am doing those on the side while I’m here monitoring my email and my online office hours room, but most of it is just sitting here and monitoring. Not the most exciting thing, but then teaching, especially online, does devolve into a lot of waiting on the students to do their thing so that you can do your thing. By tomorrow, I’ll have a mountain of grading to do. But for now, I wait, do some other things, and keep checking to try to avert whatever crises I can.