More Notes on Teaching in a Pandemic

After teaching the second half of the spring 2020 semester entirely online, I thought that I’d teach the summer remotely and return to the classroom in the fall of 2020. At the start of the fall semester, I was still teaching remotely, but figured I’d be returning to the classroom in the spring. Now I’m potentially getting back into the physical classroom in the summer. Below are additional observations I’ve made as I continue to teach remotely.

Teaching fuel

Never say never, never say always, there are always exceptions, usually. I learned that phrase from my seventh grade science teacher, Mr. Radie. It’s one of the sayings that has stayed with me throughout my adult life because I see how it plays out time and time again. For example, though ACC uses a well-resarched and tested organizational structure for all online classes, the setup and course design still does not work for 100% of students 100% of the time. While we’ve been trained to structure our classes to be easy to navigate and understand, with a focus on accessibility, there is no way to design a course that is perfect for 100% of students. We do our best and work to always get better, and yet we still have to keep in mind that there are (almost) always exceptions to the rules, and there is no one system that is perfect for every single person.

Online learning is not for everyone. Some people really do hate it. Some are showing up and powering through because they can’t or don’t want to put their degree and career goals on hold. That doesn’t mean that students won’t succeed in a classroom environment that’s a mediocre or bad fit. However, I do feel sorry for those who are trying to make the best of a bad situation and struggling because they’d be happier in a classroom.

I don’t believe that a student’s level of motivation is the reason for their success or failure in online learning. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve heard that students need to be more self-motivated than in an in-person classroom. This semester, I’ve started to doubt that. First, if being in a physical classroom could compensate for a lack of motivation, no student who came to an in-person class would ever quit. In addition, this semester, I have encountered some of the most motivated students I’ve ever encountered… and they still struggled. Students who wanted to be in the class, and even wanted to be taking online classes, still struggled. There’s more to success than motivation. Students are facing unprecedented challenges, and sometimes, the difficulties of work (or lack thereof) and family responsibilities mean a student is not going to finish the class. To chalk it up to motivation is a reductionist move that glosses over the complexities of online learning and pandemic learning.

Put information in multiple formats. This semester, I decided to experiment with making my weekly course announcements available in both email and video format. I’ve always done email announcements, but since all of my online courses were originally set up to be asynchronous, I decided it would be a good idea to give students the option to have an option where they could hear a voice and see a face. I wasn’t sure how many people would be interested. As it turns out, most students made use of both formats, and many students thanked me for giving them options.

I don’t believe that students should take course overloads during pandemics. I mean, I don’t think that students should take course overloads at any point. And I am a person who might have done so in undergrad had I been able to. But now that I’ve spent nearly a decade on the other side of the classroom, I’m seeing how intentionally overloading yourself as a student causes difficulty more often than not. Yes, some students might have compelling reasons to overload, and yes, some students can handle it. On the whole, however, I don’t think that taking course loads is a good idea, and especially not with pandemic stress. I had three excellent students who ended up really struggling in the last third of the semester, and the common thread among all of them was that their advisors had advised them to take overloads so they could graduate faster. Maybe this would have been fine for them without the stress of a pandemic, but between that and the fact that none of these students were in their preferred learning environment (a physical classroom), things did not end up working out very well. I don’t think advisors should be pushing students to graduate early with so much extra weight on their shoulders.

To all of my teacher friends out there: we’re going to get through this! Best of luck as we embark on anther pandemic semester. Here’s hoping for something better in the fall.

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