Six things I’ve learned after 6 weeks of distance learning
Like most professors, I was thrust into distance learning in mid-March with little notice or training.
I had a few things going for me. Last semester I taught two sections of undergraduate Managerial Writing in addition to my usual adjunct work in the MFA program, so I’d already had already climbed a reasonable distance of Blackboard’s steep learning curve.
When I was hired as a special appointment to teach full-time this semester, I arranged a meeting with WestConn’s Instructional Designer, Aura Lippincott, to make sure everything was set up correctly before the semester started, rather than making all the untrained newbie mistakes that had caused my students confusion the semester before. So when we were told we were moving online with just over a week’s notice, I already had my course shells set up in Blackboard, and my students were used to uploading their assignments — or at least most of them were. More on that later.
I’m also reasonably tech savvy, despite having once tried to Shazam from the navigation screen in the center console of my car instead of the speakers, a source of great and continued amusement to my husband even ten years later.
However, the biggest thing I had going for me is that I am a perpetually curious lifelong learner. I’m not afraid to try new things, or to listen to other people’s ideas to see if they work better. At a time like this, when the situation has been evolving from day-to-day (March 12th, the last time I taught face-to-face classes feels like centuries ago) that ability to grow and learn is an essential part of the job.
So now that we’re six week-centuries into this, what have I learned?
- Weekly Folders help both professors and students stay organized. Thanks to Dr. Stephanie Kuhn in the WCSU Education Dept, I’ve been putting all reading and assignments into a weekly folder, which goes live on Sunday evening at 5pm. Everything in the folder is due by 11:59pm on Friday. That way my students can do it when it’s most convenient. For my creative classes, we’ve had one discussion session a week, but most of the work is asynchronous. Weekly folders have cut down on the number of “What is due this week?” emails.
- Keep assignment submissions to Blackboard. Earlier in the semester, if students were having trouble figuring out how to use Office 365 through their student email, I would accept their homework if they sent me a Google Drive link — anything to make it easier to comment because Box, the commenting feature in Blackboard, is terrible. Now I have sent screenshots of how they can access Office 365, so everyone uploads a Word document to Blackboard. With the volume of emails I’m getting now (I estimate the number of student emails is up by 50% since we went online) it’s too easy for an emailed assignment to slip through the cracks. The “needs grading” feature in Blackboard is what keeps me on track.
- Check in with students that seem to have fallen off the map. I’ve tried to email students who haven’t submitted an assignments for two weeks, saying I just want to check in and make sure everything is okay with them and their family. It makes a difference. More than one student has started submitting assignments again after the check-in, and thanked me for emailing. Our students are feeling lost and overwhelmed, and those with depression or anxiety are experiencing it even more due to the loss of structure.
- Even the students who are on top of their work and seem to be doing well are struggling. This is no great insight, because isn’t that just how we are as their professors? Sure, I’m pretty organized with my classes and am at zero “needs grading”in Blackboard for the first time all semester, but there are days when I fall into a funk and have to drag myself to my computer to work. Every day is the same — what changes is how we’re coping with in each 24 hour period. That leads me to:
- It’s okay to set boundaries. I’m a morning person. Most of my students seem to be night owls. They email me at all hours, and often those late night emails are multi-part questions, like they’ve been saving it all up to shoot at you at 11pm, the point where my brain is complete mush. So I’ve made a rule for myself — don’t answer student emails after dinner. That way, they’re getting better information and I’m actually getting a break.
- Be patient. Sure, sometimes it’s hard not to scream when you read an email asking “What’s due this week? Where do I submit this?” when you’ve explained umpteen times that the everything due that week is in the folder and the link to submit it is in folder, too. I allow myself to read a few aloud to my husband each day just to blow off steam, but then I take a deep breath, remind myself that everyone is struggling and answer as kindly and patiently as I can.
That patience is something I hope I can maintain once we’re teaching face to face again, and take into other areas of my life — who knows, maybe it’ll help me have more helpful political conversations with people that disagree with me.
Finally, even though we’re not doing official teacher evaluations this semester, I created a survey for my students to complete at the end of the semester, asking them what suggestions that had for me to improve, both in the classroom and online. Even though President Trump is trying to downplay the danger of a second wave of COVID19 in the fall, it sounds like our university, along with our governor, is more inclined to follow the science. If we end up having to start the fall semester online I want to learn from my mistakes and be better prepared, because this time I won’t have been able to establish relationships in the classroom first.