The past few weeks have been a whirlwind with all of the end-of-semester activities. Regular readers know that as the Fulbright spouse (that’s a thing, right?) on this adventure, I’ve been remotely teaching my college courses back in Mississippi. I’m so grateful that my college gave me this opportunity as there aren’t many institutions who would have allowed such flexibility! Teaching my courses remotely has been wonderful, but not without its own unique set of challenges. Now that the last session has been delivered and grades have been submitted, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on this part of the experience.
I have always incorporated a hybrid element into my courses, as I think that it’s important for my community college students to become familiar with the digital platforms that will play a large part in their future university experience. I don’t plan on changing that when I return to the States, but I will make some changes the next time I teach an online class like this.
Stick to the late work policy. I’ve long held a pretty firm policy that I don’t accept late work. Early in my high school teaching career, I used the grade letter per late day deduction policy, but I’ve since dropped that as I found it didn’t provide enough motivation to turn work in on time. As I sometimes tell my students, I don’t get an extension if I miss a grant application deadline, or fail to file something with the IRS by April 15th. I ask them what happens if you miss a credit card payment? How about if you don’t turn in a job app by the deadline? For my courses, not accepting late work helps me focus on providing appropriate feedback for the assignment at hand, rather than having to go back and catch up on something we “finished” weeks ago. In addition to making my life easier — and perhaps helping students with their time management skills — I’ve found that a no late work policy better motivates students to put the work in. But what about killing their GPA, you might ask (or at least, that’s what late students sometimes ask). Since students in my writing courses submit multiple drafts before the final version is turned in, I’ve found that offering a series of low-stakes check-ins gives me a chance to address missing work before we get to the major assignment deadline. If a student doesn’t turn in the final draft, I will typically grade their latest submitted draft for partial credit. Yes, their grade does take a hit, but I’m able to recognize effort up to that point. If a student hasn’t done any of the drafts, nor the final paper, they’ve earned the 0 and can try again on the next paper. This semester in the online class, I let that policy slide and accepted late work up until the final week of class. Never again. I thought that I was being accommodating given the unusual class dynamic, but really this ended up causing quite a few problems. Since students typically didn’t run these late papers through any sort of revision, I ended up with final products that were very rough. I also had an uptick in plagiarism, since running out of time is one primary reasons students plagiarize. Online or not, slapping together a couple of essays at the end of the semester really isn’t good for anyone.
Spend more time training students in the LMS. I thought that I had a pretty good plan for this. Before I left, we did some dry runs in the lab to test out all the equipment. I also created modules in Canvas with links to how-to docs and videos for common tasks. In retrospect, I should have started the semester off in the computer lab. This would have gotten students accustomed to the class dynamic from the beginning instead of starting with a month of face-to-faces lessons and then shifting to the webcams. I would have been able to troubleshoot problems more readily and quickly identify those students who were going to need extra help working with the technology.
That said, there were some parts of this experiment that worked really well.
Guest lectures for the win. By far, this was the most popular aspect of my classes. Four of my professors at MC offered to step in to deliver a guest lecture for my students. I figured that these lectures would help break up the monotony of the webcams and give them some additional perspectives on their work. What the lectures actually did was inspire the students to think far beyond our campus. In World Literature, Dante’s Inferno was rated as my student’s favorite work we covered this semester. Many students choose their self-selected research paper topics on Inferno and ended up doing some great work. This wouldn’t have happened without Dr. Miller’s inspired discussion of Dante’s world — contrapasso became several students favorite new word for the rest of the term! My students were also able to experience one of Dr. Everett’s whiteboard talks on Hamlet. Seeing the screenshot of the board instantly took me back to our seminars! After his introduction to Shakespeare, I had a higher percentage of students actually read the play than I normally do — especially coming as it does at the end of the semester when nerves are frayed and deadlines are short. In my composition courses, Dr. Melancon delivered a fantastic introduction to graphic novels that helped students get into the genre. I need to check with our librarian to see if she saw any uptick in circulation rates in her collection, but from what I saw in our subsequent class discussions, I think we have some new graphic novel converts on campus! Toward the end of the semester, Dr. Jordan was able to spur many students to action on their major research project, as well as provide some much-needed encouragement. One of my students was so proud that the professor thought she was on to something in her paper as she bragged to me in our next meeting; she spent a lot of time carefully thinking about her suggestions and gentle nudges (to one of Dr. Jordan’s favorite workshop phrases!) to produce a quality final product. I was also happy to hear from students that MC was on their radar. I’m not trying to recruit for the college, but I do encourage students to apply broadly for universities when they get ready to transfer.
Incorporate distance learning technology. I really enjoyed using my Kubi tele-presence robot. My inner geek really wanted this to work (as those of you who heard me gushing about it when it arrived can attest). While my internet connection here in Palestine wasn’t robust enough to use it exactly as I originally intended (I wanted students to come up to the robot anytime they needed help in the class for a conference), I was able to use the Kubi to provide more of a personal connection to students as they entered the classroom. I always like greeting students individually when they come in the room and the Kubi allowed me to keep up that tradition. On a more practical class management note, the Kubi also let me monitor the class to know who was leaving early or who might need some prompting to get back to work. Coupled with Zoom conferences with the individual student’s webcams, I felt more like I was in the room. I designed this course as a hybrid with required physical presence in the lab for our “live” sessions, but I think even if I were to teach a fully online version of the class, I would want to incorporate at least some synchronous sessions.
When I get back to the campus in the spring, I’m going to experiment with allowing students who are absent due to illness to connect to the class “live.” I’m thinking that putting the Kubi at their usual desk should allow them to interact with their groups. I will also definitely continue using Zoom for web conferencing with my students. This is also going to be a new tool to offer students when doing group projects — one of my groups this semester asked if they could have a conference room opened so they could use the video chat after class!
Expose students to online instruction. Many students have responded very well to the hybrid format with one “live” video discussion a week, and another asynchronous session in Canvas. I would like to think that the experience was helpful for most of the students, as their first exposure to an online course. Some students who probably would have struggled in my face-to-face class, had a difficult time navigating the extra responsibilities that come with taking an online class. Hopefully those students are better prepared now for online coursework (or as one student told me — jokingly, I hope — scarred enough to know to avoid online sections in the future!). I’m playing with the idea of incorporating one fully online unit into my face-to-face classes to make sure that students are developing those increasingly important digital skills.
In all, it’s been a great experiment. I’m thankful to my students who were so patient as we learned together; my colleagues at Hinds who helped make the course possible through their generous support (my VP and Deans were incredibly helpful all through the planning and implementation, and our rockin’ librarian Jean Greene was especially awesome with all her on-the-ground help!); and my friends and mentors at MC who were the ultimate pinch-hitters. As fun as the remote teaching as been, I am looking forward to having a physical presence in the classroom again. See y’all soon!