Longtime online instructor Pr. Richard Schumaker shares best practices and challenges to be aware of as CUNY transitions to distance learning. This is a difficult time for everyone – set expectations, accordingly.
- Avoid isolation. If possible, develop relationships with colleagues that teach the course that you are about to teach. Two of the major lessons about online teaching are, first, that it takes about three times through a course to really feel comfortable, and, second, everyone no matter how experienced has issues with teaching online. Thus, I would create or join some kind of workgroup for the course or courses that you will be teaching. Over time, this can be very creative and valuable. [Editor’s note: if you’re a CUNY instructor with a CUNY email address, you can do so by joining this Slack].
- Be aware of your students. It’s important to know whether your students are used to the Learning Management System (LMS) you are using. If they aren’t, you will need to explain things to them. The approach to avoid is “the students should know this.” Maybe they should but unless they are guided by their instructors, the academic quality of the course will suffer, and it will get harder and harder to teach as the semester evolves.
- Consistent patterns and outreach. I try to send out a Monday Missive at 10am every Monday, a Friday Recap at 5pm on Friday, and a Sunday motivation message on Sunday after lunch or dinner. I also like to establish a time when they can be sure to reach me for an immediate response. I realize that this can seem excessive but these kinds of approaches make it much easier to teach an online class. In the end, despite appearances, they save a lot of time.
- Availability. I would be very clear about when you are available both in your office and virtually. When I teach a class for the first time, I am especially easy to run down because I know that my sense of timing in the class is a work in progress. One of the golden rules of online teaching, often ignored, is that it takes about three times through a course before one is fully comfortable with the course and its dynamics. This is true for me even after teaching almost 200 online courses.
- Consider your own persona. Because the online dynamics are different from face-to-face (f2f) teaching, what one does naturally–walk into a classroom and teach your material–becomes problematic in online teaching, so it’s important to at least give a little thought to questions such as: How formal should my writing be? Should I use humor? Should I try to inspire? Should I digress some or should I stay completely on track? If students have interests that are a little marginal to the class, should I digress or do sidebars?
- Discussions. I would say this is the biggest challenge for teaching online for both neophyte and experienced instructors. There are three rather precise issues that arise regarding online discussions. First, it is important to align the discussion topics with the learning objectives or key concepts for the individual weeks. If one’s online course, for whatever reason, doesn’t “use” weekly learning objectives, it becomes difficult to create appropriate discussion questions. Second, designing formally rigorous and interesting discussion questions isn’t something that all teachers have a lot of experience doing. The tendency is to generate very 2-5 complex questions and “throw” them to the students. While this might have a certain value, it does not lead to good discussions. Actually, it leads to no discussions or the weekly discussion as a de facto test or quiz. Third, how to respond to the student responses is something that needs to be addressed. What kind of feedback do I give? How do I moderate the overall discussion? How do I work with the students so that the discussion helps them understand the course material?
- Give examples. Keeping this one short, let me highly recommend always giving at least one example for everything you are going to assess. Personally, I also annotate my examples most of the time, at least the longer ones and often turn this into a major lesson. This is certainly more important in some classes than in others.
- Use weekly learning objectives and remind the students of the progress in the course. All standard online lists of “best practices” emphasize this: each week should have 2-5 very clear objectives or key themes stated and actually used throughout the week. Every week I begin my Monday Missives with something like: “Welcome to Week Five or our 15-week semester. Our midterm is in two weeks and will require a 4-5-page paper. The questions for this paper are attached to this announcement, and I prepared a brief video to help you write your essay. When I review and evaluate your papers, I will be looking to see if you have assimilated Deleuze’s idea on “the image of thought” in his book on Nietzsche and in Difference and Repetition.”
School of Professional Studies, City University of New York (CUNY).
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