Ed’s Rules of Online Teaching, Part One: “Managing Expectations”

I am heartened by the quick response of colleges and universities to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, but I am also deeply worried and saddened by the intended and unintended impacts of the tumultuous shift from face-to-face to online instruction (or even to cancel classes altogether). As we move forward, I think it is really important to think about and address more than pedagogy, more than the transfer of content, more than logging contact hours. Since much of the burden of “maintaining” the rigor and learning “experience” of university falls to students and teachers, I hope we take into account the “soft” and emergent benefits and affordances of classrooms, quads, dining halls, dorms, libraries, coffee shops, movie theaters, restaurants, theaters, polling places, and other public spaces and places. These, too, are part of the ecology of education and university and democratic life, which largely alas will not translate or translate well to being digitally mediated (synchronous or not).

For someone who works on technoculture, video games, digital cultures, and regularly teaches online, I maintain a guardedly optimistic view of online instruction. Like any technology, there is no one size fits all solution; careful integration is much harder than superficial inclusion. I have been working on my “Philosopy of Teaching (with) Technology” over the years (a new genre of teaching portfolio document that I think all of us and future grads should write or include as part of their teaching statements). As I have written elsewheres, there are no “digital natives”–short of science fictional artificial intelligences or lifeforms, we are all new to, learning with, adapting to, innovating with digital technologies–to perpetuate the fantasy that our students are somehow magically in tune with technology is ignoring the many fractures, insecurities, and asymmetries in their relationship and access to tech, to their instructors and peers, and beyond.

But, to the nuts and bolts of teaching online for which there are many good essays, resources, ideas, suggestions, and cautions, over the next few posts, I offer my top three suggestions–here is the first:

Rule #1: Manage Expectations

I often go back to David Bartholomae’s 1986 essay “Inventing the University” and his central argument that every time a student writes for university classes, “he [or she] has to invent the university for the occasion…[t]he student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.” I extend this idea that many students, particularly first generation and international students, not only have learn how to write for the university, for our particular courses, but also how to read, research, take notes, study; manage time, health, sleep; work and socialize with peers, attend office hours, use on- and off-campus resources, navigate institutional bureaucracies, and, yes, use technologies–particularly email, word processing, and learning management systems. In other words, university students often have to learn how to be university students, to learn the genre and performativities of studenting.

Being in a face-to-face, analog classroom has largely been naturalized for most students. However, on the ground, being at college never looks quite like what it does in the movies or popular media. I am regularly frustrated by the wonderfully-social first-year experience programs (where students often are bundled in cohorts, take similar classes, and often have a 1-credit, once a week seminar) because they fall short of ingratiating the norms and expectations of studenting (for good or for naught). I really believe that part of that socialization must be to establish what online courses, instruction, and learning looks like, works like, and feels like; a culture of online teaching and coursework needs to be well-established with clear frames, expectations, even social norms. Otherwise, students (and some teachers) will default to the norms and expectations of the digital they are already familiar with: the Internet. (And as we know there be dragons, lions, tigers, bears, and trolls…) They treat online courses, much like course evaluations, like social media, Yelp, or worst yet, MOOCs.

Long preamble aside, like any course, outline, define, and manage clear expectations for what your online course is and is not. For face-to-face classes, we often do not have to spell out things like how much time should be spent in class, on outside work, what constitutes active participation, and so on (though we definitely should). For online courses, all of these norms must be laid out. For example, here is my syllabus blurb for my online courses:

Students are expected to conduct themselves on the message board, via email and chat, and in the course in compliance with the Ohio University’s Student Code of Conduct. Consider the class blog, email, chat, and any other communication as if you were in a face-to-face classroom: the rhetorical, cultural, and social context should dictate what you say, how you say it, and why you say it. In other words, do not do anything you would not do in person: be respectful, patient, professional, open, and generous even as we engage differences in beliefs, opinions, perspectives, and approaches. Please bring any communications you believe to be in violation of this class policy to my attention. Active interaction with me, your peers, and the class materials is essential to success in this online course, paying particular attention to the following:

• Students are expected to participate in all graded or required discussions. While there is great flexibility in online courses, this is not a self-paced course. Minimum, satisfactory engagement with Blackboard is about 3-4 hours a week.
• Unless indicated otherwise, please complete the readings and view other instructional materials for each week before participating in the discussion board.
• You are required to participate in Blackboard discussions at least 6-8 times each week (all episode discussions and any two other threads), with your first posts due no later than Wednesday evening and your second set of posts by Saturday evening. Outstanding participation includes additional contributions to lecture and assignment threads, blogging points, and even online office hours.
• Read your posts carefully before submitting them. Keep in mind tone, formality, audience, and language. Challenging the ideas held by others is an integral aspect of critical thinking and the academic process. Please word your responses carefully, and recognize that others are expected to respond and even challenge your ideas.
• In other words, no hate, no spam, no flame, no fluff.

This is followed up by explicit, directive, but short posts that outline how a particular week works and is laid out, what constitutes substantive participation, assignments and due dates, how to use the LMS and other online tools needed by the course, and “good netiquette.” For example, here is part of a framing email from my ENG 3060J: Women and Writing: “Critical Approaches to Buffy the Vampire Slayer” course from last summer 2018:

Much of the labor of online teaching is at the front end–setting up, learning the ropes, organizing material, streamlining for accessibility and legibility. Then it is about flow, maintenance, orchestrating momentum, attention, and adjustment. (I am still working on how to pare all of this down, but writing out instructions, ideas, and issues takes a long time. Therein is the peril of teaching online.) The key takeaways for managing expectations for me are:

  • An Online Course Can Be Hard: Foremost, I disabuse students that an online course is somehow easier or less “full” than a face-to-face class. In fact, I always forewarn students that because of the limitations of being online the course might actually be or seem harder, less intuitive, more demanding particularly of time, attention, and engagement (as detailed below). For students, the notion that taking an online class means it will be “easy” or “quick” or “just like watching a YouTube video” is part of the fantasies and mystifications of online culture in general. For instructors, the impulse to simplify or to make a course “easier” should be about the mechanics of the course and not necessarily the content or ideas or texts of the course. Like F2F classes, we must work on, through, against the medium-specific affordances and limitations of online teaching.
  • Time: Because of the narrowing of bandwidth, everything takes longer. I often say everything will take 50% longer than you expect. What you could do in a minute or two question or explanation or discussion face-to-face suddenly has to be composed, edited, mediated, uploaded, distributed, commented upon, responded to. Students, especially, need to learn to approach online courses with some deep(er) attention than they give their Instagram feeds or Buzzfeed listicles. Underlining that the course is not self-paced is really important; using the analogy that they should be engaging the course and the LMS multiple times a week like a face-to-face course is my go to. Yes, there is some temporal flexibility but a course is not something that be completed all at once, at the end, just ticking off assignments; it should not be taken that way or designed that way. Given that most online courses are asynchronous, mapping and scheduling consistent goal posts or deadlines is useful. I would also caution against allowing students to work too far ahead in advance–again it is not self-paced but rather new material builds on previous material and spending time to work through ideas, texts, confusions, details, and assignments takes time. I often breakdown the time-spent logics for what a standard 3-credit course (for semester systems) is including class time, reading and homework time, and assessment time–most courses tot up to 120 hours of engagement, effort, and work. For online courses, I think it is useful to map out how those hours are to be achieved.
  • Virtual Office Hours: Part of managing time is figuring out what to do synchronously or not. Unless mandated from the start, expecting synchronous (real-time) instruction is challenging and often disadvantages those who are taking courses while working (or managing children, family, illness), who have intermittent broadband internet access, and/or have specific accessibility needs or challenges. Granted, with the current crisis, the converting of face-to-face classes to online classes might warrant some synchronous instruction since students should still have the scheduled class time available. However, rather than demand synchronicity, I work to provide a mediated experience that offers the “illusion” of face-to-face: short videos (with transcripts), assignments and activities that are not just question and answer, peer-to-peer experiences like group curation of a discussion thread (i.e. “presentation), and regular (but not daily) responses to questions, posts, and work. The one surefire synchronous thing I do is virtual office hours. I set aside an hour or two per week, regularly scheduled, much like on-campus office hours, where I am available via Google Hangouts (or your LMS chat function) to chat, answer questions, and so on. I start a group Hangout for the whole class, reminding them that it is “public” to the course,” but it is useful for them to see what other people have asked or what we have discussed. For more individual concerns, they can start a one-on-one chat. I do this via chat because there is a log, text is low bandwidth, it can be done from multiple platforms, devices, even locales (i.e. I once was on a trip and was fielding questions via my phone while a passenger in a car). If necessary, and this is rare, I will offer a video chat if a question or issue is particularly expansive or thorny.
  • Participation: As an English and humanities professor, most of my courses are smaller and discussion-based, which means I often have a participation component in grading and assessment. Even for larger and lecture classes, there are ways to address and include participation in the course. For online courses, “showing up” for the class becomes far more nebulous and woolly: Is participation just logging on to the LMS? Is it posting and responding and how many times or how long per post? What does it mean to substantively respond or participate? Is time-spent the only measure? For the most part, in my experience, online courses are treated too casually, too superficially by students. Check in, check out. Do the minimum, expect the minimum. The “I showed up to class everyday” logic becomes “I looked at things everyday,” which they often assume means they will pass, do well, get an A in the course. Therefore, like my face-to-face courses, I frame what outstanding, good, adequate, unsatisfactory participation is and hopefully without sounding like a parole officer. For me, participation online requires more actual investment, time, “listening” (reading), and responding. Yes, like an analog class, you will likely have the same handful to dozen students do their due diligence. But unlike a F2F class, there is not the embodied presence of the other students, who may not be speaking but are there. The silent but attentive ones are part of the way participation coalesces. They offset the actively-not-participating or absent students, a kind of in situ participatory herd immunity to “dead air” or “dead weight.” In the online context, that deadening of participation is far more pronounced; absence online is visceral. You notice more when no one is contributing. Thus, articulating what being a good online citizen of the course means is vital. As I will discuss later, it is not just about adding more content, more posts, more responses. Rather, it is about setting the stage, like performers and their audience, for how instructor and student should, could, and might interact and engage.
  • Assessment: My oft repeated mantra for online teaching is less is less. Given bandwidth and access issues, requiring less “work” makes life easier for everyone, particularly regarding grading and assessment. Doing less “work,” however, does not mean watering down difficult material or making everything “easy.” Rather, in this case, it means remediating where students should put most of their attention and effort, cultivating (as much as possible) the idea that online learning is collaborative and communal, reducing activities and assignments that are administrative rather than instructive, and grading less. Most of my day-to-day, week-to-week activities are not graded, many are marked “done/not done,” foregrounding that keeping up with things will help in the formally graded work (which should be obvious even in F2F classes). Every touch to the LMS should not be scored or graded nor should every post be responded to; that would produce an avalanche of content and admin-ing that no one wants to slog through. Put grades where they count the most and create simple and flexible ways to credit contribution. In addition to an overall participation grade, I create assignments or activities that are inherently participatory such as small group presentations/discussion curations, peer reviews, collaborative note-taking, sharing creative assignments. What remains are the usual graded suspects: papers, projects, and so on–but these are kept in manageable sequences or chunks.

Again, these are observations and considerations that are local to me, my courses, and my own pedagogies. But I hope they are helpful, transferable in useful ways, and allow for teachers and students and administrators alike to organize, articulate, and implement their philosophy of teaching online and teaching with technologies.

Tomorrow, Rule #2: Low Tech is the Best Tech.

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