We are in uncharted waters, have been dumped in very suddenly: and the water’s cold! All of us—students, faculty and staff—have had our lives upended by the COVID19 virus: schedules have been revamped; kids are home from school; we’re self-isolating so we have to avoid friends and neighbors ‘just in case’; we’re working from home, often without the proper tools to do so; we’re worrying about family and friends who are traveling. We are all feeling our way in these new circumstances that have come unbidden to our shores.
Meanwhile, we are still responsible for making sure that our students are able to learn and finish their semester in good shape. How can we do all that?
My first answer is: use your empathy to guide yourself in making decisions:
Be kind to yourself, to your students and to the staff who are helping you get through this.
1. Don’t Aim For Perfection
Forget about the best practices for distance learning. Turning your class from a face-to-face to an online class in the middle of the semester is not the same thing as running a carefully designed distance learning class. This is not going to be perfect: Forgive yourself when your newly online class does not replicate your face to face successes. It does not mean that you have failed. It means that you have worked hard to stretch yourself in service to student learning. Your efforts to learn and to jump in there before you’re ready are much appreciated.
Prioritize. Do what is essential and drop the rest. Concentrate on what students REALLY NEED TO KNOW and what they REALLY NEED TO BE ABLE TO DO to be successful at the end of the semester. Use your learning outcomes to decide what is essential and what can be let go. Then focus all your energies on those essentials.
2. Be Flexible, Especially Around Assessment of Learning
Students are just as busy in their private lives and just as stressed about the semester as we are. Re-examine your expectations of the students. Take a good look at your assignments, tests and the time students have to respond to your new course design. What is the best option for their learning the essentials by the end of the semester? What assignments could you modify to ensure you are aiming at the essentials and not the items on the ‘would be nice’ list? How can you modify your tests so that the students can show off their grasp of the essential learning outcomes?
Make assignments with lower stakes, especially if you’re using a platform new to you and new to the students. Too much stress lowers performance. Stress also lowers learning capacity. Get students used to using a new technology before they are assessed on anything. Give practice assignments. Do not ask students to do a high stakes exam or assignment on a new platform. What you’ll be measuring is their aptitude for performing in high stress conditions. What you’ll not be measuring is their learning.
3. Communicate—Clearly, Often, and with a Smile
Ensure that the social connections you’ve built in your face to face class are maintained. Students are used to the back and forth of your class, both with you and with their peers. Make short videos or use conferencing software such as Zoom to keep face to face contact alive. Send encouraging messages via VIULearn announcements and emails to students. Use your enthusiasm and humour in interactions whether they are synchronous or asynchronous.
Be transparent about the next steps of the semester. Talk to your students about anything that is changing, about why you’re prioritizing certain things or revamping assignments or readings. Let them know what a final exam, if you give one, will be like. They need to know that your content and delivery are purposeful and that they’re in good hands.
Be particularly kind to your graduating students. They’re already panicking, and this isn’t going to help. If you teach a class where they need to have completed something for certification, or to apply to graduate school, figure out an alternative plan that will allow them to graduate. Many times your colleagues in your department are a good place to find ideas. The important thing is to talk to your students. Silence, even if you’re working as hard as you can, is not okay.
4. Turn your students into your partners.
Students may look to you for guidance, but soliciting their input and giving them some responsibility for finding solutions can improve their sense of community, as well as their confidence in the process. Let them help you build a final exam that is fair. Let them help you build a rubric for a new or revamped assignment. Discuss the learning outcomes of the course and collect their thoughts about how the class could, as a whole, show you they’ve gotten there.
5. Be patient with Support Staff
Support staff, like you and your students, are scrambling to get you the best answers available and to create new resources. This has come on as suddenly for them as for you. Be patient and forgiving when it takes a while to get answers to your questions. Be pro-active about attending the special sessions for faculty that will begin to give you your answers.
Because of you, students will feel that the semester will still go on. You may not have all the answers, (nobody does!) Nothing will be perfect. But that does not mean it won’t be fun, and good, and inspiring as we all pull together to make the student experience as good as it can be.