Two Views of the Fall Semester, New Hopes for the Spring

This week and next, many students head back to college here in Michigan (though, for at least the first week, those classes will be virtual due to an order from the state department of health). Even without a consistent, real time video class session, inviting students to connect at least a few times in the semester can be powerful.

This week and next, many students head back to college here in Michigan (though, for at least the first week, those classes will be virtual due to an order from the state department of health).

So, as I am posting my syllabi for my (long-planned and prepared) online courses this spring, and with some encouragement from Bryan Alexander, I share a few insights from two students I know well — my daughters — and their experiences last fall.

From what I understand about the ways that many colleges and universities operated last semester, I think that their experiences offer us some insights into how we might better prepare for spring.

Student 1: Sophomore at a Residential University

Our eldest daughter was, in the fall of her sophomore year, able to live on a residential campus that offered a “concurrent” or “hy flex” model for all regularly-scheduled face-to-face classes (allowing students to attend in the socially distanced classroom or join via live video stream). For the early part of the semester she (and, from what she described) most students (which I would imagine is about 50-75%) were making a regular effort to attend class face-to-face. This concurs with what I learned from one colleague at that same university who was teaching face-to-face, as she watched attendance in face-to-face sections dwindle, moving more and more online (though all of this is anecdotal). Still, it did suggest that the option for being in person was working well for some time, for some students, yet their enthusiasm to go to a physical classroom faded, even when they were living on campus.

In particular, as my daughter described it, from mid-October until the end of the term (at Thanksgiving) things began to change. She (and from what she said, her friends) would play the trick of “attending” class (with their camera off, of course, paying partial attention or working on other tasks entirely), and would then watch the recording later, at 1.5 or 2x speed to go over notes. Having the slides ahead of time was, in many ways, a disincentive for being fully attentive during the real time class sessions.

The colleague that I talked to who were teaching on campus expressed similar drop-offs in attendance. This colleague talked about teaching to a webcam, and at least a few times, standing in front of an empty classroom (she finally chose to move the class entirely online, after confirming with students that it would be OK with that). Since she had a classroom structure that was very much discussion-centered, this was challenging for her, but she adapted and was able to use virtual breakout rooms effectively.

My eldest daughter’s single class that was scheduled to be all online anyway, a second semester composition corse, was not a very good experience… but would have been without the pandemic. It was a series of highly scripted assignments, with little room for exploration or inquiry. The class was supposed to have opportunities for peer review, yet the entire class was asynchronous and comments from peers were perfunctory. Feedback from the instructor, too, was less than desirable. So, this was a case of a poorly designed and taught online class, and not just an effect of pandemic pedagogy.

A few other elements of campus life were strange, too. Grab and go food, socially distanced public spaces, and other accommodations did become more normal by the end of the semester. There was a quarantine dorm, and a strange system of notifications that students and instructors would get if they had potentially been in contact with someone.The university’s regular “rah rah” types of emails and daily health checks felt a bit repetitive to her by the end of the semester. Still, somehow the campus stayed open as long as it had planned, and even with the Michigan health order to close and go virtual right before Thanksgiving, the semester that had been pushed up by a few weeks came to a close as planned.

She was glad to have been on campus, even if not “in person” for most of the time she was there.

Student 2: First Year Student at a Residential University that Went Fully Online

Our second daughter — having gone through the strangeness of the graduating in the spring of 2020 — was beginning her first year with hopes of moving into the dorm, and all that campus life would offer. Yet, that was not to be, as the university made the decision to be fully online. Even with a full summer of “prep” time for faculty to know that they would all be online, there was not a very robust set of remote teaching practices enacted for her.

Only a few live class sessions happened for her four classes, and one course was completely asynchronous. One instructor kept sending out announcements over and over about how difficult it was for him to teach at home, and only did two live Zoom sessions (where it was really about having students find their new group mates for a “collaborative” project, that was not very well scaffolded). On a bright note, her math class (which had regular Zoom sessions each week) was one of her favorites, and she took advantage of office hours, too. She felt connected to that instructor, which was key.

Considering the entirety of her semester, she felt OK about it though — as has been noted in more scholarly and research-based ways — she felt the clear lines that were drawn around an online experience as compared to being on campus. She is a kid that was primed to go to campus and begin her life at college. The emotional let down of an online fall, and the lack of opportunities to socialize with new classmates, was palpable.

She, too, will be back online for the winter/spring. She is hopeful that she will get to have a first-year kind of experience this fall when (and if) campus reopens and, in the mean time, did look for classes this semester that will have regular Zoom meetings scheduled (which she found two out of four). While the campus has opened up a few courses for face-to-face instruction — and she was hoping to drive from our home to campus a few days a week to attend them — she found nothing available for students in their early years, as most are upper division courses. My hope is that she can get some of those connections through these Zoom classes, and encourage all higher ed faculty to keep this in mind as they consider when, how, and why they will offer (at least a few) real time class meetings.

Moving Forward in 2021

As I consider the design of my own online courses this semester, I am again made aware of how important instructor presence is to students. Both my daughters reiterated this, in slightly different ways. The takeaway for me is that the sense of presence that an instructor projects is crucial. If you set reasonable expectations, communicate with regularity, provide opportunities to connect with you via email, phone, chat, and/or video calls, and get feedback to them in a timely manner, those practices provide a kind of consistency that makes the entire online learning experience better.

Even without a consistent, real time video class session, inviting students to connect at least a few times in the semester can be powerful. For instance, in one of my eight week courses, I will offer an opening “welcome webinar,” and then have students work with “accountability partners” throughout the abbreviated semester. They are not working on the same project as collaborators; rather, they are planning at least two phone/video calls to provide one another feedback. They will also plan one phone/video call with me to discuss their project. Finally, in the last week, students will have the option to present their work in a “closing webinar,” or record a screencast to share. These are small moves — in addition to participation in a discussion forum — that I think helps us build community.

In sum, as we all head into this semester, I know that the challenges remain constant (as summarized recently by PBS NewsHour, among others). Instructors who are working to make their teaching timely, relevant, and engaging are also still figuring out the nuances of fully online, concurrent/hy flex, and socially-distanced, in-person practices. Students are still figuring things out, too, working to maintain their academic, professional, and personal lives.

Let’s continue to think strategically about our teaching through continued conversation, such as through this webinar next week that I am co-hosting with my colleague Kristen Turner, “Cameras on… or off? Engaging Students through Conversation, Writing-to- Learn, and Relationship-Building in Remote Learning.” Also, I encourage readers to review my post from last August, “Designing Breakout Rooms for Maximum Engagement.” I encourage us all to think about how we can work effectively to build connections with our students.

All the best for a strong start to the new semester.

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Cameras On… or Off? Engaging Students through Conversation, Writing-to- Learn, and Relationship-Building in Remote Learning

What does it mean to engage students in real time, video class sessions? During the hour-long webinar, we will model active learning strategies that can be implemented in middle school, high school, and higher ed remote learning contexts.

What does it mean to engage students in real time, video class sessions? Some people think that simply having “cameras on” is the answer to student engagement. However, engagement comes when students are cognitively involved, emotionally connected, and participating actively.

Join Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks as they model strategies for building relationships with learners, implementing writing-to-learn strategies, and prompting breakout room activities with effective protocols for discussion, collaboration, and accountability.

During the hour-long webinar, we will model active learning strategies that can be implemented in middle school, high school, and higher ed remote learning contexts.

Register here: https://tinyurl.com/cameraonoroff

Examining Instructional Models for Online Instruction

Depending on the course that I was teaching, I was flexing the kinds of time I was spending (and asking students to spend) in Zoom rooms, with online discussion forums, and in various forms of partner and group projects. How many hours of video class sessions are you hosting, each week, for a typical three-credit course and what, in addition, are you asking your students to do as part of their on-going participation?

Image by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

As has been said, many times and many ways, this was a semester like no other.

With many campuses facing what Bryan Alexander called “toggle terms,” and many more being fully online, it has been a unique moment in the history of higher education. As we close 2020, I am finally at a point with all other projects where I can pause and reflect on some of the comments that my students provided me from the spring, summer, and fall semesters.

Given that all of my classes in spring and summer were scheduled to be online to begin with — and with the one class I was scheduled to teach face-to-face in the fall I was granted permission to move online — the experience of online teaching is not new for me. And, as Larry Cuban reminded us all earlier this fall, “pandemic-driven remote instruction” is something different from what has been variously called “online” or “virtual” instruction. In fact, that is part of what I wanted to capture in writing this post. Depending on the course that I was teaching, I was flexing the kinds of time I was spending (and asking students to spend) in Zoom rooms, with online discussion forums, and in various forms of partner and group projects.

So, let me begin by offering a few models of what my courses look like, in either 8- or 16-week terms, and then share some of the student comments that are guiding me as I look to the semester ahead. To keep it simple, I am following a simple “5Ws and H” format, though I may want to do some more thinking about how to accurately represent these ideas in a graphic of some kind or another.

Model 1: Full Semester, Undergraduate First-Year Seminar

  • Who: 19 first-year honors undergraduate students
  • What: 3-credit course, “Our Digital Selves: Living and Learning in a Multimodal World”
  • When: In lieu of a weekly 2 hour 45 minute course meeting in-person, we moved to a 1 hour 45 minute session and ~1 hour of participation in discussion forums and peer reviews.
  • Where: Synchronous meetings in Zoom each week; discussions in Packback; peer review in Writable.
  • Why: Because the goal of the first-year seminar is for students to develop the habits of mind toward scholarly inquiry and build community with one another, I felt that the weekly class meetings were an essential component of the overall experience. Also, I had at least two 30-minute meetings with each student during the semester to help guide them on two separate projects.
  • How: Class sessions generally moved in three to four chunks of 20 to 30 minutes each, including mini-lectures, collaborative tasks in breakout rooms, and time for writing-to-learn activities; guest speakers presented during three separate weeks of class sessions.
  • Comments from students: While I haven’t received formal end-of-class reports yet, anecdotal comments from students suggest that they appreciated the interactive nature of our video-class sessions (even though most kept their cameras off in the main room). Because the writing-to-learn activities led to more in-depth assignments, some students noted that they appreciated the time and space to talk with classmates during our class sessions, too.

Model 2.1: Abbreviated Semester, Masters Ed Tech Class

  • Who: 15-25 masters students, most of whom are K-12 educators
  • What: 3-credit courses in our ed tech program, each condensed into 8 weeks
  • When: No expectation of synchronous meetings, though I would offer at least one “welcome webinar” and would have open office hours as well as optional appointments.
  • Where: Across various platforms, mostly Blackboard (for announcements and grades) and Google Docs/Sites (to share content and invite collaboration). Also, we used Voxer for an on-going, informal backchannel conversation.
  • Why: Because these educators are preparing to infuse ed tech into their own classrooms, I wanted to provide them with a very UDL-like experience that integrated the ISTE standards in thoughtful ways.
  • How: Each week, students would explore a series of “pathway tasks” that they could then select from. In any given week, students would choose three shorter activities, or one short activity and one longer one, resulting in products that they could use in their own classrooms.
  • Comments from students: “I liked being able to explore and play with new learning materials each week. As a learner, I felt like actually practicing working with materials I could use in the classroom was a lot more beneficial than just reading and doing a reflection every week.”
  • “I appreciated how you structured the course shell. It was organized by weeks. Teachers in the past made the course shell more like a scavenger hunt, which is super irritating when you have to spend so much time and energy just trying to locate an assignment. Also, I really like using Voxer. It was nice being able to ask questions and receive immediate feedback.”
  • “I really enjoyed that I could chose each week which pathway I wanted to complete. I liked that the work could be tailored to what I needed.”

Model 2.2: Abbreviated Semester, Masters Ed Tech Class, Cohort-Based

  • Who: 15-25 masters students affiliated with community colleges as instructors or support staff
  • What: 3-credit course as an introduction to ed tech within a general education masters program
  • When: 1.5 hour meeting in Zoom, once per week for eight weeks; additional material to be explored in an asynchronous manner.
  • Where: F2F class shifted to online, across various platforms, mostly Blackboard (for announcements and grades) and Google Docs/Sites (to share content and invite collaboration); Slack for backchannel.
  • Why: With an audience of both community college instructors (from various disciplines) as well as staff (in admissions, financial aid, and other departments), the course needed to be flexible enough to focus on classroom integration of ed tech as well as how to use ed tech for delivering online training to other faculty and students.
  • How: Each week, students would listen to a podcast or webinar (not mine, from outside source) about the topic at hand, as well as read materials from the course text book. During the class sessions, we would engage in “quick fire” style challenges to explore the topics under discussion for the week by using different ed tech tools (Google Sites, Canva, H5P, etc).
  • Comments from students: “Troy provided time for engaging learning activities during class time. The learning activities were well connected to the learning objectives and assigned reading. It helped make the connections from theory to practice. Troy used the breakout method to help us connect in smaller groups and learn together. This was great for building community and encouraging collaboration… Troy’s weekly emails with reminders on readings and what to expect in the upcoming class was also really great for preparing for class.”
  • “The opportunity to learn, apply knowledge and have a hands-on experience was evident in this course. Troy introduced various concepts and tools, explicitly applied them throughout the semester and regularly encouraged students to use various techniques and relevant online tools, including screencast, etc.”

Model 3: Full Semester, Doctoral Ed Tech Class

  • Who: 12-15 doctoral students in an ed tech program, most of whom are educational professionals though some are from other industries
  • What: 3-credit course as an overview of ed tech tools and critical theories of ed tech
  • When: 1 hour Zoom meetings, every other week (8 meetings over 16 week semester); individual appointments to support student projects; meeting with collaborative groups for their projects, too.
  • Where: Across various platforms, mostly Blackboard (for announcements and grades) and Google Docs/Sites (to share content and invite collaboration); use of WhatsApp for on-going, informal “backchannel” dialogue with entire class.
  • Why: To help these doctoral students become more critical consumers of ed tech and to also help them prepare to lead professional learning for others, the course was designed to help them question their (mostly positive) assumptions about ed tech and how it could and should be used in school and training settings.
  • How: In addition to readings and on-going discussions, students went through three cycles of creating a brief review, a full review, and an instructional screencast; they also worked with partners to write a research paper and present a one-hour webinar on an ed tech tool.
  • Comments from students: “I feel that I became stronger at presenting a critical review over various tech tools due to the “workshop” style review process that Dr. Hicks brought us through.”
  • “We had group sessions every two weeks; group assignments via collaboration tools such as Kami, OneNote, NowComment, and others; ongoing discussions held via Whatsapp; additional reading materials for further discussions; and Dr. Hicks was at our disposal via email, individual appointments, and phone.”

Looking Toward 2021

Figuring out how many “hours” should go into a three-credit hour course seems to be a constant challenge for me (and all of higher education, according to the US DOE and this piece from IHE).

So, what I continue to ask what I should do as I look at the “What was the total number of hours you spent on activities related to this course?” stats that my students have filled out in their end-of-course surveys. Most of my students in the past year seem to hit the “sweet spot” (45-64 hours), with some leaning slightly more (65-84 hours). There are a few outliers, of course, on both the high and low end, yet I feel like the idea that most are “in the zone” seems appropriate, given the overall feedback that I get on course design, assignment complexity, and expectations for interaction.

Still, as I consider what I might do for the courses I will be teaching here in a few weeks (two doctoral, two masters), I am again rethinking what it is that I want to do with expectations for video class sessions (as compared to other “seat time” tasks such as discussion forums, partner or group projects, individual meetings with me as the instructor, or similar tasks). I need to puzzle through this a bit more, considering how often I feel students would be interested in/willing to participate in class sessions, as well as the types of activities I would plan for us to participate in during our limited times.

And, perhaps it should go without saying, but I will anyway. I do not record video lectures. I will, on occasion, create a video announcement in the form of a screencast, especially as a tour of the Blackboard shell at the beginning of the semester. Beyond that, any “content” that I deliver comes in the form of other content that has been found online, or in feedback to students (written, recorded, or through conferences). For the classes that do meet on Zoom, I record them and ask that students who were absent watch the main segments and write a brief reflection (this expectation is built into the syllabus).

As I keep telling my colleagues, when we say that “I don’t have time to do X” in my classes, what that really means is that “I don’t choose to use time to do X.” In fact, as educators, it is not a lack of time that should drive our motivations. Instead, I argue that time is, indeed, all that we have. How we choose to use that time is of the utmost importance.

So, as I begin revising my syllabi for the spring semester, I will be considering some new patterns for my courses and would be curious to hear from others: how many hours of video class sessions are you hosting, each week, for a typical three-credit course and what, in addition, are you asking your students to do as part of their on-going participation?

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Designing Breakout Rooms for Maximum Engagement

Despite (or perhaps because of) the pandemic summer, I was provided with numerous opportunities to facilitate online courses and professional development, as well as one chance to work with a digital writing summer camp for middle school students. There were many models for these sessions, from a one-day event where we hosted about 60 participants to a two-week institute in which we worked with nearly 30 educators for just over three hours each morning to a one-week institute with a facilitation team of over a dozen and nearly 150 participants.

For the most part — both because I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to managing webinars and (at least I would like to think) because my main goal for working with other educators is to smooth out the roadblocks and provide space for others to lead — I was in charge of making many, many breakout rooms via Zoom. And, for many participants, being whisked away to (and back from) a Zoom breakout room still feels a bit like techno-magic (mostly, I would assume, because they are usually in the “attendee” role in a meeting, not the “host” role). Throughout the summer I made rooms of 2 or 3 based on Zoom’s random assignment all the way to rooms of 20+ where participants “renamed” themselves with room numbers and chose the session they wanted.

And, with nearly every session, as I collaborated with numerous colleagues this summer, the question was repeated many times: “Troy, how did you do that?”

Preparing to Move to Breakout Rooms: Technical and Teaching Considerations

There are, as with most inquiries about teaching with technology, two answers to that question. The technical answer, once one has had some experience in the “host” role of the Zoom meeting, is relatively straight-forward, and their help desk article (with video) is actually quite instructive. There are also many, many videos on YouTube that show you the logistics of how to set up and control the rooms, from an educator’s perspective, including this one from Simpletivity that shows some of the additional features for hosts as they set up and move from room-to-room (from about 6:00 to the end). For the technical answers, I would encourage you to look to these resources from others who have answered the questions in a much clearer manner than I could do so again here.

These technical steps, however, are not what I think most teachers are asking about. Instead, they are likely asking about how we prepare for, move to, facilitate, and return from the rooms, setting up a brief instructional arc that relies on collaborative learning and protocols to guide group activity and discussion. Many other talented educators are puzzling through this same set of questions, including the Stanford Teaching Commons, Elizabeth Stone, Catlin Tucker, and Tricia Ebarvia. Also, early in the pandemic, I was directed to Mural’s “Definitive Guide To Facilitating Remote Workshops,” which has some good tips. From all these educators, I add to the common theme: before even considering small group work, especially in virtual settings, we need to have clear structures in place, both for the entire class session and for what happens in breakout rooms.

Sometimes these rooms are assigned randomly, especially for low-stakes tasks where I want participants to talk with someone they likely would not choose to work with otherwise. Sometimes these rooms are assigned, strategically, by me, without much input from them at all (and, perhaps, I might even tell them that the assignments were random!). Finally, there are times where I want participants to make a choice and let me know where they would prefer to go, offering them a voice in their learning.

Two quick tips for having participants choose rooms (or, suggest where they want to go). First, you can have a shared Google Doc for notetaking and, when it is time for them to choose rooms, insert a table for the number of rooms you plan to assign, and have participants write their name in the preferred cell of the table. Second, if you have enabled the capability in your host settings, participants can “rename” themselves to put a room number or name in front of their own name. In fact, I would make the case that having participants rename themselves with their preferred number makes the assigning of breakout rooms much easier for the host, and this is quickly becoming my preferred method.

With these logistics for moving them to rooms in mind, we now consider the tasks in which we would want them to engage.

Tasks for Successful Breakout Room Contributions

All of these options require successful teaching strategies to be in place, and two of my go-to resources for finding protocols for getting students to wrestle with ideas include the National School Reform Faculty’s Protocols and Harvard Project Zero’s Visible Thinking Routines. Being familiar with a number of these strategies — and being able to adapt them quickly in virtual settings — is helpful. They can be adapted in many ways, and groups can work in shared GDocs or GSlides, or Padlet walls, or through other collaborative tools, sometimes with some pre-session setup, yet often on-the-fly, depending on student needs.

There are a few considerations that I keep in mind as a prepare to engage learners in breakout sessions. First, please note that  my audience of learners typically includes college undergraduates, graduate students, and educators. So, these strategies would need to be adjusted for younger students, especially elementary and middle school students, who may need fewer, more direct instructions as well as shorter time frames in the breakout rooms.

With all that in mind, here are a few activities that I use as it relates to setting up breakout rooms for different kinds of groups and for different durations. I think that they are flexible, and useful for learners at various age levels with appropriate scaffolding. To keep it simple, I separate them into quadrants, though there certainly can be some flexibility and overlap.

Structuring Real Time Activities in Video Conference Sessions

Structuring Real Time Activities in Video Conference Sessions (August 2020)

Activities for Any Group, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 Minutes)

To get conversations started, you might try:

Activities for Established Groups, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 minutes)

For groups that have some rapport and community established, you can jump right in with:

Activities for New Groups, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 minutes)

For groups that you are trying to build community, you can have them watch a brief video or read a short text, and then engage in:

Activities for Established Groups, with a Longer Duration (10-15 Minutes)

For groups that have worked together and are moving into deeper conversation or inquiry, they can use protocols like:

Activities for New Groups, with a Longer Duration (10-15 Minutes)

And, to continue building community and to engage participants in activities that will help them move into more substantive conversations:

Of course, protocols by their very nature are all designed to be flexible, and could be used for a variety of purposes with both new and established groups, in durations short and long. Still, with the list above, my hope is that these resources are helpful for many educators, especially those working with high school and college students, in real time video chat sessions.

Closing Thoughts

Given the many reasons why it is challenging to simply get us all in the same virtual space at the same time, we need to make the precious minutes that we spend together in these sessions valuable. As Stone notes in her post for Inside Higher Ed,

[O]ur students have made it clear they want to learn, and they want connections with one another and with us as we continue to live through these uncertain and disruptive times. And I’ve found that in classes like mine, Zoom, far from fatiguing, can be both an energizer and a bridge.

Indeed, if we use our time in Zoom (or WebEx, or Google Meets, or Microsoft Teams, or BlueJeans, or BigBlueButton, or even in a face-to-face classroom), to engage students in meaningful dialogue and collaboration, we are in many ways just following the advice of all those who have been promoting active learning strategies for many years.

More than just providing a standard lecture in a convenient, online format, we have opportunities to be more dialogic, collaborative, and engaging this fall than, perhaps, we have ever had before.


Troy Hicks PortraitDr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has earned CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award, is an ISTE Certified Educator, and has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

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Pandemic Pedagogy: Some Questions About Being “Successful” and Getting it “Right”

Introduction

With the midpoint of the summer and the July 4th Holiday weekend in the rear view, and states (like our own home of Michigan) now releasing plans for a “safe return to school” in August, we feel it is worth taking time to pause.  

As parents and teacher educators, as well as long-time colleagues and friends, the two of us have had many conversations in the past month as educators in the state of Michigan and around the world have moved to “remote learning” in K-12 and higher education.

In thinking about ways we can productively talk about complicated issues, we have been informed by our experiences in the National Writing Project, and the use of protocols, or guided discussion models, for moving forward through difficult conversations. 

In a recent chat, we used the “What? So What? Now What?” protocol to share our thoughts and feelings related to “pandemic pedagogy,” “getting remote learning ‘right,’” and other phrases that capture the COVID-19 zeitgeist. 

This blog post summarizes our current thinking and, we hope, will serve as a time capsule for questions we need to ask in the weeks, months, and years ahead. 

What? 

Humans, by nature, want to help others. Our willingness to do so is, most often, well-intentioned. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and both higher education and K-12 schools moving to “remote” instruction, there have been a number of companies that have offered their products for free (or at reduced cost) so that teachers and students can use them.  Moreover, professional organizations have shared K-12 resources through blogs, podcasts, webinars, lesson plans, and countless social media posts. We believe teachers and their students are doing the best they can, given the circumstances. We also trust that parents and guardians are doing the best they can. Humans are navigating uncertain futures and as we do so, we must help ourselves and our children navigate what is, indeed, a brave new world.

That said, in the past few months — and even more so in as we reflect on “remote learning” successes and failures from the end of the 2019-20 academic year — there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of such resources that have been distributed to support a “continuity of learning.” Again, all well-intentioned, and many useful. 

However, when we see headlines like “getting remote learning right” or “successful strategies for online teaching,” we wonder what “right” or “successful” (or, for that matter, “teaching”) even means. While we do have empirical evidence about “what works” for nearly all students in typical school settings (e.g., IES What Works Clearinghouse), which are still in and of themselves contextual, we don’t yet know what works for all teachers and students when teaching and learning remotely. We also don’t yet know the full impact of social distancing on teachers’ and students’ learning and emotional well-being.

We are left with many questions, few answers, and a great deal of uncertainty. 

So What?

Despite the terrible, tragic circumstances in which we find ourselves, one of the silver linings, perhaps even a gift, of this pandemic for educators —  if we dare call it a gift — is the opportunity to re-think what has been considered the standard parts of teaching and learning for decades, if not centuries. As educational professionals, if we want to take advantage of what we’re learning and experiencing in this COVID-19 era, we must be willing to ask (and, eventually, answer) some important questions.  So, as we consider the days, months, and years ahead, we believe that it will be imperative to create time and space for conversations about what we’ve experienced and learned. 

In other words, as the world is experiencing a pandemic,  what is “right” or “successful” for one remote school or class may not actually be “right” or “successful” for another. And, we believe that part of getting it “right” — or achieving “success” —  extends well beyond the immediate needs and outcomes of the upcoming 2020-21 academic year. 

Indeed, the ways we prepare ourselves for 2020-21 matters in many, many ways. Thus,  framing questions for the conversations we have now — both about what we’re experiencing and learning as well as  how we can use what we learn to help us move forward in the future — is critical. 

Now What?

As noted above, there are already countless resources available for remote teaching and learning. 

We are not dispensing more advice or resources in this post. There are so many of us — individual teachers, entire school faculties, district administrators, teacher educators, policy makers, the business community, and, of course parents and caregivers of our youth — all of whom have questions. And, we’re all trying to figure things out. 

Instead, we want to pivot and pose some questions that, right now, can’t be fully answered here as we are still trying to plan for August. Whatever happens in a few weeks, when schools “re-open” for the fall, we know that it will still be an era of pandemic pedagogy. 

In fact, we consider this a “time capsule” of sorts, and these questions, we hope, can guide our own thinking as well as our PK-12 and higher education colleagues as we transition into a post-COVID, socially un-distanced world. Whether we are face-to-face, online, or both — and whether we are talking about one day of instruction, one week, one month, or a whole year — we wonder…

For educators:

  • What is essential for your students to learn, in terms of content and skills? 
  • What is essential for your students to do as they learn to communicate with one another? 
  • What were the “rhythms” of the school week for each of you? What was the workflow? When did you meet with students? How did you support students’ emotional and academic needs?
  • What communication media (text, image, video, audio), methods (through an LMS, via text message, via email), audiences (one student, small group, whole class), and frequency (hourly, daily, weekly) are effective? 
  • What content needs to be “delivered,” asynchronously, and what, instead, might need to be “modeled” and “coached,” synchronously? 
  • What should be the [new] norms of online meetings with students? 
  • In this time of remote learning, what practices have you developed that could be carried forward, in hybrid or fully online courses?
  • What have you learned about yourself, your teaching style, and what you really value as an educator?
  • How might this entire experience frame your pedagogy and practice moving forward? 
  • How much synchronicity is necessary? For full classes? For small groups? For individual tutorials? 
  • What ways did you see students be creative as they developed their thinking and expressed what they learned? How might they have used “old” and “new” technologies to meet these goals? 

For administrators:

  • What worked best for communicating with your staff? For providing feedback and direction? For maintaining relationships and supporting one another?
  • What might have worked well in the past for organizing faculty meetings, curriculum, assessments, PLCs, etc.? How did these change and, perhaps, become more [or less] efficient? 
  • For online meetings with other adults/colleagues, what norms did you establish and how did these facilitate communication and teamwork? 
  • Based on your experiences supporting teachers during remote teaching and learning, what changes do you hope/expect to make when you return to brick and mortar buildings and classrooms?
  • How did you partner with and/or support students and their families?
  • What success(es) should be celebrated?

For business and community members:

  • In our efforts to create a 21st-century workforce — and with the changes that have been made in your places of work over the past two months — what should educators know about what it means to prepare their students for the workforce in months and years ahead? Given potential past efforts connected to volunteerism and mentorship opportunities for employees to work with K-12 students, what might you need to reconsider when planning for future opportunities?
  • Even in light of the economic impact that all businesses are sure to face, what role do we all play in providing equitable access to broadband or mobile internet, as well as low-cost laptops or devices for family use, both for K-12 students as well as their caregivers who may be reskilling for a new job? 
  • What new partnerships could be developed with local K-12 schools to support students’ learning and connect their learning to the community? 

For higher education faculty, administrators, and teacher educators: 

  • How do we effectively prepare preservice teachers for all the realities of teaching and learning, including future remote teaching and learning?
  • How can teacher educators clearly model high-leverage teaching and learning practices for preservice teachers?
  • How can colleges/schools and departments of education more directly support our communities’ schools, including their teachers and students as well as parents and caregivers?
  • How can we better advocate for and partner with local K-12 districts and schools when integrating technology?
  • What new partnerships, programs, and models could be forged to partner universities and K-12 schools (e.g., traditional models of student teaching and field placements, dictating required observation/teaching hours, etc.)?

For parents, guardians, and caregivers: 

  • What are your children passionate about? How did you help them follow those passions in this time of staying home and staying safe?
  • On the flip side, what led our kids to distraction (and/or ourselves)? What did we do to help them learn and/or practice self-regulation and to follow their interests?
  • What kinds of topics, subject areas, and questions did they follow?
  • What did you notice about their use of various learning technologies and modalities such as video, audio, and text, as well as virtual interactions with others?
  • How did you and/or your child[ren] process the “loss” of the remainder of the school year?
  • What do your children need as they head back to a regular school building and schedule, whenever that might be? 
  • What do you, as a parent/guardian, need as you send your child[ren] back to a regular school building and schedule, whenever that might be? 
  • What was most helpful, in terms of the way(s) your school/district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What was least helpful, in terms of the way(s) your school/district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

For legislators: 

  • What laws perpetuate inequality for public education and how can we change these to ensure all students have access, no matter the location of learning and/or the modes/methods?
  • What needs to change, at the state and/or national levels, so that K-12 administrators and educators can quickly and effectively respond to current needs and environments, including the need for remote teaching and learning?
  • What role does technology play in providing “equal access for all” K-12 students?
  • What do you need/want to learn from K-12 teachers as well as their students and families about their experiences with remote teaching/learning during this crisis? 
  • Beyond increasing teachers’ pay, how might we recognize the contributions that educators and schools/districts made to students’ learning, both intellectual and socio-emotional, during this difficult time?
  • What can we do to recruit new teachers to join/stay in the profession, and prepare them for new modes of instruction?
  • What can we do to keep current teachers in the profession and how can we prepare and support them for new modes of instruction?

(A Few) Essential Questions as We Move Forward

These are a lot of questions and necessitate conversations over time. As we conclude, we close with a few questions for us all:

  • What might a typical school day (week) look like in the years ahead? 
  • How might we build remote/online learning into our normal patterns of work?
  • How will we maximize synchronous learning times, whether face-to-face or remote? 
  • What content can be “delivered” asynchronously and what platforms/delivery works best for asynchronous delivery?
  • How will we engage all students in substantive learning, inviting them to create — and not just consume — content?

These are more questions, we know, than can be answered right now.  However, in addition to responding and reacting to immediate needs and contents, we must also deliberately think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and its impact on students’ learning and development. 

We are, indeed, in the midst of a pandemic pedagogy and while we’re all hard at work, our success and ability to “get it right” depends not only on what we do right now but also what we do moving forward.

We hope you’ll consider joining the conversation that these questions invite.


Erica R. HamiltonDr. Erica R. Hamilton, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI

Erica R. Hamilton works with pre-service and in-service teachers and serves as a K-12 teacher coach and professional development provider. Erica’s teaching focuses on helping teachers support and extend K-12 students’ literacy and learning. Committed to professional service, Erica currently serves on GVSU’s Online Education Council and GVSU’s IRB committee. She is a peer reviewer for various journals and organizations and is active in West Michigan schools. Her research interests focus on teacher learning and professional development, place-based education, literacy, and educational technology. Connect with her on Twitter @ericarhamilton.

Troy Hicks Portrait

Dr. Troy Hicks, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI

Dr. Troy Hicks is Professor of English and Education at Central Michigan University (CMU). He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. Since beginning work at CMU in 2007, he has earned numerous distinctions including the Michigan Council of Teachers of English Charles Carpenter Fries Award (2008), CMU’s Provost’s Award for junior faculty who demonstrate outstanding achievement in research and creative activity (2011), the Richard A. Meade Award for scholarship in English Education (2014), the Michigan Reading Association’s Teacher Educator Award (2018), CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award (2020), and the Initiative for 21st Century Literacies Research’s Divergent Award for Excellence (2020). An ISTE Certified Educator, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro


Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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Resources for ETA NSW

This list of curated resources represents work that I have produced from March to May of 2020, all aimed at helping educators as they transitioned to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The full article. “Critical, creative, and compassionate: Resources for teaching English in an era of COVID-19” appears in Australia’s English Teachers Association NSW’s journal, mETAphor (openly available through their website and as a PDF here).

The links here are presented in the order that they appear in the article, which I will provide a link to (once the issue is published online).

March 2020

April 2020

May 2020

Summer 2020

Books

Updated on June 30, 2020 to include article link.


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Slides from Keep Michigan Learning Session: Supporting Literacy Learning for Secondary Students

On Tuesday, May 12,  I was able to present some ideas on “Supporting Literacy Learning for Secondary Students” with my friend, colleague, and co-author, Jeremy Hyler, as part of Michigan Virtual’s “Keep Michigan Learning” webinar series. Here are the slides (with links) that we shared during the session.

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Podcast with Ivy Ewell Eldridge on “Writing with Digital Tools”

While attending the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) conference in February, I was invited to speak with CNUSDEdChat. My thanks to the entire CNUSDEdChat team — Ivy Ewell-Eldridge, Annemarie Cortez, Kim Kemmer, Jenny Cordura, and Kate Jackson — for welcoming me to this conversation. Follow more of their work via their homepage, Soundcloud and Twitter. Enjoy the podcast!

Dr. Ivy Ewell Eldridge chats with Central Michigan University professor and author, Troy Hicks, a super advocate of ways to teach and enhance the process of writing through the use of digital tools. He encourages educators to nurture our students’ curiosity, openness, flexibility, persistence, engagement, and responsibility as they engage in the writing process.


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Ideas from Instagram Live Conversation: “Online Teaching and Learning English”

Edited Post: Video added on May 30, 2020.


Instagram Advertisement - Online Teaching and Learning EnglishEarlier today, I was honored to be invited by Alireza Qadiri Hedeshi, Dean of Foreign Languages Department at Mehryar Institution of Higher Education, for an Instagram Live conversation. Here are some of the questions that he and his colleagues shared, as well as some brief responses that I wrote to prepare for our conversation.


1. You have titled one of your scholarly works “Because Digital Writing Matters”. What do you mean with digital writing? Is it different from ordinary or academic writing?

As we argue in the book, digital writing can be defined as “compositions created with, and oftentimes for reading or viewing on, a computer of other device connected to the Internet.” While that definition was written just as the iPhone and touchscreen devices were being introduced to the consumer market, it still holds up today. Digital writing, in this sense, is writing that can be composed, stylistically/rhetorically as well as technically, for the screen. Hyperlinks, embedded media, and interactivity are hallmarks of digital writing.

And, yes, while traditional academic writing is typically seen as thesis-driven essays with outside citations from reputable, peer-reviewed sources, we are coming to new understandings — as scholars and educators — about what “counts” as a thoughtful, rigorous argument. Intellectuals can present their work in critical and creative ways, employing the tools of digital writing like alphabetic text, of course, as well as photos, graphs, maps, timelines, videos, and other “born digital” artifacts. These artifacts are created for others to engage with them, and can be effective uses of digital writing tools/skills to support academic goals.

At the International Literacy Association Conference last fall, I shared some more ideas about how digital writing and best practices in writing instruction intersect, and here is the handout for that session.


2. How can we improve interaction over online methods of teaching language?

AND

13. In respect with real classroom environments, how can we make effective use of technology in providing learners with feedback?

There are ways that we interact with individual writers, as well as our entire classrooms.

First, with individual writers, there are strategies we can use. In a recent blog post, I argue that, even in times of remote learning, “we can teach writers. And, we can teach them online. To paraphrase Lucy Calkins’ oft-cited advice, we teach the writer first, then we teach the writing.” I offer, in that post, three main practices that we want to continue doing: connecting, conferring, and responding. In another recent webinar, for CCCC/TYCA, I went into more detail and offered a list of tools that could be helpful in that process.

With entire classes, we need to make sure that we are using synchronous video sessions with our students to their full effect. To do that, we need to think about what happens before, during, and after a video class session. When I consider that I might only have an hour of focused time with all my students — and what I want them to do with one another during that time — I think through the types of collaborative activities they might do to talk about their own writing, give one another feedback, and grow their knowledge about language. I may model a writing process for them, using sentence templates and engaging in effective web search and evaluation strategies, then invite them to do the same.

Finally, as we interact from session-to-session, we can think about tools to build continuity and collegiality amongst our students, outside of the normal learning management systems. This is not just a “discussion forum” in the classic sense, but a space for students to engage around course content in an informal manner. For my adult learners, Voxer has been effective for this, however there are many other options that exist.


3. How can we encourage learners to take online medium as serious as real classroom environment?

AND

4. How can teachers keep their authority over online classroom environment?

AND

6. Many ESL teachers find speaking the most challenging skill to teach online as learners tend to be passive listeners in online classes. What can we do to cope with this issue?

When we remain consistent in our approach — regular announcements, effectively run class sessions, brief and engaging instructional screencasts as needed, timely and goal-oriented feedback — students will know that we are taking our teaching seriously, and this will raise their level of expectations. We model the kinds of behavior that we would expect of them by staying organized and efficient, since we can’t rely on regular, face-to-face class sessions for informal conversation and last-minute reminders.

From our webinar the other day, Jessie Borgman (Arizona State University), and Casey McArdle (Michigan State University) shared their Online Writing Instruction Community with many ideas, including their “PARS” approach (Personal, Accessible, Responsive, and Strategic). Another great set of resources for effective online instruction is Global Society of Online Literacy Educators (GSOLE), and their “Online Literacy Instruction Principles and Tenets.” By thinking through these principles, we can design our own online philosophy for teaching, and make it clear to students.

For our actual online sessions, we need to learn how to be strategic in our use of time, as well as become familiar with controls in our video conferencing software. While designed for business people in training sessions, this guide for facilitating remote workshops has some helpful ideas for helping move online meetings along in productive ways. Also, we can use tools like Flippity to share an on-screen tool that will randomly pick student names, so we can let them know that they will be called on soon to take the microphone and turn on the camera. In a worst case, we can mute them, turn off their camera, or kick them out of the remote room.

We can also invite students to use tools like Voxer, mentioned above, or Vocaroo to record their voice and share with one another or the teacher. Also, they could use Flipgrid to have one-to-one, or small group, conversations. This can be done at their own pace, and if they make a mistake, they can rerecord themselves, avoiding embarrassment that would happen in class.


5. How do you suggest learners/teachers to use social networks effectively as means of language acquisition?

AND

7. A big problem is that during online classes, some learners confuse the learning process with chatting language. For example, they use the language developed for chatting (e.g. Thx for thanks or L8 for late). Do you think we should worry about the way they are using the language or regard it as a way of enriching the language?

AND

8. Some learners are unwilling to take part in online classes, as they believe this deprives them of socialization opportunities provided in real classroom environment. Is this claim true? Is there any way through which online world improves their social skills?

We can ask students to think about the tone and style that they might use in social networks and how they need to code switch as they move across different online/social media spaces, as well as communicate in more academic settings. Helping them see that they use a different register of language in these different spaces — and to reflect on why they do so — is one step to making these spaces useful.

Also, we can have them think about how they might use these tools and what they offer (like “streaks” in Snapchat) to stay in touch with another person trying to learn the language. They can communicate with one another each day, and try to maintain their “streaks” in the process.

We could also ask them to think about how they would “translate” a message from one social media form to another. For instance, what would a tweet (without an accompanying image, and using hashtags) look like in Facebook (with use of fonts and colors) or on Instagram (an image with a caption). How would you have to change the style (and amount) of words? What about fonts and colors? These conversations can be helpful for them as they think about the audience, purpose, and media being used.


9. How can we reduce distraction while learning English online?

Teaching our students — and ourselves — to self-regulate is a challenge, no doubt. And, different people have different tolerances for working at their own pace (or in a way other than traditional face-to-face schedules), so we all need to figure out ways to manage our time and attention. I think that it can be done, yes, though there is no single answer that works for everyone.

To that end, I would encourage students to adjust some of their web browser settings and install extensions, turning on ad blockers and using tools to block distracting sites. On their mobile devices, they can turn on “do not disturb” settings (or simply put their devices in another room) while studying. Also, they can set up times to study with classmates, holding one another accountable for getting work done and sharing their progress, as well as more intensive studying. They can also use apps like Duolingo, which “gamifies” the process of learning, if that is motivating for them.

Ultimately, our students need to self-regulate. While we would like to think that they are 100% focused and on-task when they are in our classrooms, we know that is not true. The same is true when they are at home, on their devices. They will not be 100% focused for an entire learning session, whether looking at asynchronous material or in a synchronous video class. We need to acknowledge that, plan for interactive and useful lessons (as noted above), and encourage them to self-regulate and stay motivated in the ways that work best for them.


11. Is it effective to devise a mixed/combinatory method with some skills being taught online and some others in real classroom? (If so, what skills do you suggest to work online?

AND

10. Generally do you think it is possible to learn English via online tools without the help of a tutor?

As I have noted throughout, I think that there are times and places, ebbs and flows, in the learning process. Sometimes, we can accomplish a lot by having our entire class work together, sometimes we meet with them individually or in small groups. Sometimes, we provide a video lesson for them to watch ahead of time, and then we work on something together during class time. Sometimes we set up individual conferences with writers. Whether we are partially or fully online, we need to consider the many ways in which we move back and forth between realtime communication with students and other tasks that can happen over time.

To put this in more concrete terms, and from a student perspective, my writing/language class might look like this over the course of a week:

  • Day 1: My instructor sends me a 10 minute video lesson and the assignment for the week; I start my writing and speaking tasks and communicate with my study parter via Skype for 30 minutes.
  • Day 2: My instructor hosts a one-hour video chat, and has us working in small groups to share our writing. I give feedback to three classmates as we work together for about 15 minutes in a breakout room, then we come back together and my instructor points out good examples of writing from a few classmates. We ask questions in the last few minutes to clarify our assignment for the week.
  • Day 3: Today is an independent work day. My instructor asks us to send a screenshot of what we have accomplished on Duolingo, and I share a voice message on Voxer. I work on my paper, and add comments to my partner’s paper.
  • Day 4: We have our second, one-hour video chat of the week, and our instructor demonstrates how to revise our thesis statements. We watch as he shares his word processing screen, and talks about how he is making revision decisions. We then go into breakout rooms to rework our thesis statements with our small groups, and give one another feedback.
  • Day 5: My instructor has asked us to sign up for 20 minute video conferences, and I shared my draft with him the day before. On the video chat, I tell him about what I am doing with my thesis, and he recommends a few changes. I leave with a good idea of how to revise, and spend the rest of my study time making changes.

As you can see, the student is moving back and forth between synchronous and asynchronous learning, with the whole class and a partner, as well as independently. Having the consistency — yet flexibility — is powerful, and keeps students connected, motivated, and on track to complete their work with support and feedback.


12. Except for saving time and energy, does online teaching/learning have any privileges over real classroom environment?

Well, honestly, I don’t know that teaching online saves time!

As you can see from the example above, my week as an instructor would be spent planning the two, one-hour synchronous class sessions so they are highly engaging and useful. I am also creating a weekly video lesson, and pointing my students to other resources. I am providing written and audio (and, perhaps, video) feedback, and meeting with students in brief video chats. So, I am spending quite a bit of time being intentional about making connections and supporting students.

We can rely on the thousands of things that are already out there to help our students understand grammar and engage in basic writing skills, including websites, videos, online games, flashcards, AI built into word processors, and other resources. They can use those resources, if we guide them in smart ways.

What they need from us is our time and encouragement. That is what we provide when we teach in a manner like the one that I described above. Students have consistent schedules and expectations, and are accountable to us, as teachers, as well as their classmates. They feel connected and valued, and are likely to stay engaged.

This is about more than just pointing them to pre-recorded lessons, online quizzes, and correcting their papers. This is about building relationships, and making their voices heard as writers. It is difficult work, but it is possible if we rethink what it means to be an online teacher of English and to invite our students into meaningful language learning.


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Resources and Reflections from “Online Environments and Your Students: Strategies to Inform Writing Instruction Webinar”

4Cs Online Writing Instruction Webinar AdEarlier this afternoon, I was pleased to be on a webinar, “Online Environments and Your Students: Strategies to Inform Writing Instruction” (Archived Video) with Jessie Borgman (Arizona State University), and Casey McArdle (Michigan State University). Hosted by Brett Griffiths, Director of Reading and Writing Studios at Macomb Community College, we covered a good deal of ground.

For my segment, we discussed tools for conferring and responding to student writers. Building from my experience in writing centers, NWP, K-12 teaching, college composition, and mentoring graduate students, I consider conferring to be the single most important activity in writing instruction. In the context of online learning (and our current “remote learning” scenarios), I am referring to “conferring” as scheduled meetings with students, via phone or video conferencing. This involves planning the conference, interacting during the conference, and follow-up after the conference.

Again, building from my experiences, I contend that timely, specific, and goal-oriented response helps writer move forward. When conferring is not an option, responding in an efficient and effective manner is second best. I work from the writing center-influenced ideas of responding first to higher order concerns, yet I am also willing to break protocol and offer directed feedback on lower order concerns. Responding can take the form of text, image, audio, or video and can happen at any stage of the writing process. Here are links to the tools that I shared:

Updated on May 17, 2020, with a link back to program page on NCTE’s website and a link to the archived video recording.


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