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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