The spread of the novel coronavirus has pushed most college classes online. Professors should do their part to make the transition as easy as possible for students.
As an English professor at a large research university, I pride my classes on face-to-face interaction and engaged conversation. Most of my courses are designed with some online component built in — whether discussion forums, collaborative assignments, or learning resources — but the meat and potatoes of my instruction happens in the classroom itself.
In early March, as the COVID-19 virus infection maps rapidly expanded to a global scale, faculty at my university received notifications to plan for a transition of face-to-face courses to an online format. On March 10, I met with my students for the last time, advising them that our meetings would likely be suspended indefinitely in the near future. The following day, an email from the president of the university arrived in our in-boxes: After Spring Break, classes would resume in an online format for the remainder of the semester.
I had been considering possible steps, but the speed of the transition to entirely online teaching took even me by surprise. I had not worked out a full plan for online instruction for my one face-to-face class, a senior seminar whose topic is (perhaps all too prophetically), “Imagining Futures in Fiction and Film.”
My first step was an obvious one: reach out to the students. I sent an e-mail immediately upon receiving official word from the university, both to acknowledge the situation and — more importantly — the upheavals that were happening in their own lives..
I assured my students that I would work with them to develop a plan for the rest of the semester. At this moment though, it seemed far more urgent to acknowledge the crisis on a human level, especially as most of my students were returning to the Seattle area, one of the hotspots of the pandemic.
I also let them know three things. First, that I would be available for individual communication via multiple channels (e-mail, Skype, Zoom, or phone). Second, that I wanted their input about how the course might proceed in ways that would be manageable for all. Finally, if anyone foresaw their own difficulties with access to the course (whether because of poor internet, lack of a computer or smartphone, or an unstable home situation), I would be happy to tailor our interactions individually.
Teaching Online Classes During the Coronavirus
While the circumstances are specific to my own course, they have led me to some guiding principles for facing this unexpected transition. None of these involve specialized pedagogical expertise or advanced literacy with online teaching tools. These principles are based on a fundamental recognition that students are not simply experiencing an interruption of their educational routine, but also undergoing an uncertain and stressful upheaval in their daily lives.
As a professor in the humanities, I understand that the above generalizations will not apply uniformly across all disciplines and course environments. Some courses will require the delivery of discrete content for professional or programmatic reasons. Some courses are already based around educational technologies that may be more easily transitioned to an online environment. And some courses may depend upon intensive, synchronous interaction and conversation.
The bottom line is this: we are all — students, instructors, and support staff — trying to learn together, in real time, how to maintain what we most value in our educational mission. While it has been a challenge for most of us in colleges and universities, this crisis also presents new opportunities to discover who we are as teachers and learners.
As we adjust to education, and everyday life, during the COVID-19 pandemic, reframing the learning experience is now its own learning experience.