How Professors Can Help Students Transition to Online Classes

| Jon Hegglund

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Jon Hegglund is an associate professor of English at Washington State University.

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.

Practice empathy and compassion toward your students—and yourself

For those of us not directly affected by the health challenges of the pandemic, everyday life has become a strange blend of long-held routines and radical disruption. This applies equally to students who are making unexpected moves away from campus, and faculty who may now be balancing working from home with family care responsibilities.

As a professor, I understand that smaller assignments and firm deadlines may understandably not be at the forefront of my students’ minds. Moreover, in the transition to working from home and juggling other life changes, I myself might fall behind a deadline or two. It’s essential, I believe, to lead with an attitude of patience and understanding for everyone’s life changes, including my own.

Initiate and facilitate frequent communication

The best way to show this empathy and compassion is to open up lines of communication. This not only means emailing students regularly to update them on course plans, but also facilitating spaces where they can communicate with each other. If you are working on an LMS such as Blackboard Learn or Canvas, there are easy options for messaging and discussion forums. If not, you can use third-party software such as Slack or WhatsApp to set up spaces for student interaction.

Figure out how you can simplify your course

Professors tend to fall in love with their syllabi. They’re documents that we often craft over a period of months, ordering topics in a logically coherent way, curating readings that resonate with each other, and devising assignments that layer relevant skills with increasing complexity. For most courses, the minutiae of every reading and every assignment will have to be revised, and sometimes eliminated completely.

But this can be an opportunity to clarify the goals of the course. If there is one main idea, or skill, or set of principles that the course imparts, focus on that (perhaps even writing it down: what one thing do I want students to take from this course?) and reframe remaining assignments and interactions around this core idea.

Do not try to learn — or ask your students to learn — complex new interfaces or programs for course delivery

It’s tempting to try to recreate a classroom experience through available distance learning technologies: delivering lectures through Panopto, having live meetings through Zoom, or collaborative reading assignments through Perusall. But, if you haven’t been using those tools already in the course, you’ll be layering on additional tasks — and stress — to the existing content of the course.

You can deliver a course through lower-tech, asynchronous methods, such as online discussion boards, slideshows, or e-mail exchanges. These may not be ideal, but they are available to nearly all students and they can make the transition to online education much less difficult..

Be flexible

All of the above comes with the disclaimer: things can, and likely will, change. Just because you’ve made a plan, by no means is that plan written in stone. I know that I will need to be alert and sensitive to elements of course delivery that are not working, or at least not working as well as they might. It’s far easier to set a plan and stick to it, regardless of success or failure, but in unfamiliar circumstances for both instructors and students, the most effective instructors will attend to their students’ responses and adjust their plans accordingly.

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.

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