Before all the craziness of this semester began, I was on a quest to implement some of the Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) Techniques that I learned last summer in my classes. You can read all about that here. But on Wednesday, March 11, I was told that IBL would now mean that I Be Learning how to teach remotely. I had never heard of remote learning before that day. I’ve heard of distance learning, online learning, and virtual learning, but never remote learning.
I realized quickly that the biggest concern for many instructors was how they were going to test their students. And this has always been one of my biggest gripes about the educational system. I have never understood why much of the classroom environment, in person or virtual, has been designed around testing rather than learning. For example, when I asked to have tables in the classroom rather than desks so that students could more easily work on problems together during class, I was asked what my plan was for separating students during tests. Silly me – if I cared more about testing students than about their learning – of course, I would have never suggested having tables in the classroom instead of desks!
I can’t say it’s been an easy semester for me by any means. It’s been so rough that I commented on Facebook last week about my sigh of relief when I finished my final college algebra lecture video of the semester. I also mentioned my excitement that I only had four more videos left to make before I was done with virtual lecturing for three weeks until the summer semester begins. And also about how I’ve never counted down a semester as hard as I have this semester.
But then, just a few days later, during my last virtual calculus lecture of the semester, I started choking up at the end. I told the students that I wish it didn’t have to end the way that it did and that I hoped it wasn’t goodbye, and I would see them again one day. The chatroom started filling up with comments thanking me and reminders that I would see many of them later on as it was not their last math class.
All of this made me realize that maybe throughout all of this, I’ve been the hardest on myself. It’s been tough for me to tell if my virtual lectures have even helped students at all. There was only a small contingent of students who were ever able to view the virtual sessions live, as many of them are essential workers, sharing an Internet connection with others, or taking care of their families. But the messages in the chatroom, along with the many emails I received, tell me that I did learn how to teach remotely. It may not have been pretty at times, but I did it.
And I’m not here to share tips or advice with anyone, either. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who is more worried about themselves failing as an instructor than they are about their students failing. By that, I mean I know instructors believe in the resilience of their students and know they will make a comeback and finish their education one day. However, I’m worried that this semester may have shaken some instructors so much that they may decide that teaching isn’t the right profession for them anymore because they were a failure since they couldn’t provide the proper resources for their students.
I know this semester has been hard for everyone, but given the current circumstances, I think some ideas for what can be done to help the instructors not to see themselves as failures would be better than ideas for how to help their students not fail. And once instructors get a boost in confidence and morale, I’m sure that would make them feel as if they were in a better place to accept that they can’t do everything for their students this semester, but they can do something for their students. Perhaps knowing that they are not alone is a start.
So, what did I do, and how did I do it?
I immediately lowered the demands in my courses by canceling the last eight quizzes of the semester. I made the first eight quizzes that had already occurred worth double the points. I gave my students a choice of a final project instead of a final exam in the case that taking a one-and-done final exam would be too much for them to handle in their current situation.
Since my college uses Canvas, I sent an email out to all students reminding them to turn on their Canvas notifications so that they wouldn’t miss any announcements. After that, I sent out a Canvas announcement to my students 2-3 times a week, to check in to see how they were doing and to try to keep them on track with their coursework.
I also posted announcements about every single student resource my college made available this semester, including the drive-up WiFi and laptop and textbook programs. But I even went further than that. I told my students that if, for some reason, they weren’t even able to make it to the college police to pick-up a laptop to let me know, and I would personally help them. I have an extra laptop and three smartphones sitting in my basement, and I know my mom has two extra laptops. I have two extra tablets in my basement. So, if a student were in such a need that they needed a device, you bet my bottom dollar that I would have gotten in my car and taken a device right over to my them.
I made myself available outside of Canvas. I tried to be understanding that some of my students don’t have access to a smartphone to get the Canvas push notifications or that some students may not have access to their email at all. I let students know that no matter how they got a hold of me – Canvas message, discussion board, email, text, phone call, Zoom chat, YouTube comments, Tiktok, etc., that I would be there for them. I did not assume that my students all had access to the same type of technology or at the same time. So, it seemed like the equitable thing to do to allow any open channel to me.
I expanded my online office hours to three times rather than the one time a week that I usually would hold them for online classes. I also tried to make them at different times of the day to accommodate student schedules – one day at 10 am, one day at 2 pm, and one day at 9 pm.
I responded to all student emails and requests for homework extensions within 24 hours, and usually within minutes. I have my homework system set-up so that students receive a 50% deduction on late homework, but I made it clear to students that I would waive the deduction this semester as long as they ask. Part of my reasoning for this was because I wanted to make sure they contact me directly so that I know that they’re still out there and reading my messages. And with every student who took me up on the offer to waive the deduction, once they contacted me to open the line of communication, I asked what else I might be able to do to help them.
I responded to my college’s request to submit reports for students who I thought had disappeared from the class so the counseling office could call them.
I gave my students chances for extra credit to make up lost points, above and beyond what I would generally offer – about 5%. But I wanted to make sure that they were engaged in a meaningful activity outside of class. I usually offer extra credit to students for attending two on-campus events a semester. This semester I was able to provide them with the opportunity to participate in virtual Student Success Seminars offered by my college’s Careers Services. I also offered them the opportunity to participate in the virtual KRYPTOS mathematics competition, as well as extra credit available as part of the final project that I mentioned.
Yes, I understand that there is only so much I can do from the instructor’s end. I went to a conference years ago, and some suggestions were to provide access to an eBook, pictures of notes and answer keys, Geogebratube resources to explain concepts, video tutorials, free online quizzes using thatquiz.org or Socrative/nearpod, send positive reinforcement, a Twitter Personal Learning Network, and Flipboard to create a blog. Did I do all of those things? Not even close.
But it’s not just about what I can do as an instructor. It’s also about what the student can do from their end. For example, students could show each other information using tools such as ShowMe, iBook, or Edmodo. Or they could be asked to take notes, find information and research online, ask specific questions about problems, or take screenshots to remember information.
So, above all, what did I do?
I remembered that it was important to care for my students. I remembered that this wasn’t all about me, but it was also about the success of my students. And I tried to promote equity in my classes and tried my best to meet my students where they were and make sure their basic needs were met.
Anyway, know that if you are an instructor, you were not alone in your quest to be learning how to teach remotely this semester. I know you don’t need any more tips or advice or examples of what to do. That wasn’t my point here.
Believe it or not, I wrote this post out of the frustration that I felt when I was asked to do more to help my students. Of course, I became somewhat defensive because I thought that I was already doing enough to help my students. And I know you are doing enough to help your students as well. I would encourage you to take the time to reflect and write down everything that you have done to help your students. I’m sure it’s more than you think it is. Then put this list away and then the next time you need a boost in confidence or morale, take the list out and look at it and know that you did your best to be learning how to teach remotely.