Lessons in Online Learning

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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Before posting a link to my first recorded Zoom lecture this past March, I reviewed the footage, trying to decide which type of recording to post on Blackboard for my students to review. What I saw was fifty minutes of myself pointing at things my students could not see and using interpretive hand gestures that had now been rendered meaningless in a world of computer screens and empty classrooms. At William & Mary, ABD graduate students have the option of teaching their own class in their fourth or fifth years of the program. I, along with two other members of my cohort, selected the spring of our fourth year – spring 2020 – as our teaching semesters. As a result, we found ourselves abruptly changing course in the middle of spring break, when William & Mary announced the transition to remote learning. While it has been an acute disappointment to lose in-person instruction during our designated teaching semester, I have also found that Zoom meetings with my students, and the focus on their well-being, has kept me grounded in a world otherwise turned upside down. Moreover, I have learned lessons about teaching and myself as an instructor I might have missed in a normal semester (including my inability, apparently, to refrain from pointing at things my students cannot see while Zooming). These are a few of the lessons I hope to bring with me into future classrooms.

Community matters – When William & Mary made the call to transition online, they quickly brought an “Instructional Resilience” website online to help us make decisions about what our online classes should look like. One of the key pieces of information that they gave us was the reminder that students were going to need human contact. They needed us, as their instructors, but they also would need their peers. I polled my students, and tried a few different options including synchronous Zoom meetings, Blackboard discussions, and days where students could opt for one or the other. Overwhelmingly, they turned out to Zoom meetings, and as the semester went on, we met more frequently not just for lectures but also for discussions. Students always had the option to watch recorded meetings if they could not make the live ones, but they tuned in anyway, even from a time zone twelve hours away. As the semester went on, they began to chat at the beginning of class the way they normally do in the classroom, checking in on one another and trading notes on how the online semester was going. This reminded me that while I knew my students needed me to be present, it was also my job as the instructor to create space for them to interact with one another and build a community in the classroom, whether that classroom was online or on campus.

You never know what students are going through – We are intellectually aware of this, of course. Students come into our classrooms from diverse backgrounds, and while the on-campus experience might insulate them to some degree from their home life, it is never far away. Zoom gave a window into students’ home lives that brought this reality into full view, as students opted to leave their cameras off during class, apologized for not being able to engage with their microphones, or stayed up through the night to help a parent with their own school work. It became even more necessary to communicate compassion, understanding, and flexibility so that they were reminded that this was a space where they would not be faulted for being humans leading complicated lives. The parameters for this will change, of course, when COVD-19 is no longer restructuring the fabric of our days. But it served as a stark reminder to me that while I want to hold my students to a high academic standard, I never want to sacrifice compassion for a deadline.

The chat feature – Easily the most exciting development I found with holding classes on Zoom was watching what happened when students took advantage of the chat box. Initially, I encouraged them to use it if they did not feel comfortable speaking on Zoom but quickly, I noticed that students who might never raise their hand in class had a lot to say in the chat box. Other students would then affirm their responses and thoughts by adding a “!!!” or “^^this!” Not only did the chat box allow for more students to speak in a fifty minute period than might be able to in class, but it created a space for a different kind of dialogue that went beyond just nodding in agreement in a classroom. They were reading between the lines during a lecture, making comments that you likely would not raise your hand in the classroom to share, but added insight to the overall conversation. It also encouraged students to think deeply about the material and unpack it more than they might otherwise because they were doing it as a team rather than as an individual taking notes in a classroom. By making their thoughts visible to me, too, I had an opportunity to respond and affirm their insights. I have not yet figured out how to translate this experience into the classroom, but I intend to try, because it created a learning dynamic that I do not want to lose.

Even though I, as I’m sure everyone teaching did, agonized over how best to make the transition online, what I found in my course evaluations was that students focused on my responsiveness to their needs and the opportunity to stay engaged in class in a meaningful way more than anything else. They mourned the loss of in-person classes too, and enjoyed any opportunity to replicate that experience, however limited it might have been. Even in the midst of so much change, students’ desire for a receptive instructor and an open classroom remained the same. So while my fellow cohort-members and I joke that now we can say we have taught online when we go on the job market, I think our experience teaching through COVID-19 will serve us well in our future classrooms, whatever they might look like.

[Rebecca Capobianco Toy is a PhD student at William & Mary.]

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