February 8, 2021

Thoughts about Online Teaching in a Pandemic

Over the weekend I was contacted by two different reporters from our student newspaper, which has been doing a fantastic job with campus reporting throughout the pandemic. Since they conducted the interview via email questions to which I provided written responses, I thought I would paste in my responses here as a kind of blog post. I had a lot to say, way more than they would be able to use for a story I'm sure, but I can go ahead and share what I wrote back to them here. I'll update this post with links to the stories that appear in the paper. These are both important topics, and I'm curious to see what will result! :-)

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Taylor Jones, working on student mental health and wellbeing:

1. You say a lot of your classes are online and asynchronous? Has this always been the case? When did you move to an online/asynchronous format?

I started teaching online classes back in 2003 when Dean Bell in the College of Arts and Sciences wanted to help students enroll in Gen. Ed. classes with an online option. The idea was that students who needed Gen. Ed. classes to graduate often could not fit them into their busy schedules, and they were spending an extra semester or even year in school just to get the classes they needed to graduate. But if Gen. Ed. class were online, then they would fit any schedule. Back then, online classes were asynchronous by definition; people were often still just using dial-up modems, and the online experience was focused on text and images, not audio and video. So, that was Dean Bell's administrative goal for online courses: he wanted to help students make progress towards graduation. For me, as a teacher, the goal was different: I wanted to make sure that everybody in class could participate in their own way, in addition to participating at their own time. Unlike a classroom, the online space offered the option for students to read what they wanted to read, write what they wanted to write, and then to connect and share with the other students in the class what they were reading and writing. I've always built my classes around students doing individual reading and writing projects, and then creating websites to share their work with the other students in the class. That's how I taught my classes in 2003, and that's how I teach them now, except that now, of course, there are so many more tools students can use to publish their work online and also more resources online in terms of books and images that they can use in their reading and research.

2. Do you notice a difference in the work students put in during an online class versus an in person one? If such differences exist, why do you think this is the case?

Well, you cannot really generalize about online classes since many of OU's online classes are just synchronous video versions of classroom classes. In a sense, Zoom classes ARE "in person" classes, or at least they are trying to be. But in an asynchronous online class, the situation is very different: students are in charge in a way that they are not in charge in the classroom. That's a big responsibility, but in my experience, students are really glad to take on that responsibility, because it also means they have much more freedom than they do in a classroom, the freedom to make their own choices. I build my classes all around choices: students choose what to read, they choose what kind of writing they will do, they choose their semester-long project, etc. I would say that work you choose to do based on your own interests is likely to lead to much deeper learning; that's why I prefer teaching online. This is sometimes called "individualized instruction" or "student-centered instruction." You can try to do individualized student-centered instruction in the classroom, but it's not easy. I switched to teaching online because you can design really different kinds of classes online where there is much more time and space for student participation and interaction. It's totally different from a class with lectures. I don't lecture. For faculty who lecture, a big part of their work is preparing those lectures. But I don't have to spend my time on preparing lectures; instead, I can spend my time on giving feedback to students about their work, and that's how I spend most of my time every week, giving students feedback about their work in the class. The students lead, and I follow, unlike a traditional classroom where the teacher is the leader, and the students follow.

3. Have you seen a change in attendance/work ethic since the pandemic and switch to online learning?

I haven't seen any change in my classes simply because my classes are the same as they always were: students have a lot of flexibility to choose when they do the work for class. So for students who are dealing with pandemic complications, maybe having to self-isolate or quarantine, the flexible online course schedule accommodates all that. I've been incredibly impressed in all three of our pandemic semesters at how willing the students are to manage all the chaos in their lives while still doing excellent work for class, working hard on their class projects. Last semester, we even published a book together, which is the first time I've tried an experiment like that, and the students wrote wonderful stories to include in the book; you can see our book here: — and I hope the students will want to do another book this Spring.

4. Could you explain a little more about the P/NP policy? What does it mean for teachers and students? Why do you say the university is not going to accept this policy?

I'm a proponent of a practice called ungrading which has been gathering a lot of momentum lately, in part I think because the pandemic has exposed the unfairness of grading in even more dramatic ways than before. Grading was never fair, but now it is more unfair in more ways than in the past, and teachers in both K-12 and higher ed are increasingly aware of the harm traditional grades are doing to their students. P/NP is a great grading alternative, and one that is very appropriate in the pandemic; there were literally hundreds of schools which implemented P/NP grading in Spring of 2020 as a response to the pandemic. In my own classes, not just in the pandemic, I use a practice which I call "all-feedback-no-grades," and you can read about that here: — that's a chapter I wrote for a book that was recently published by West Virginia University Press, Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan Blum, who has been a leader in the ungrading movement for many years. There are lots of things we can do as teachers to support learning that do not involve grades, and I highly recommend that book as a way for faculty to learn about the many different options we can try as alternatives to traditional grading. As for why the university will not continue the alternative grading options that they allowed in Spring 2020, you'd have to ask the administration. The students clearly supported the continuation of P/NP grading, as they got something like five thousand signatures in support of P/NP grading on a petition that was circulating in the Fall. I personally believe that all Gen. Ed. classes should be graded P/NP instead of with traditional ABCDF grades, especially during the pandemic, but the university's refusal to offer P/NP grading options in the Fall has made me very pessimistic that we will see any real progress at OU institutionally when it comes to grades. Fortunately, though, we have a lot of freedom as instructors to devise less-harmful grading practices in our classrooms, and I would urge anybody who is interested in those options to read Susan Blum's Ungrading book, or to check out the #Ungrading hashtag at Twitter, which is where you can connect with a whole community of people working on alternatives to traditional grading.

5. Why do you think an P/NP policy should be enacted?

In terms of a P/NP policy during the pandemic, it's a matter of fairness: ABCDF grades assume a kind of "objectivity" that is the basis for the GPA. If you are going to average up everybody's grades into the GPA, then an A in one semester has to mean the "same" as an A in any other semester, just as an A in one class has to mean the "same" as an A in other classes. Everybody knows this is absurd I think, but we pretend it's true: all As are created equal, all Bs are created equal, etc., so that means we can average them into the GPA. But now here comes the pandemic: these pandemic semesters are simply not the same as other semesters. Classes are not being taught in the same way, students and teachers are not living their same lives. Nothing is the same during the pandemic, and trying to pretend things are the same is actually harmful for everybody involved. I personally think we should use P/NP grading much more widely all the time, not just during the pandemic, but that's a separate issue. Right here and now, during the pandemic, P/NP is exactly the kind of flexible grading alternative that can help to alleviate at least some of the pandemic's impact on education right now.

6. Are you expecting any arising issues regarding students and mental health this spring semester? What are you plans to help with such future issues?

I was very disappointed to see that the university considers two random days off as the equivalent of Spring Break this semester. It's a pandemic: we need more of a break, not less, but less is what we have been given. I decided to give my students two break weeks this semester, and thanks to the asynchronous structure of the class, students can use those break weeks at whatever time is most convenient for them. So they can take the break at Week 5 and Week 10 which is how I put it in the syllabus, or they can take the weeks as needed earlier, or they can take them later so that they finish up the class earlier. With an asynchronous online class, students can be in charge of the schedule, designing it to best meet their needs. I'm still doing my regular work during those break weeks, giving students feedback on their projects as usual, so for me it stays the same, but that's fine: I already have a work-from-home routine, I'm not suddenly dealing with childcare responsibilities at home, I've stayed healthy. But not all my students are so fortunate, and not all faculty are so fortunate. I'm glad that the online course design lets me give students a break as needed this semester. Students have been doing an optional anonymous "stress check" in my classes, and every week I see students who are suffering from serious stress. The university has not done a good job of checking in with students, faculty, and staff about the challenges we face; doing a survey is easy, but it's like the administration really don't want to hear from people what's actually going on in our lives. Meanwhile, I know from checking in with my students that there are some people really struggling, and I think it's our job to find ways to help reduce stress when we can. In my opinion, letting students choose P/NP instead of ABCDF letter grades is one of the best ways to do that.

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Farid Zuchrinata, working on online courses during the pandemic:

1. From what you observe teaching online (and perhaps from your fellow instructors who have just started teaching online last semester), what are some of the challenges with online classes?

I think the biggest problem we face at OU is the reluctance of the administration to let faculty teach fully online, fully asynchronous courses. Instead, OU is encouraging faculty to try to duplicate their classroom approach online by using Zoom and, in some cases, OU is also expecting faculty to be able to manage students online and in the classroom at the same time, with some students there in the classroom and some students attending via Zoom. That is the most difficult possible online scenario to manage, especially for faculty who are doing this for the first time. I would recommend asynchronous online classes instead which are far simpler to manage, and also more accessible and flexible for students. In an asynchronous course, you are not expecting students to attend class at the same time. Instead, you create online spaces filled with online activities, and students complete those activities at the time that is most convenient for them. You can use Canvas as that online space, but there are lots of other online spaces you can use instead: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Docs, Hypothesis, Padlet, and on and on. I personally prefer to use a blog network so that every student has their own blog, and then students interact with each other in their own blog spaces. Most interaction that happens in the online world is asynchronous; that's where you see the most opportunity for interaction. If you have to see lots of student interaction in a class: students interacting with the teacher and with each other, then asynchronous online spaces are much more effective than trying to use Zoom.

2. From what you observe (and as you hinted on your tweet responses), what is the general opinion from the public and the community about online classes?

I don't want Zoom to become a synonym for online classes, and unfortunately when people are speaking about problems with online classes right now, I think what they mean are problems with Zoom. Zoom is fine in small doses, but I don't think faculty appreciate just how much Zoom fatigue is involved for students who are taking multiple classes that rely on Zoom, spending many hours in these Zoom classrooms. Psychologists have been documenting "Zoom fatigue" and the many ways in which Zoom is not the same as face-to-face interaction in an actual classroom. My guess is that people unhappy with online courses are really unhappy with the limitations of Zoom. Of course, this is all just a guess on my part; OU has not done a good job of soliciting feedback from students or from faculty about how things are going. When I asked in Spring 2020 if the course evaluations would be revised to solicit specific feedback and suggestions from students about how to do a better job with online courses, I was told that under no circumstances would the course evaluation be changed to include that question. Here we are in our third pandemic semester, and the OU administration is still not gathering any information from OU's students or faculty about the good and the bad of this pandemic online learning effort.

3. Do you have any advice on how OU students and instructors can learn more effectively from online classes?

Again, I don't really want to generalize about online classes when there is such a night-and-day difference between Zoom classes and online classes that are not relying on Zoom. But I would say this: students are the ones who are best able to tell us what is working and what is not working. So, students, please help your instructors! Let them know what is working well, and also let them know what is not working well, especially if you have some suggestions about how to make things work better. And faculty, you need to make it easy for students to give you feedback, including anonymous feedback, all semester long, not just at the end of the semester. I set up an anonymous Google Form which I embed in Canvas so that students can give me suggestions like that; I call it the "Suggestion Box" and you can actually see how it works here:

4. Lastly, do you have any other opinion or insight about online learning that you think the community needs to consider?

I've been teaching fully online classes for almost 20 years at OU, and in my opinion, online classes offer a wonderful space where students and teachers can really connect with one another, much more so than in the constrained time/space of a traditional classroom. A good online course can provide a learning experience that is the equal of any classroom-based course, while also being more flexible and accessible. So, I would just like everybody to realize that there are truly wonderful possibilities for teaching and learning online. Unfortunately, OU has discouraged faculty from choosing to teach online even during a pandemic, and when they do allow faculty to teach online, they have promoted the use of Zoom instead of asynchronous online courses. Especially during the pandemic, I think faculty should be free to choose what approach is best for their own classes, including asynchronous online options, and OU should support faculty in that freedom of choice.

I made this graphic at Canva,
inspired by Clea Mahoney's hashtag: