Spring 2020 Online Teaching Experience
Teaching online in the Spring was a challenging yet immensely rewarding experience. It was the first time for me to teach online, so it was very demanding in terms of time and effort, particularly when it was first announced that we would move to online classes. However, I took it as an opportunity to further develop my teaching skills by experimenting with several teaching strategies and regularly reflecting on my teaching performance. I also encouraged my students to do the same and to rise to the challenge with me in order to achieve the course learning outcomes. Consequently, it was a relatively successful experience for both me and my students.
One of the major difficulties I had encountered before we started online classes was the limited amount of time I had to familiarize myself with teaching in an online context. I attended a number of workshops and webinars to become more acquainted with online teaching methods, online platforms, and tools. For that reason, I spent the preponed Spring Break refining teaching materials, modifying lesson plans, and thinking of the most effective ways to adjust my teaching style and approaches in order for students to achieve the course learning outcomes in an online learning context. I still had to make further changes later on, including minor changes in assessment, after we started online classes because not everything I had prepared and planned for was as successful as I had anticipated. For instance, after I explained what annotating a reading involves in one of my CORE 1010 classes, I decided to put the students in groups in breakout rooms during our online class meeting on Zoom to practice annotating a short article. However, one of the groups seemed to need some extra time to complete their assigned task, and a few students experienced connectivity issues on that day. Even though asynchronous activities provided students with less diverse communication opportunities and might potentially hinder their ability to collaborate effectively, I still felt that certain group activities worked better asynchronously where students were able to complete their given tasks at their own pace before the specified deadline. Balancing synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning is absolutely essential in an online learning environment, as simply relying on one form of communication is inadequate (Laato & Murtonen, 2020).
It was also challenging for me to engage students during our online class meetings. They were unhappy about moving to online classes and assumed that they would not be as beneficial, meaningful, or effective as our regular face-to-face class meetings on campus. The resulting feelings of uncertainty and perplexity increased students’ anxiety level, demotivation, and concern about their performance and grades, particularly during the first week of online classes. After measuring students’ engagement levels, it is crucial to adapt instructional practices based on their attitude towards the course and the extent to which they are motivated and involved (Mandernach et al., 2011, as cited in Gray & DiLoreto, 2016). Therefore, it was necessary to familiarize myself with some teaching strategies that could enable me to engage students online. Fortunately, the Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT) offered a number of workshops that provided me with some ideas for how to encourage students to actively participate during our online class meetings and discussions while completing additional tasks asynchronously.
On the other hand, I experimented with a few online platforms and tools and tried a number of online activities that I thought were successful. For instance, in my CORE 1010 class, the students worked in groups to create a Public Service Announcement video. When I taught the same course in the Fall, after each group created a storyboard and wrote their scripts, they shot their scenes on campus. Obviously, this was not feasible in the Spring because of the pandemic lockdown. I had to think of an alternative and in one of the “Ask Us Anything” webinars, CLT recommended a visual communication platform called Powtoon where students could create animated videos. After trying it myself, I felt it was relatively easy to use and that the students would manage to use it to create their videos. After they presented their videos, the students mentioned that even though the website was somewhat challenging to navigate at first, they enjoyed creating the animated videos. Thus, if I teach the same course again and we are back on campus, I will share Powtoon with the students and have them either shoot the scenes on campus or create animated videos.
As for the online activities, the students in my RHET 1010 class worked in groups to complete a source integration exercise. I put them in breakout rooms on Zoom to complete the first part of the exercise during our online class meeting. This involved reading a given text and deciding which sources should be used and where they should be integrated. Then, they completed the second part of the exercise asynchronously by quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing parts from the sources I provided them with in order to integrate them in the text. After citing the sources they used within the text and creating a reference list, they were expected to make sure that the text was coherent and free of errors in language and style before they submitted it on Turnitin. This activity involved group work; the students were engaged and I maintained a good balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning, which is why I felt it was successful. In addition to the source integration exercise, I had students lead discussions in my CORE 1010 class. We started these student-led discussions in our regular face-to-face class meetings on campus and we completed the rest of them online. When the students first asked me whether leading a discussion online would be as effective as the ones we had in class, I told them, “Let’s try next week’s student-led discussion and see if it works”. When we first started online classes, I made it very clear to the students that I was experiencing online classes for the first time as well and that it was all a matter of trial and error for both of us, and I believe this was one of the main reasons why they felt more comfortable about online learning and eventually achieved the course learning outcomes.
In the Spring, we were fortunate to have had a chance to meet the students and to establish rapport with them before we moved to online classes, and it was essential to maintain this positive relationship with them later on after we started teaching online. Building rapport involves knowing the students’ personalities, how they think, and what they are able and unable to handle. “The more contact that you have with the student and the more familiar you are with them, the more they contact you regularly, the greater the chance of their success” (Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2012, p. 175). Accordingly, I decided to have a weekly conversation with my students to encourage them to share any course-related issues they were experiencing. We discussed the comments they made in the weekly survey shared with them and the results of their mid-semester evaluation that CLT created and tailored for them. The students mentioned to me in one of these conversations that they felt that the workload had been increasing in almost all of their classes since the first two weeks of online classes. Hence, I shared with the students a tentative weekly plan that included all of the assignment guidelines, in-class activities, and synchronous and asynchronous work they were required to prepare and complete before the specified deadlines. That resulted in students becoming more aware of what we would be doing at least a week in advance, which enabled them to manage their time more effectively. If I had not had conversations like these with my students, I probably would not have known that they were encountering any difficulties. Additionally, I was available for students almost all week long. The students could very easily reach me by sending me an email to ask questions or schedule an appointment. I responded to most of their emails within an hour. I also held individual conferences with students on Zoom to discuss their papers and shared the recording of their conferences with them so that they were able to refer to them later while writing their final drafts. Our short weekly conversations, my availability, and the student conferences, in addition to other factors, increased student participation and engagement, reduced their anxiety, and improved their academic performance, which are all strongly associated with establishing and maintaining good rapport with them (Frisby, 2018).
Overall, I am pleased with what I have learned and achieved during the Spring semester. Both the students and I experienced several challenges along the way, but the way we approached these difficulties was what made it a positive online learning experience for all of us. While it was stressful and demanding to adjust to a new learning context, online teaching made it possible for me to experiment with innovative pedagogies and online platforms and tools and to be more flexible by adapting to unexpected situations, which has certainly helped me further develop my overall teaching performance. For that reason, I felt more prepared for online teaching in the Fall. After teaching online in the Spring, I realized that there was a different way of approaching almost every challenge one might encounter, so I am now more comfortable with online teaching and was hopefully more efficient and productive in the Fall.
Frisby, B. (2018). On Rapport: Connecting with Students. Greater Faculties: A Review of
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Murphy, E., & Rodríguez-Manzanares, M. A. (2012). Rapport in Distance Education.
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