Five Things I’ve Learned This Summer

Five Things I’ve Learned This Summer

A friend asked me to write up the things I’ve learned this summer as I’ve been working on how to be a better online educator than I was in the spring.  Here are my top five recommendations, with gratitude to the people—including Karen Costa, Clea Mahoney, Judith Dutill, and Melissa Wehler—who’ve taught me how to think more clearly about what’s ahead, make solid plans, and act confidently!

  1. Design for Online, and Adapt for Other Modalities

None of us want to repeat our Spring experience of having to teach online at a moment’s notice.  The likelihood that we’ll all have to go online at some point this fall is also high.  So don’t design for face-to-face or hybrid and leave yourself facing a sudden switch to remote learning later this year.  Instead, experts suggest, plan your course to work online, and then find the moments that translate to a face-to-face environment.  (In my discipline that would be discussion, for example.)  This is vastly harder for studio art, lab sciences, dance, theater, and other disciplines that need physical tools and spaces, but even in those instances, figuring out how to provide instruction online is a must as we face fall.

A table with five columns (Content, Skills, Activities, Time on Task, Assessment) that I used for fall planning
The first week of my course map as I planned for fall
  1. Take time to build community.

In a face-to-face environment, my usual practice is to spend the first class period on introductory activities that allow students to start to get to know one another.  Online?  I’m planning a week of such activities.  Both my experience in the spring (when I taught an entire trimester online) and my experiences as a student in online courses this summer have taught me that it takes time to build community in a virtual space.  And if we want to engage our students and keep them engaged – not to mention provide them a sense of community that they may be missing – we need to do all we can to allow community to blossom.

A header for my syllabus showing a variety of people with trans and pride flags.
Yvonne Seale made this header image for me to use with my fall syllabus.
  1. (Largely) Ditch the class schedule.

My big “aha!” moment this summer was when I realized that, online, I didn’t need to think in terms of thrice-weekly class meetings and associated homework. I could build modules of a week or more, and decide what skills and content I wanted my students to learn and polish in that time.  I could then design a series of learning activities that moved my students, step by step, toward those goals.  I could have made this entirely asynchronous (although I’ve chosen to keep a once-a-week synchronous discussion section that does meet at a time when we would have been in a classroom, if meeting in person), and this offered me infinite flexibility in thinking about how best to teach.

A schedule for week one of my fall course
A screengrab of what week one looks like in my LMS
  1. Invite students to be collaborators in their own learning

This should be a goal no matter what our modality, but it’s especially important online, and I think even more important for students who are unused to remote learning.  Allowing students to co-create the class – to write their own learning goals, to suggest topics they really want to know more about, to participate in grading their work etc.- increases student engagement and helps online learning feel less like something happening to them, but rather with them.

A screenshot of an assignment that asks students to set their own learning goals for the term
My students’ first (formative) assignment for fall
  1. Think seriously about equity

Make sure that your online class is accessible to your students.  This means a variety of different things, from captioning any videos you make, to ensuring students don’t need to have their camera on when videoconferencing.  Check that any documents you create can be read by a screen reader: OCR your pdfs, and avoid creating tables that a screen reader will struggle to describe.  Avoid red/green color schemes in your slides and syllabi, and avoid walls of text in either format.  Make good use of visuals to enliven documents, communicate your personality, and allow people to scan to find relevant information.  Make sure images have alt-text built in (an easy right-click away on Google docs, for example).

A screenshot of part of my syllabus, showing icons next to each policy
Part of my syllabus for fall


Extend compassion to yourself, your colleagues, and your students.  We’re all facing a host of difficulties—financial, professional, familial, emotional, and psychological—and we do ourselves no favors if we pretend those aren’t real and pressing concerns.  Build in time off for yourselves and your students.  (As Jacqueline Antonovich pointed out the other day, be really sure to do this on/after election day.)  Fence off time where you won’t reply to work email, and extend permission to others to do the same.  Remember you can end synchronous meetings early, and take breaks when things flag.  You can course-correct at any time if something isn’t working.  Overall, whatever else you do, be kind.

6 thoughts on “Five Things I’ve Learned This Summer

  1. I’ve just shared this with two facebook teaching groups I belong to. Really useful – I did something like you did in the first tip on an excel sheet when planning classes. The thing I’m most concerned about is scalability, though – four classes, 150 students (40 in 3 of them) makes all of it harder.

    1. It does make it harder, but I think some of the same principles apply. I’m doing a lot of formative rather than summative assessment, so I can simply check the work and address in class if I see major areas that need redirection/help. Splitting big groups into smaller groups for discussion is great. If I were F2F my class would meat MWF at a specific hour, so I’ve split my class in half and one half will meet W for synchronous discussion and one half will meet F for synchronous discussion. Everything else is asynch. Taking that extra time to make an introduction of some kind and have students do the same – with time for digesting and responding to one another – will pay huge dividends. Happy to talk about anything that strikes you as a particular challenge!

  2. Would you be willing to share some of the ways you’ve built online community? I teach choir, and my college students are dutiful but eye-rolling with regards to ice-breakers.

    1. Hi Allegra – I’m so sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to you! I try and make ice breakers as meaningful as possible – so doing some work with a social identity wheel, for example, is really helpful in getting students (and us!) thinking about the identities that we walk into the classroom with, and how they intersect with those of other people. I like ice breakers that build trust and have a little risk involved like “If you really knew me, you’d know . . . ” (finish the sentence), which you do for one round, and then you do a second round but the sentence is now “If you REALLY knew me, you’d know . . .” All of these strategies are borrowed from Intergroup Dialogue, btw, and there are lots of IGD resources online!

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