What matters most for teaching in the age of coronavirus?

14 March 2020, 0641 EDT

This is a guest post from Dr. Rebecca Glazier, who is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She has over 10 years of experience teaching online and her pedagogical research focuses on improving online retention.

Many of us are in the middle of teaching triage—scrambling to put our classes online, adjusting assignments, and responding to panicked students. What should we prioritize in this time of crisis? Lucky for us, there is not only a wealth of academic literature about best practices for teaching online, but there is also a great network of scholars willing to share it through blogs, articles, and Twitter.

My overarching recommendation, from over 10 years of teaching and researching online, is to prioritize. If you are interested, there are extensive lists of best practices, detailed descriptions of all the neat technological tools you can use, and thoughtful articles on how to carefully design an online course for the first time. But this is a pandemic and many of us are moving our classes online with only days or maybe weeks to prepare. There is nothing best about this situation. Under these circumstances, we can be happy with good enough.

So, go easy on yourself. Don’t try to create seamlessly-edited videos that convey all your course concepts perfectly and in great detail. Not only do your students likely lack the literal or mental bandwidth to sit through that, but there may be videos covering the same concepts already available online. Use those!

Also, don’t feel pressure to exactly replicate the in-class experience online. You don’t have to be synchronous and it doesn’t have to be the same. Your online courses are unlikely to be perfect, but they can be good enough, and you can prioritize the most important things.

Once we reconcile ourselves to this imperfect situation, what should make it to the top of our lists? There is really only one thing that should come in first, far ahead of anything else: our students. Maintaining connections with our students and keeping them engaged as our classes go online should take top priority. My research shows that when faculty build rapport with students, they are significantly more likely to stay enrolled and finish the class successfully.

We can do this through just being ourselves in our videos, calling our students by name, reaching out through personal emails, and connecting on a human level. Our efforts are put to much better use engaging with our students rather than wrestling with technology. Here’s a short video where I talk more about the specific things we can do as professors to build rapport with our students.

Our students need that connection because online classes are challenging for them. Overall, the literature shows decreasing retention rates when students take more online classes. Shea and Bidjerano look at over 45,000 community college students and find a “tipping point” for online course loads—if students take more than 40% of their load online, their rate of degree completion declines. We collectively just moved almost all of the college students in the United States completely online. It is not hard to imagine the negative effect this could have on completion rates.

My own work with colleagues at the University of Central Florida shows that transfer students and students with low GPAs are even less likely to complete online classes. Research by Xu and Jaggars shows that younger students, male students, and minority students are also less likely to succeed online.

Our greatest priority right now should be retaining our students—especially our most at-risk students—for the remaining weeks of the semester. Multimedia elements can be helpful for engaging students in online classes, but even if you don’t have the ability or energy to add those right now, know that many of us have an advantage that online classes usually don’t—we already established in-person relationships with these students in the first part of the term. We just have to make sure we maintain those connections and keep them engaged for the rest of the term.  

The situation we are currently in is definitely not ideal. Only 9% of academics prefer to teach in a completely online environment, so the majority of us are not living our best lives right now. How can we make the most of it?

One approach is to try to enjoy the things we like about online teaching (e.g., being able to wear sweatpants, flexibility in meeting times, etc.) and to avoid as much as possible the things we don’t like about online teaching (e.g., terrible Learning Management Systems, students asking us to solve their technology problems, etc.).  

How each person does that depends on their own preferences and institutional constraints, but here is a quick example of what I am up to in setting priorities for online teaching this week. My university uses Blackboard, which I have found to a difficult LMS to work with (to say the least). In moving my face-to-face class on International Religious Freedom online, I realized that, although the University has already created Blackboard shells for every course, we did not have to use the Blackboard discussion board for our class discussions. Because public schools in our area have also been cancelled, our class is not going to meet synchronously. We will hold a loosely-synchronous discussion (post during the class time if you can; the discussion will remain open all day) in a Google Doc instead.

As you evaluate your own student population, technological limitations, and personal priorities, I hope you find ways to improve the online experience for yourself and your students. More important than the content we will cover over these next few weeks is the connections we will make and maintain with our students. If they feel supported in this time of crisis, they are more likely to stay enrolled and finish the term successfully.

If you are still feeling like a few hours of reading through online teaching resources might help ease the anxiety, I am happy to direct you to some great ones. Andrew Heiss has compiled a wealth of resources for emergency online teaching on his website. Stanford has a Google Doc with lots of technical details and recommendations for teaching effectively during times of disruption. Insider Higher Ed has a good article for preparing to temporarily teach online. And the American Political Science Association has also compiled links to a lot of helpful resources.

When the dust clears, we will hopefully all have a better appreciation of how hard it is to teach online and a greater commitment to investing in online teaching support and resources.