Having made it through the launch of our virtual/online campus, with some hard work, moments of frustration, and a few tears, I can report that week one wasn’t so bad. Every member of the Western Connecticut State University community has pitched in, and we are launched. Week two for students and faculty will be about refining their approaches to online education, as everyone gets more comfortable with the technology. I’m hearing lots of fun stories and I think most are approaching this experience with a problem solving mindset.
Now is the moment that I want to address a persistent rumor about this whole move – I do not want WCSU to become a majority online university. We have all moved online to solve a problem, but it is not the ideal state for most of the students we serve, nor is it the ideal state for several of our disciplines. Just because we can do something online (after half a semester of face-to-face work) doesn’t mean this should be the new normal.
Here is what I do hope for…
I hope that re-imagining our courses for the online environment will lead to some great insights into our face-to-face teaching. For example:
Online teaching taught me to be aware of how a small change in word choice impacted my students’ understanding of a concept. The words were synonymous, but not all students knew that. When I switched words from my unit summaries (lecture notes) to the weekly discussion boards, I saw the pile up. Now this is easy to fix in the face-to-face environment, because you’ll see the confusion on students faces. But not always. I became more thoughtful about word choices after that.
Online teaching taught me how to scaffold learning more effectively. I think this was just because it is hard to figure out when to stop interacting online. There is a tendency to respond way too often, which leaves everyone exhausted. I started gave my usual number of assignments, but with the added discussion boards and clarification email messages, it was too much for all of us. So, I went through my assignments and asked myself what the goal of each was and how it built to the final project. This question allowed me to cut assignments in half, provide effective and timely feedback, and help my students see how they were building to the overall goals for learning in the course. Duh! We were so much happier and, the approach greatly improved my face-to-face teaching.
Online teaching taught me the value of structuring pre-class work more effectively. Before “flipped classrooms” was a phrase, I figured out that giving students my opening discussion question for the weekly readings, before they did the reading, helped them a great deal. They were able to read the work with a greater sense of what might be important. Many people probably already do this in their traditional classes by giving students guiding questions with their readings, but some of us did not for important reasons. I had a stubborn commitment to discovery (read a Socratic approach). Unfortunately, that discovery was eluding my students. After teaching online, I started to include weekly prompts for readings in my online course shell to enhance the conversations in my on-ground courses. It proved very effective.
I hope that teaching online helps bring into sharp focus the value of the on ground classroom. For example:
Two of my chemistry faculty reported their experiences moving to online last week. They have been inventive, but they wanted me to know that lab sciences need hands on learning. I could not agree more. The thing is, I do not think that is unique to the sciences. My dream is that we imagine many more of our classes with that hands-on experience. Who knows, maybe we’ll end up with a lab model for introductory courses in every discipline! That could be a real game changer for our students and faculty.
I know that the biggest distinction between online and online teaching lies in the difference in immediacy. In the classroom, we can respond to questions as they arise, and we can attend to facial expressions to see where we might be losing people. Online, even when done in real-time, instead of asynchronously, there is a delay. Sometimes that delay is beneficial. It can give a student time to process an idea and then ask a question. Sometimes it is not, because a question is not answered or clarified before the student tries to work with it in an assignment. Then, it is a disaster. But here’s the thing, not everyone is really cultivating that back-and-forth conversation in the face-to-face environment. As we work to build dialogue online, can we bring those strategies back to the classroom?
Finally, I hope that we learn that in education, one-size does not fit all.
This week, I heard from students who are still working during this crisis (often in emergency services), who really need asynchronous learning. Others were grateful for the normalcy of their online class being aligned with the original on campus time slot. Our challenge is that they are all in the same classes. This has always been true. Part of our strategic plan asks us to get better at meeting the needs of all students — now’s our chance to figure out what that means.
We already know that for many graduate students, online is a better fit. For some programs, hybrid is a good option, but most people pursuing graduate education are working and they need the flexibility of the online environment. So, perhaps it is time to be more thoughtful about serving our graduate students.
We already know that our returning adult learners generally need the same flexibility as our graduate students. They, too, have jobs and families to juggle. Perhaps, we need to do something special for this group – and yes, that might mean an online lab science!
We also know that some of our students needed last minute help acquiring technology and internet access to complete their education with us this spring. Maybe it is time for us to assess that when students enter the university, so they are not at a disadvantage from the start.
So no, I absolutely do not want to become a majority online campus. I do want to become a better version of who we are, using this as a wonderful learning opportunity. It is time.