In the training sessions we provide for faculty who are going to teach online or hybrid courses for the first time, our facilitator, Daniel Stanford, often mentions how instructional technology consultants can serve as “course therapists.” We’re there to listen; to assure faculty that the anxiety they might feel around making such a dramatic change to their teaching is normal; and to help them move through the stages of grief they might experience as they negotiate the losses that result from change.
Given my understanding of this framing metaphor, and given the amount of advice I’ve doled out within this context, I thought I was fully prepared to undertake the process myself when I agreed to teach one of my courses online this past Winter. Surely I could coach myself through the process, right?
As the colleagues I turned to when I needed a therapy session will tell you, I was wrong. In two key ways, I didn’t follow the recommendations I usually give to others.
1. Asking, not requiring, students to do what I really wanted them to do
This course is a traditional freshman writing course, but when I looked at my roster, I noticed that about half of my students were juniors or seniors. Having heard horror stories from colleagues about how this can impact the class dynamic (I typically teach an 8 AM section and don’t get any upperclassmen takers), I wanted to account for those students in some way.
The plan: If students felt that they were more confident paper-writers, they could really finish out the bulk of the work for the course around Week 7-8. I required students to have a video conference with me sometime in Weeks 7-9, and I encouraged them to sign up early. That way, the experienced writers could conference early and get to work. That would leave me more time for the freshmen: I was hoping they would schedule an initial session, get the participation credit, and then schedule additional sessions, as needed.
The reality: Of course, almost all of my students signed up for sessions in the last couple of available dates. Not ideal for me, as I was bouncing from session to session rapidly, and not ideal for them: almost all of the students noted how helpful the video session had been and asked if they could schedule another for the following week. Since I had planned time to do these sessions in Week 9, I didn’t have as much available time in Week 10, which led to frustration for both parties.
As I was venting about this to a colleague, she wisely reminded me that the students still met my expectations because I had set out a benchmark for “video chat by the end of Week 9.” They had done what I had asked, not what I hoped for.
The fix: Next time I’ll require a shorter, 10-minute video chat session in Week 7 before their longer video chat in Weeks 8-9. Erring on the side of not asking to specifically schedule as much of their time wasn’t effective.
2. Feeling frustration around lack of content and email reading
The plan: I spend time with faculty looking at the user statistics in our learning management system, but for some reason, I still thought I’d be the special snowflake whose students stayed engaged with the content because it was so compelling, so concise, so thoughtfully constructed.
The reality: Nope. I saw the typical precipitous drop-off in content views in Weeks 5-6, and even after some gentle prodding, I was still seeing issues in Week 6 assignments where the directions had clearly never been read.
The fix: This is where I needed to be my own course therapist and let myself off the hook. It happens. Students miss content, whether they’re tuning out in front of your eyes or not clicking anything in Week 6. At that point, reminder emails may not help because they may also go unread. But, I think I could give student’s a better head’s-up about this next time. My Week 4 summarizing email could include information about how I’ve seen a drop-off in quarters past and the negative impact this can have on students’ work (and therefore grades).
Not a perfect solution, but that’s part of the process, right?