Sudden Shift: Reflections on Online Learning

Managing the shift to online instruction at the outset of a pandemic brings to mind the truth that we can hardly call this a “shift.” It was more of a drastic change and philosophical realignment in response to a very present need. It is no more a shift than suddenly ripping off of a bandage can be called a subtle gesture. Sadly, this period of transition and challenge is not yet over.

As I write this, the CDC has recently issued new guidelines for the possibility of holding face-to-face classes in the coming fall semester, and the reaction is wide and mixed. Word is coming soon about how the new school year will take shape, and I am sensing the possibility of last-minute changes as we begin a new school year with COVID-19.

What follows are a few lessons learned and a few reminders I experienced as a teacher educator whose work with undergraduate and graduate students suddenly moved online. While the implications for this sit in my work at the college level, I hope you will find connections in what I’ve shared to teaching at the middle level, as well.

Being Human

First and foremost, regardless of the programs we have in place and the curriculum we are using, the essence of being an effective educator is practicing humanity. I found this to be the case when I was in the middle school classroom, and I have been reminded about the absolute importance of staying true to this reality at the post-secondary level. Deadlines are not the most important aspect of my classroom work; my students are the central focus.

My move to online instruction was not about who had their cameras on in meetings, how many times students checked in with forums, or even how often students were able to log in. Staying connected is important, but I also recognized that students were now facing challenges they had never anticipated, and these changes had impacts on their schedules that were not always on the surface. While we have had months to visit what the pandemic means, I sense that our flexibility must remain at a high level. We will be remembered for our compassion and understanding much more than our rigorous (and sometimes impossible) lessons in spaces where Internet service is spotty.

I had so many students apologize when due dates needed to be extended, when a message was missed, or when they just felt like they were not able to give the attention to a course the same way they had before. My constant refrain was that apologies were not necessary – and I found myself in the strange vortex of each task seemingly taking twice as long in my own work. Pandemic living and pandemic education is different.

Suddenly the due dates I had carefully plotted out at the beginning of the semester did not seem quite as relevant, and my response was to care for my students first. This is the kind of ethic that teachers can take to their online or onsite classrooms, and it’s a message I hope I continue to model for the future teachers I work with.

Deciding What’s Essential

A sudden move to online learning meant that I needed to consider the reality that my students were now taking all of their classes in digital spaces, not just the ones that were planned that way from day one. As such, I revisited a fully online course I was already halfway through teaching. Rather than simply saying, “Well, it was online to begin with,” I began looking through what was truly essential for my students. This brought to mind my standards-based grading practices that I’ve drawn on for years.

Suddenly the required weekly forum posts that I was asking for seemed less important as I realized that my students were now likely posting on multiple forums throughout the week, and I was just glad to see their faces in digital form. Because of this digital influx, along with the sense that my students were experiencing a myriad of other problems, I made these forums invitational rather than required, and chose to focus on the course materials that needed to be consumed and the assignments that truly gave me a sense of what my students were taking away.

Striving for community is still a goal for online instruction. My questions shifted from inquiries solely focused on readings to more personal opportunities to interact about learning through open-ended stems. This was more about keeping in touch than checking up on readings.

I had been posting narrated presentations and videos from the beginning of the semester for the course, but my hunch was that students were now required to sit through multiple lectures throughout the week, prerecorded for their consumption, alongside lengthy Zoom meetings. Web conferencing tools are wonderful, but we can also work to find times for students to engage in meaningful ways when they are not in front of a screen. I made changes in my plans for some of the last weeks of our course, opting instead to share links to articles and sites that students could explore more independently, and sticking to short recorded videos to convey what I really needed to.

I continue to think through the best ways to make a three-hour course manageable in the world of conferencing technology, and I continue to think about different avenues of expression for what is essential in my lesson objectives.

Planning for What’s Next

All in all, the message that is playing in my mind now is: This is not over yet. As some cry hoax and others continue to stay at home, and as some wear masks and others categorically refuse to do so, my insistence has been and continues to be that flexibility is a key to effective teaching. Flexibility is a word that matters when we are face-to-face, and when we are online. When my students ask me about the most important qualities in a teacher, the word flexibility always springs to mind early in the list. These circumstances are far from ideal. More changes will come as time goes by, and we have no idea what the future looks like.>

My commitment is to continue thinking through creative ways to engage my students and sustain community. Schools are important for that kind of work, and teachers are the ones who are trained to do it well. My work in planning right now is to model engaging online instruction, demonstrating how in-person Plan B can move to another shift if needed, while also noting that we have much advocacy to engage in for equal access to Internet and learning materials for students.

Whatever happens in the future, we will continue learning together. This is simply part of being a member of this profession (really, this species), and creative and inspiring expert teachers will craft invitations and use new tools to make sure that student voices are heard.

As I close, the call for advocacy for those who do not have access to technology has to be part of this conversation. Teachers are engineers, poets, creators, artists, scientists, community sustainers, and, yes, advocates, too. We must remember to tell the stories of the voices we aren’t hearing anymore, or encounter less often, so that our practice in the future is stronger and better.

Jason D. DeHart, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of reading education at Appalachian State University. He taught middle grades English for eight years in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Published in AMLE Newsletter, August 2020.