Do you call it distance education or distance learning? Or is the right word online? Online education, online learning, online classes? Or maybe virtual learning and classes? And are those classes fully online or hybrid? Synchronous or asynchronous?
Whatever you call it, however you structure it, professors at Mason all found themselves in it after spring break earlier this year. And for many, the “new normal” proved to be a staggering adjustment.
“I have never seen a teaching landscape change so abruptly and so substantially,” says Jessica Matthews, a composition professor and a longtime leader and instructor in online pedagogy.
Under normal circumstances, professors must complete an extensive training course through the Stearns Center at Mason before stepping into the world of teaching online. Matthews herself had worked with an instructional designer to facilitate this eight-week training in course design and pedagogy for composition instructors in fall 2019.
Then came the coronavirus.
On Monday, March 16, Mason decided to transition all courses online for the balance of the semester. Spring break was extended by a week to allow faculty to prepare for this transition, allowing for just 10 days for faculty to re-envision their face-to-face [F2F] courses, rework syllabi, and—for many of them—begin climbing a steep learning curve, both technologically and pedagogically—training that should ideally have unfolded over two full months.
“The biggest hurdle and the biggest success here are the same: Getting some faculty members who had never used Blackboard up and running for online courses,” says Professor Dean Taciuch, who has been teaching online since as early as 1999 when he was part of a pilot project using WebCT (a precursor to Blackboard) and who helped mentor current professors through the spring 2020 transition. “I cannot imagine myself going from face-to-face to online like that in a week or two.”
While Taciuch adds, only half-jokingly, “I’m still not sure how they did it,” the strategies and tactics during those pivotal 10 days and beyond were comprehensive and multifaceted.
For composition faculty in particular, Matthews and the Composition Program created the web-based guidebook “Resources for Moving F2F Classes Online,” and Matthews was one of four professors from Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences who participated in a March Webex presentation for all faculty about how to design and teach online courses.
“We also directed faculty to the array of Stearns Center resources for online course design and pedagogy,” Matthews says. “Each week, the Stearns Center produced a tip sheet full of ideas for teaching online, and they vastly expanded the materials on their website. Eventually, the center created a five-week template that faculty were able to download from Blackboard.”
While much of the emphasis focused on assisting faculty members, the end goal was always how best to serve the students—who were facing their own challenges.
“Mason students are so adaptable,” says Matthews, “Yet I could tell that they were struggling not only with their courses, but also because they lost jobs or had to help their families deal with illness and job loss.”
“Aside from students already in online or hybrid courses, none of the students had signed up for online courses,” adds Tacuich. “Not all students have high-speed internet, or a personal computer, or even a quiet place to study. Even in my hybrid courses, students would sometimes access the online materials on a smartphone, which is not ideal for viewing course material.”
Graduate students also had some of these issues, as well as others, explains Michael Malouf, director of graduate programs, pointing to childcare issues and job loss, particularly.
“The uniformity of these issues for graduate students produced an additional burden,” says Malouf, adding, “I heard from many of my own students that they did not come in with good associations with online classes, and that they came to Mason specifically for the in-person, face-to-face, seminar-style classroom experience.”
On a whiplash turnaround, how do you prepare faculty, some of them technologically challenged, to teach online courses for students who might themselves be technologically disadvantaged or facing other struggles?
“The biggest hurdle is the assumption that a F2F course can just migrate online by putting everything on Blackboard,” says Matthews. “Designing a fully asynchronous or even synchronous/asynchronous online course requires a shift in pedagogy that considers how learning works in an online environment. The learning environment in well-planned online courses creates an intuitive structure for students, but when that environment or structure is not there because of a rapid transition to an online format, students struggle to learn the material.”
One cornerstone of success in moving online seems to be, perhaps ironically, meeting “in person”—or synchronously.
“The best thing to emerge from this sudden shift to online teaching is the viability of a hybrid online model,” says Matthews. While many online classes have previously been fully asynchronous, “faculty who had been teaching F2F had a dedicated meeting day and time for their students they could use to schedule a required synchronous class meeting online. Platforms like Zoom, Collaborate, and WebEx moved to the forefront of online teaching and learning.”
Tachiuch agrees: “Several students commented at the end of the semester that the synchronous sessions were helpful, not just for covering the course material, but as a way to give some shape to what we were all experiencing: a breakdown of our normal schedules, routines, and daily operating procedures. Having a weekly meeting helped to create structure.”
Peter Streckfus, creative writing professor, believes firmly in the values of the live, synchronous classroom meetings. Speaking specifically of his introductory creative writing courses, he emphasizes the benefits of “community.”
“Part of the writing process often involves isolation—this is how we think of the writer typically, woodshedding, working alone,” Streckfus explains. “But writing is a relational activity. It is about communication. Having a community of people with whom you can share this work as it develops is a key element of a healthy writing practice… Speaking together in a live session, working together in real time in small groups over the video conference—these parts of what online teaching makes available feel important to me.”
But while championing the central importance of in-person meetings, Streckfus also found himself recognizing the importance of the second half of that hybrid model—the benefits of asynchronous teaching.
“Meeting live for three hours a week online can be exhausting for some people,” he explains. “I’ve been learning how to incorporate online learning tools like discussion boards and blogs to offset some of these drawbacks and to offer new opportunities for collaborative thinking to take place over the week. One thing I’ve found, and which students themselves have pointed out, is that asynchronous tools give them the opportunity to have slower, more considered conversations about challenging material.”
Exhaustion, the stress of the pandemic and its fallout, the struggles with scheduling—all this leads to the question of student workload, particularly in these specific circumstances, and Taciuch says that one of the best ideas he had this semester was simply to “lighten the student workload” by making small assignments into exercises or simply eliminating them and by easing requirements on due dates and revision deadlines. “I wanted to decrease the stress on my students.”
But conversely, asking students to step up in different ways can provide another path to success.
“An advantage that I found in converting my own graduate course to online was the fact that it was a small group of mature, highly motivated adults,” Malouf says. “Since my class was at the midpoint of the semester, I gave my students some autonomy. I recorded lectures on the readings and then individual students led discussions, where in class they would have made presentations. They did a great job overall. In fact, the discussions went to some fun places that might not have come up otherwise.”
As Matthews emphasizes, student involvement and faculty efforts are intertwined, especially for struggling students. “The best success stories are always the ‘prodigal son’ ones: a student vanishes for several weeks but returns to complete and pass the course,” she says. “During a difficult semester like this one, we had little expectation that such students would find their way back, but through persistent outreach, many faculty members reconnected with students and encouraged them to complete the course.”
Throughout interviews for this article, one theme kept reemerging: the strength, commitment, adaptability, and resilience of both faculty and students—and of those who serve in both roles, as with graduate students teaching their own courses.
“We should give a round of applause to all the TAs who became an online teacher and an online learner in less than two weeks,” says Matthews. “They simultaneously juggled new teaching modalities and learning styles with creativity, skill, and grace.”
And Streckfus finds himself struck with a specific feeling about all of it—“the feeling of wonder that this is still somehow working, that we are learning together, that students have finished these two courses and expressed appreciation for what they’ve gained—and my own wonder at how resilient and hardworking and flexible our students are. I feel lucky to be teaching these students, truly.”
August 18, 2020