Some thoughts on Covid-19 and transitioning on-the-ground to online courses under emergency conditions

A lot of higher education institutions are moving either temporarily or for the semester to online learning in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is, naturally, causing a lot of stress and anxiety, which is (of course!) a totally valid response. However, there are a few things for grad students who teach and professors with not much online teaching experience to keep in mind that might help ease the immediate anxiety we feel when things go spectacularly awry, especially those of us who are very invested in excellent teaching/ our performance as professional educators:

First and foremost, much of this is out of our control. We can only control our response to things at this point. Letting go of the (typically intrinsic) expectation that we be on top of and in charge of everything about our courses is the first step to negotiating this situation to the best of our ability. There are things we are just not going to be able to be on top of or control, and it’s okay.

1. Universities that have invested heavily in infrastructure for online learning will have an easier time moving to online instruction than underfunded universities, and some universities are only just beginning to develop an online presence. You can only work with whatever resources you have, go easy on yourself if that’s not much.
2. Even those universities that have strong online pedagogical resources and presence will struggle to find ways of dealing with practical, hands-on, lab-based courses, and no, students will not be receiving the same quality of education online in those cases–but we are in triage mode, so go easy on yourself if your course is severely hamstrung by an online move. Remember, the goal is not to finish the semester as you intended, the goal is to get through this.
3. Even those universities that have strong online pedagogical resources and presence will struggle systemically to handle the full weight of the university’s instruction on their servers. Expect servers to fail and have a back-up plan. Asynchronous instruction and assessment are your friends.
4.Most professors do not teach online regularly, and a large percentage of professors have never taught an online course at all. If this is you, you can’t become an online teaching expert overnight. Remember–this is triage. Use the technology you are familiar with, ask colleagues who teach online for advice, use your online instructional experts/ office of teaching and learning as resources as much as you can, with the understanding they’ll all be swamped as well. Do what you can, and go easy on yourself.
5. MOOCs have conditioned us to believe that online learning is great for massive courses–but those are courses developed over many years that make use of standardized and digital assessment. If you teach a 50, 100, 200-person on-the-ground course and are being asked to move that online, you won’t be able to assess the way you would like to. It’s okay. You just have to get through this. If that means moving to multiple-choice automatically graded quizzes for the duration, so be it. Nothing is going to be “right” or “perfect”–it just needs to be “enough.”
6. Not all students are going to have access to online resources if your university closes and sends them home. Make sure you create asynchronous learning opportunities and allow for postal and/or drop-off (to your campus mailbox) delivery of assignments as well as via email/online learning platforms.
7. If you, yourself, have difficulty accessing the internet off campus and your campus closes, it’s a problem that is out of your control. Inform your supervisor, chair, or dean immediately and ask them for alternate contingency plans for completing the semester.
8. Consider relaxing your attendance policy, and come up with alternate assignments and means of assessment for students who are ill, or experiencing travel issues, or have family/friends who are ill. You are stressed out, and so are they. We’re in triage mode. Be empathetic and have compassion.
9. Moving already-designed on-the-ground courses online is additional labor you will likely not be compensated for. Make sure you document your work in your self-evaluation and ask your faculty council/ union reps to discuss with administration whether and how this will be viewed not only as teaching but also as service to the university, which it is–major service, that needs to be acknowledged as such.
10. Student evaluations are going to be all over the place–faculty council/ union reps need to be in discussion with administration about setting them aside as indicators of instructional effectiveness this semester, and you should take them with a grain of salt–they are even more so than usual likely to be as much about the students’ frustration, anxiety, and fear as about your teaching; experienced online instructors will likely fare better than those who have never taught online before; how well the tech works or not will play a factor; an institution’s approach to handling things–canceling or postponing events like study abroad trips, sports schedules, graduation, etc.–will have an affect on them . . . you can’t use these evaluations as evidence of your teaching performance because even those that aren’t inflected with student responses to external factors won’t measure your actual performance as an instructor in your subject field, just how well you were able to respond to emergency measures with the resources and training at your disposal.

Finally–yes, this is going to be hard, on everyone involved–admins, faculty, staff, students, families–everyone. But, it is also a learning opportunity for all of us, and a chance for professional growth. We are all in this together, and we will get through this. You can only do what you can do, and that will be enough. Be kind, be helpful, be compassionate, and reach out for help when you need it. We’ve got this, y’all. We’ve got this.

And, if you have any other thoughts, insights, suggestions, and similar you’d like to share, please leave them in the comments.

About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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