We have to begin to imagine better digital pedagogies, more critical digital pedagogies, which go farther than the mere implementation of design.
On February 22, I was invited by the Service Employees International Union to speak with a small group of adjunct faculty about teaching online. Below is the transcript of that talk.
I saw a headline today in The Guardian: “Think about your life this time last year, just before Covid hit. What do you miss?” And it’s interesting because I had just been having this conversation with my family. Remember taking the train? Remember going to campus? Remember shopping in stores? Remember meeting people for coffee and when you see them, you give them a hug? All of these things were things we really didn’t think would go away, even for a brief time, and we didn’t know how much we’d miss them, or which of them we’d especially want to return.
It was just about a year ago that SEIU first approached me to talk to adjunct teachers about online teaching and learning. So many teachers—teachers who never intended to teach online, and who really didn’t want to learn how—faced challenges like:
- Staying connected to students;
- Figuring out new ways to assess progress, give and receive homework, take attendance;
- Designing rules for a Zoom classroom;
- Dealing with students’ trauma and anxiety about the pandemic, about being online—and in many cases suddenly being jobless, and food and housing insecure;
- Not to mention the uncertainty, trauma, and anxiety of living under the pandemic themselves.
And most teachers, and especially adjuncts, had to face these challenges without adequate professional or peer support. University policies were all over the place in terms of whether or not class schedules needed to be maintained, whether remote proctoring would be used, whether teachers needed to use Zoom or could try to work asynchronously. For most adjuncts, so many of whom teach at multiple institutions to try to patch together enough income, teaching became even that much more complicated.
And far too many watched their worst fears about their own precarity come true: adjuncts all over the country found themselves without work as universities privileged their full time faculty over those who were contingent.
Life since then has changed a bit. We can go out with a bit more confidence now that we understand social distancing and masking. There’s plenty of toilet paper. There’s no longer a shortage of hand sanitizer. And some institutions are finding that their enrollments didn’t drop as drastically as they thought they would, and have invited some of their adjunct teachers back. Students and teachers are getting a bit better with Zoom, a bit more tolerant of the failures and glitches and idiosyncrasies of technology. A lot of teachers who had no idea what to do when they had to pivot online have now innovated new and interesting ways to keep students engaged.
But against this year-long effort of education coming to learn about its own digital identity has also surfaced problems that were already there, but that were laid bare during the pandemic. Racial and gender inequalities and biases that are programmed into technologies like remote proctoring and facial recognition software;
- Problems with accessibility and considerations of disability that are specific to online teaching and learning;
- The way in which traditional teaching methods and approaches tend to gloss over trauma or ignore it completely;
- The fact that so many college students are hungry or homeless while still trying to get good grades;
- The general lack of good digital pedagogies that reinforce and hold up the human person and their needs;
- The overall dearth of solid, meaningful professional development available to faculty, and especially adjuncts—professional development that goes beyond the advice about putting images in your course and creating video lectures, and that really tries to tackle what it means to teach online.
All of these were problems before the pandemic—but the pandemic has made them not only more apparent, but in that spotlight also much more pressing. These are issues that must be addressed in education.
So, when I was invited to come back to talk again with SEIU adjuncts, I realized that my presentation from a year ago would not address any of these issues. I’ve been asked to relate some “best practices” for online teaching here, and I will; but these are best practices more informed by the real issues embedded in digital education than they are things like: whether or not students should turn on their cameras (they shouldn’t have to), or how to run a good online discussion (the secret is to architect less), or how to make a good video lecture (the best are always one take, and messy, and done spontaneously on your phone). Instead, I want to talk about the practices that will really support community, collaboration, and respect. Because the most effective application of digital pedagogy arises from a place of kindness, trust, and belief in students.
10 Best Practices (revised for the pandemic)
(The following was originally posted June 18, 2017 but has been revised for our current circumstance.)
1. Be yourself
I have often given this advice, mostly because in digital spaces, we tend to adopt mannerisms and a personality that are not entirely true to who we are. We tend to get more formal, more rigorous, and frankly a lot more boring than we really are. Where in person, we may make spontaneous jokes, laugh at our faux pas, or suddenly come up with some new insight, it takes a special, concerted effort to make this happen online.
Over the last year or so since Covid became a daily reality, the need for authentic connection has heightened. We are all at a distance from one another, and figuring out how to reach through the screen—whether on video or in text—has been a new digital literacy no one really expected to have to learn. I find the best way to do this is to:
- Write like you talk;
- Try not to be self-conscious on video;
- Use emojis and “text” speak if you would do that with your friends;
- If you’re tired, be tired; if you’re happy, be happy; if you want students to open up, open up.
In a classroom, we may perform ourselves in certain ways, but we are fallible, unedited, and vulnerable. These qualities make us better teachers. Don’t be afraid to be who you are in a digital environment as much as you are in your classroom.
One of the hardest things to do when you can’t see what someone is doing is to trust that they are staying engaged. Discussion forums can be really really quiet places. And when everything goes online, plagiarism and cheating can seem so much more imminent. In response to the pandemic, universities and their faculty started to really crack down, to use technology to put pressure on students. Surveillance through data and facial recognition has become, for some, a de facto solution to not being able to see students in class.
But if we consider the pressures that students are already under, adding more pressure doesn’t seem wise. If we want to retain students, we might need to start by assuming they want to stay.
Peter Elbow writes, “Grading tends to undermine the climate for teaching and learning. Once we start grading their work, students are tempted to study or work for the grade rather than for learning.” We all know this is true. Working for a grade undermines not only a lifelong attitude toward learning, but also student agency.
Right now, there’s a burgeoning conversation in education right now around the idea of ungrading, or changing the way we grade and do assessment. This conversation has been motivated largely by a clearer understanding of the problematic nature of grades, but right now is an important time to be thinking about changing the way we grade.
When we went online, many teachers found that it was impossible for either students or themselves to keep up with the anticipated workload and subsequent testing for the Spring 2020 term. That remained the case throughout Summer and Fall, too. In response, some teachers decided to suspend activities and homework that seemed extraneous or unnecessarily burdensome and to focus on that work that really focused on core competencies and critical thinking. Similarly, some universities (to greater and lesser degrees) revised their pass/fail criteria and policies to allow for more leeway.
Our circumstance asks us to reconsider grading entirely; and if we can’t abandon it whole-hog, then we must revise how and why we grade. Consider allowing students to grade themselves. Offer personal feedback on work instead of a letter, number, or percentage.
Another thing that seemed to fall away during the pandemic—if not entirely, then meaningfully—were deadlines. Students who had to spend time they would normally be in class instead filing paperwork for unemployment or standing in line at a local food pantry simply could not be expected to meet strict deadlines. In part, we’ve fallen into a bit of a better rhythm today, but there’s a lesson in discovering we can suspend deadlines: They may not be as necessary as we think.
That said, structure, including deadlines, is an important aspect of trauma-informed pedagogy. Students experiencing trauma (and we all are, to one extent or another) need to be able to rely on a regular schedule and consistency of expectation. If rules and expectations change continually, students don’t know where they stand. So, in some cases, deadlines can be incredibly useful tools to make students feel more confident in their learning process.
What’s important here, though, is to think about why you impose deadlines on work. Who does it benefit? Who does it privilege or leave behind? When pressed, most teachers have told me that they enforce deadlines because students will need to meet deadlines in the “real world.” But to be honest, we’ve all had a bit more real world in the last year than most of us can bear.
I was recently speaking with some faculty colleagues of mine. They asserted that one of the most important things we’ve learned from pandemic-style education is that students need to take more responsibility for their learning. That, left alone on the other side of the screen, students had to step up more than when they were being guided by a teacher in class.
That’s both right and wrong. Students living under a pandemic, under joblessness, under food or housing insecurity, do carry heavy responsibility… but not necessarily for the reading we’ve assigned. They have much bigger concerns. However, the pandemic did make more necessary a conversation between teacher and student about ways that learners could take ownership of their education. But ownership and responsibility are two different things—the former is a way for students to be engaged, and the latter is a burden imposed by teachers.
Because students bring different levels of expertise to any material or discussion—and because their lives, identities, and intersectionality inform their learning—students should be as involved in their own learning as possible. From syllabus creation to grading, building rubric and assignments to self-assessment.
6 & 7. Dialogue & Listening
Simply put, learning happens when we’re not looking. This has been made abundantly clear by the pivot online. Teaching online is often a matter of sending out a message and then waiting to see what comes back. But, generally speaking, teachers fear dead air. Silence in the classroom, or few to no responses on a discussion forum, can stir all kinds of thoughts and emotions—from “they’re not getting it” to “I’ve done something wrong” to “they’re bored,” and worse. But in truth, thoughtfulness and thoroughness takes time.
Dialogue online doesn’t have to be centered on content mastery. We can ask students about their lives, about their authentic responses to the material in class, or about how they learn or don’t learn. For really really good discussions in online classes, we can simply stop asking students to summarize what they’ve learned, and start by posting our thoughts, and asking for theirs.
Learning to listen online is as important as learning to say something online. Way back in the first best practice in this list, I advised that we try to be ourselves online. Well, as we are being ourselves, we need to let students be themselves. And this can often mean:
- Waiting until they speak, no matter how long that takes or how hard that is to do.
- Listening to the stories they want or need to tell, even when those stories seem extraneous to learning.
- Recognizing that not everyone speaks or listens or learns the same way, and expecting a diverse group of students to all respond to duplicate instructions might not be wise.
As the pandemic has worn on, issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion have risen to the surface, especially as technological inequities (or digital poverty) have become more apparent. Engaging students in dialogue, and listening to what they have to say (and what they have to say) is an important step in creating an inclusive, equitable environment for a diverse population of learners.
Teaching isn’t magic. In fact, there are very good reasons for teachers to reveal their “tricks” to learners. I have, numerous times, sat on the desk at the front of the classroom and called attention to how that’s different to standing behind a podium, sitting in a circle with the class, or lecturing from notes. Not to qualify one over the other, but to reveal something about the performativity of learning and teaching.
At the start of the pandemic, my best advice was for teachers to be honest with students about things like:
- How difficult the pandemic makes everything.
- How confusing it can be to try to learn online when you’d rather be in a classroom.
- What we find important to preserve when we teach online, and why.
- What we are afraid of when we teach online.
This sort of information can feel hard to reveal, but it demonstrates to students that we are thinking about our choices as teachers, and that we’re interested in hearing from them about these things, too.
Everybody says it about teaching online: give really clear instructions. From the perspective of this past year, I would say yes, clarity is vital. A student must know what we expect from them, why we are using the technology we are using and what that means for them, and more. But too often, this best practice about clarity translates to:
- Really strict rules about how to participate in discussions.
- Overly elaborate rubrics.
- Attendance policies that are, frankly, bizarre considering that every classroom is now also a home.
Clarity doesn’t need to mean providing a user’s manual for our classroom. It can mean telling a student that we want them to read so that they can join in the conversation, or we want them to spend time with content so that they can more deeply understand the field they’re entering. Clarity can also—and should—mean that students know how to find us when they need us, that they are welcome in our classrooms, and that we trust them.
For years, every syllabus I wrote started with an epigraph from Thomas P. Kasulis: “A class is a process, an independent organism with its own goals and dynamics. It is always something more than even the most imaginative lesson plan can predict.” If there’s anything that a pandemic pedagogy has taught us, it’s that we need to be prepared for that thing we can’t possibly prepare for.
So much of the best practices I’ve outlined here are aimed at making classrooms stronger communities, students more confident learners, and teachers a little less hard on themselves. If we can find those things that are the most important things we never want to lose about our teaching—no matter if there’s a pandemic or we are limited on time and resources—we can find ways to be flexible about the rest.
The point of any best practice or set of best practices should be to support community, collaboration, and respect in any classroom—online, on campus, or somewhere in between.