Pivot to Online: A Student Guide

To succeed as schools pivot to online, students will need to be resourceful, and they may need to demand fairer treatment than they have ever demanded previously.

Pivot to Online: A Student Guide

With the sudden rush of coronavirus across the globe, and the urgent need to practice social distancing, universities and colleges across the United States and around the world are closing campuses and “pivoting” to online teaching and learning. The perils of this to education are both clear and unpredictable as administrators and instructional designers attempt to force a lifetime’s worth of teaching experience into a new medium—one which requires new pedagogies, and one which cannot be tamed with simple best practices or matching assessments with outcomes.

For students, the disorientation will be profound. Where before they (may have) had skilled, imaginative, creative, even buoyant teachers leading their classes, now they will have a wisp of that person, a shade, a particulate version of that teacher guiding them through their learning. In worst cases, students working under teachers who have no training in classroom pedagogy, and who simply inherited their teaching techniques from the lecturers of old, will find that their instructors are overwhelmed by the demands of the digital, the expectations of nonetheless meeting at designated class times, and who have been in the past completely unwilling to entertain digital learning, much less distance learning.

Most of those who teach in higher education received no training to do their jobs in the classroom. And even fewer have been, or have sought out, training in digital pedagogy.

To succeed in this, students will need to be resourceful, and they may need to demand fairer treatment than they have ever demanded previously. What follows is something I hope will be a guide for students—that I hope will be shared with students—and which may help teachers better understand what’s about to happen on the other side of the screen.

Before students move  to the other side of the screen, though, they may face some very real challenges:

  • Many students are being asked to leave campus, move out of their dorms and go back home to complete their studies; but, according to the Hope Center’s National #RealCollege Survey, out of 86,000 students surveyed, 56% were housing insecure in the previous year, and 17% were homeless. Asking these students to go ‘home’ isn’t realistic, and could end up doing them real harm.
  • A similar survey by the Wisconsin Hope Lab in 2015 found that LGBTQ students who responded to the survey “faced higher risks of basic need insecurity compared to heterosexual students,” some of which may be linked to lower levels of family support. In the case of some LGBTQ students, then, returning ‘home’ isn’t an option.
  • It’s especially important during times of crisis to remember that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. And academics are the most prevalent cause of stress and trauma for students. In a crisis, those who are already at risk become even more vulnerable.
  • As they are forced to leave campus, many students will lose student employment. This will likely mean they will have to find other employment in a hurry. That will interfere with class time, keeping up with assignments, and more.
  • If a student must return home, they may face little or no internet access there. In December 2019, EdSource reported that only 30% of households in rural California have internet access; even in urban areas, only 78% of households have service. In addition, a lot of local and campus libraries are also closing to avoid putting their employees at risk. That means access to public computers is going to become limited.

All of the above are compounded by the very real fear that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing. For all of us, we will be worried about our family and friends, our colleagues and coworkers, our own health and the health of those closest to us. There is no better response to anyone during this time than compassion, care, patience, and forgiveness. We are all going to make mistakes. We are all going to need help.

Pivot to Online: A Student Guide

If you have found yourself suddenly dealing with:

  • Abruptly online courses
  • The loss of student employment
  • A sudden move off campus

I hope the ideas below will help. Most of these involve being pretty direct with your instructors. I’ve put a little note at the bottom with some additional recommendations for how to make being direct work well.

  1. Technology. Not everyone is going to have the same access to the same technology. Be proactive in reaching out to your teachers to let them know what tools you can use. Think about everything in your toolkit: email, text messages, phone calls, video conferencing/calling tools, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media.
  2. Internet access. Assess your internet access. If you have only a mobile phone, then insist that any technology used during this pivot to online be mobile-friendly. If you only have access to a computer for a few hours a day, at work, or at a library, don’t hesitate to make that known to your instructors.
  3. Class hours. A lot of colleges are insisting that students and teachers keep to their class schedules. This may not be realistic for you. Write to your instructor and let them know when you can meet, and why you may have trouble meeting during regular class hours.
  4. Captioning. Insist the video lectures be captioned. Even if you don’t need this, someone in your class may need captioned videos for accessibility.
  5. Help each other. If possible, reach out to other students in your classes and create a support network. Use whatever digital means necessary to stay in touch. There are free tools, like Slack, that are good places to “gather” online; you can also create a Facebook group, a hashtag on Twitter or Instagram. Email works. Group text messages work. Find a way to stay in touch so that no one of you feels stranded or alone.
  6. Seek help. There are resources that will remain available to you. Find out who the Dean of Students is at your school, locate a CARE team, or reach out to other student support services. Your school may have a food pantry, or emergency funding for students. If you don’t know how to find your college’s emergency aid fund, you can Google your college’s name and “emergency aid fund” to find it. Your IT department might have laptops, mobile hotspots, tablets, or other equipment you can borrow during this crisis. There are people at your school who are not only trained to help you, but that is their job. So don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. Also, take a look at this toolkit for coronavirus anxiety.
  7. Be forgiving. And here’s the thing: your instructors are just as anxious about all of this as you may be. They are nervous, they are unprepared, they are worried they will fail to teach you, worried that you will not meet the course requirements now, that they will not be able to figure out how to administer exams, grade homework, and more. Very few college or university instructors received any training in teaching. And even fewer have been trained, or sought training in, digital teaching. Be patient with them even as you ask them to be patient with you.
  8. Refer faculty to The Hope Center. This tireless group has created a resource guide for teachers during the COVID-19 crisis.

This is a time to work together. In all of the above suggestions where I’ve recommended that you reach out to teachers, that you insist on certain kinds of accommodations, the key is to be kind. Take me at my word here. I’ve worked directly and indirectly with faculty on six continents, and most of them will respond to kindness. If they know you are trying your best, they will also try their best. (Some of them are reading this right now, too.) Remember that faculty are human beings who have been caught just as much by surprise by this pivot to online as you have… only many of them are not as tech- or web-savvy as you are.

Photo by Kyle Glenn