Monday, August 8

reflections on teaching online

the online summer class I've been teaching ended last Friday, when all the last final projects got turned in. as of five seconds ago, all the grades are tallied and posted and submitted. hurrah! two weeks til fall classes start...

did any sort of learning happen over those 8 weeks of summer term? on my end, definitely yes. I hadn't taught online before. during the spring and beginning of the summer I attended conference panels galore about online writing instruction. my wonderful mentor Kelli Cargile Cook spoke about the best practices she's developed and studied over her career. friend David Grover from Texas Tech presented on his dissertation research--all about how underprepared graduate students are when they get the chance to teach writing online. at Computers & Writing, I met the brilliant and generous people behind the OWI community website. so many awesome resources and inspirations. it was terrifying, but encouraging.

I was arguably more prepared (on paper, anyhow) for this course than for anything else I've ever taught in my life. most other things I've ever taught involved sticky notes with tentative 6-point outlines and thoughts, all scribbled down mere hours before the lesson. sticky notes don't work for online classes, though. instead, there were dozens of PDFs, a screencast video introduction, a website thing, bits of Blackboard fiddling, many many emails, and many Slack messages.

the slick, fancy Slack messaging app suggested itself as an especially appropriate online teaching tool for professional writing. I'd been hearing about the app on all the podcast advertisements, and I figured my bundle of Business Writing students could benefit from some exposure to it. with help from friend Michael, I poked around and tested things out and got everything set up just how I needed it for the various sections and projects of the class. hosting the whole class within Slack was disorienting for students at first, but most of them caught on quickly and enjoyed the interface. we didn't have quite as much fun as this Zach Whalen fellow seemed to have with his students on Slack, but ah well.

as the course got busier and summer ticked itself relentlessly into the past, I found myself wishing I could be sure my students were reading the announcements I made and the updates I posted. is there such a tracking device? my search just now brought me to this detailed list of Slack shortcuts and tips. there is a way to see who has logged in to Slack-- I'll have to explore that option next semester. it may or may not tell me who has read which channels. this piece might be something to share with students as they set up their Slack accounts for my class--hopefully they'd find it helpful. I need to remember the "reminder" function and the "pin file" function, for important information that students might lose track of too easily. the user-name policy also sounds pretty useful-- one way to maintain a sense of professionalism.

benefits a face-to-face class include students seeing each other and talking to each other a lot more, instead of merely performing for me and my syllabus of requirements. I'm not sure how well my students got to know each other. I did create an "off-topic" channel and let students have it to themselves (I checked now that class is over to find 4 lonely little posts there). our Slack space stayed very to-the-point and business-oriented, a place where work got submitted and readings got "discussed" within minimum wordcounts and with little dialogue. next semester, I'll have to incentivize more student-to-student communication and discussion. this boils down to an odd form of pandering bribery and forced-ness, which my soul squirms and recoils about just a little. I like to think that as an undergraduate student I would have been utterly happy to talk to my fellow students of my own accord (very not true). who needs incentives for that? but that's my vaguely-more-enlightened and far-less-shy gradstudent self talking.

my course was 99% asynchronous, and I so wished that I could have all 17 of my students in one channel at the same time. more focused, immediate discussion could have been way more useful. all the best online courses I've ever taken have included a synchronous Skype or chat-room element. but the way online courses are marketed in this program means students sign up expecting to work at their own paces and not expecting to show up to be counted at any particular time. because of that, I didn't feel like I could design a course with much, if any, synchronous discussion time in it at all. this summer, I asked students to sign up for one-on-one video conferences, so at least there'd be a sliver of synchronous discussion. this worked pretty well. for next semester, I may consider assigning small-group conference meetings, perhaps to discuss peer review work more directly. the institutional constraint here is a challenge to work around. perhaps it deserves to be brought up with my supervisors and program directors. we'll see.

this weekend I talked with a few potential community partners about linking my fall Business Writing assignments to their local, real-world business contexts and needs. it's lovely to know people who run small, local businesses in this lovely college town. wish me luck getting myself organized to incorporate some of those ideas for the next batch of scattered, disembodied online students.

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