Teaching Today

For the Love of Learning

As faculty members transition to distance learning, Melissa Dennihy offers five suggestions for how to find and make the most of the opportunities that online instruction can offer.

March 25, 2020
 
 
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In trying times, we often hear that mind-set matters. Hope can keep us going when things feel impossible. Optimism can improve outcomes that initially appeared bleak. As faculty members across the nation and around the world transition to distance learning in the coming weeks, I’d like to argue that mind-set matters in how we take up this new challenge and what opportunities we find in it.

I’ve been teaching hybrid and fully online courses alongside face-to-face courses for as long as I have had a teaching career -- over 13 years now. I acknowledge, as many other online instructors have, that making this abrupt transition amid a global pandemic is not ideal for teachers or students. Ideally, online teaching and learning should involve planning, training and a vested interest from both faculty and students in using digital platforms to learn in new ways.

But these are not ideal times, and the transition is happening. So what can we do now to embrace it? How does mind-set matter as we approach this new challenge? What opportunities and advantages might there be in online instruction, and how can we make the most of them?

First, let go of the mind-set that online education is a subpar or watered-down form of learning. Online education is not valueless; it is a different form of instruction, but it is not objectively inferior to traditional instructional modes. In fact, some students find online learning to be more engaging and productive than traditional classroom experiences. In my online courses, that has been especially true for English-language learners, many of whom have told me that discussion forums and recorded lectures conducted asynchronously give them far more time to read and process course material at their own pace. In the traditional classroom, lectures and discussions can move quickly, making it harder for English-language learners to keep up or find a chance to chime in.

Similarly, online courses can give introverted students a space to find their voices. In my hybrid courses, I’ve noticed time and again that the same students who rarely speak in the face-to-face classroom are class leaders on discussion boards and wikis, posting dozens of comments each week and facilitating lengthy discussion threads among their peers. While online learning might not be best for everyone, it can be better for some students -- and this may be their chance to discover that.

Recognize how online learning can allow for more inclusion and make space for marginalized voices and perspectives. Online courses can shift classroom power dynamics so that more students have a voice: in face-to-face courses, it is not uncommon for certain students to dominate conversation. Perhaps these students are speakers of standardized English, who tend to be more comfortable speaking in a large group than students whose nonstandardized language varieties have been stigmatized by instructors or peers in the past. Perhaps these students are second- or third-generation college students, who may be far more familiar with academic culture and discourse than their first-gen peers. Perhaps it is simply that we have two or three students who always raise their hands first, leaving other students reluctant to participate simply because someone else has already offered a response. All of these dynamics shift in unexpected and exciting ways once discussion has moved online.

Of equal importance, online courses can shift power dynamics so that the professor’s role is decentered in favor of student-centered learning. In a traditional course, I come in with a lesson plan that structures and guides the conversation for each class session. But in my online courses, I frequently log on to our course site to find that students have started a dialogue -- sometimes multiple dialogues -- without me. In so doing, they often find new angles and approaches for tackling course material that hadn’t occurred to me previously.

See the possibilities in flexibility. Making your courses synchronous might make sense right now -- students already have a lot to adjust to, and it may be best to maintain structure and routine by requiring them to log on synchronously for scheduled class sessions. However, the flexibility of asynchronous learning might be just what some students need to get on top of things. Perhaps those students with demanding jobs -- jobs that often forced them to come to class late or leave early -- will become more involved if they can work at a time that is best for them. Perhaps you will learn that those students who always fell asleep in your 8 a.m. class are night owls who do their best work at midnight.

Though it is inevitable that some students will suffer from this transition, others may do better when courses move online. Take note of which students are thriving and which are struggling. Reach out to the latter to help them find their way, but also consider what obstacles may have been eliminated for the former to help facilitate their success. This is information you can take back to your regular classrooms in “ordinary” times to help students excel there, too.

Use this time as a chance to involve students in shaping course content and structure. One of the core tenets of my teaching philosophy is that we should allow students to share more fully in the processes of designing our courses, class sessions, assignments and assessment rubrics. For many of us, it’s easy to implement this in smaller ways, but harder to do it full-scale: the idea of starting a new semester without a course syllabus so that we might develop one with our students can be daunting, if not flat-out frightening. Now, though, we have an unusual opportunity to delve right into that sort of practice: we can -- and should -- work together with students to decide what our online courses will entail.

Ask your students for advice. Some have probably taken online or hybrid courses before. They probably have ideas about what works and what doesn’t. Even students who haven’t taken online courses will have opinions about how to move forward: Synchronous or asynchronous? Discussion forums or face-to-face chats? Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom? Let your students play a part in making those decisions and you may find that their input has resulted in a better course design than you may have come up with alone.

Lead by example. Don’t fear or dismiss this transition before trying it out. View this as an opportunity for students (particularly those for whom the face-to-face classroom poses challenges), but view it as an opportunity for you, too. We can all learn from getting out of our comfort zones and trying new ways of delivering content and engaging with students. Again, these are not ideal circumstances, and there will be serious limitations. But don’t assume failure before you have begun.

If one of the things we hope to teach our students is a love of learning -- an eagerness to explore and think critically about the possibilities and challenges that are posed to us in life -- then what better opportunity than this one to model those mind-sets for them? We, their professors, are supposed to love learning, too. So let’s show our students that this learning process can be an exciting, rewarding and educational one, even in all of its challenges and messiness. Let’s show our students that a love of learning is, perhaps, the best tool we have to help us adjust to this strange time.

Bio

Melissa Dennihy is assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.

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