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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Guest Post: Taking Care: Creating Meaningful Online Learning

Lee Skallerup Bessette is back with an online teaching experience that may surprise some.

June 3, 2020

Planning for the fall semester is upon us. Or, at least, some kind of planning for some kind of semester that may or may not be online or at a distance or a HyFlex. And the lamentations over everything that will be lost as a result of our new normal are gaining traction once again. And there is a loss, no doubt, but it doesn’t mean that you cannot create meaningful learning experiences. You just need to take care. 

I had the opportunity this past semester to teach in a Correctional Education program. In the best of times, it is a...challenging learning environment - the students (who are in prison) don’t have internet access and are thus limited to downloading materials onto tablets once or twice a week (when the hardware works), and for the instructors, the only way to communicate with them is via messages through the LMS that they receive and respond to when they are hooked up to the kiosk. The course is pre-designed and standardized - I don’t even control when the modules are released. And, even with the odds stacked against us, the course is nonetheless a meaningful learning (and teaching!) experience because of the care put into designing, and then delivering, the course.

I wrote in this space previously about how I created a meaningful online course by making it personal (and while I didn’t note it at the time, it seems important now to add that there were zero synchronous sessions). TL;DR version: I took a course that, at first glance, would seem impossible to create any sort of meaningful connections for the students - mid-semester, 6-week course that fulfills a gen-ed requirement about a place that they have no real interest in - and made it, in the words of one the students, “one of the more informational and most influential courses I have ever taken.” This was a course, however, that I had complete agency over in terms of design and delivery. How does that translate to an even less than ideal situation? 

First, the course design was top-notch. The course I was teaching was a gen-ed required writing course, where the students were beginning to engage with more complex readings and more advanced forms of writing. They did have two physical required books, 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology, and A Writer’s Reference. The essays that the students were required to read were thoughtfully selected for maximum resonance with the students. The essays the students were required to write built on each other towards a final synthesis essay where they could use any essay in the anthology to support their position. There were drafts and revisions. 

To accompany the books, there were also weekly quality pre-recorded lectures that the students would download to their tablets to be able to view on their own time. They were short and to the point, connecting what they had read with what they were expected to complete that week. The reference book provided additional guidance on how to write the various essays, as well as how to do proper citations, etc. Every week, I went in and commented on their submissions, while also sending out announcements containing reminders and guidance to common areas that needed improvement. 

On the surface, this probably represents the worst kind of online learning to many of you: a stock, pre-built course with little to no engagement and just an instructor there to grade. I would argue instead that it represents the best kind of online learning, where the students were engaged, learning and improving. My presence wasn’t merely there to provide a grade, but to provide support, encouragement, constructive feedback, and empathy. This wasn’t just some stock First-Year Composition course, but one carefully designed with the learner population at the forefront of any and all pedagogical decisions. 

The most striking to me in teaching this course is the care that clearly went into it, and continues to go into it. I couldn’t help but also bring my own care to it, with the ability to work with the course rather than against it. I was free to focus on the students’ writing and their confidence, trusting that the scaffolding and materials provided were there to support us, both student and faculty, in our work. The course, in its very design and pedagogy, communicated care to the students. In my interactions, I communicated care, even if it was only ever through the written word. 

I mentioned the assigned readings; given the demographics of those who are incarcerated, the readings were representative of those demographics but also confronted them with different perspectives on marginalized peoples. The students read “Learning to Read” by Malcolm X, “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Spaces” by Brent Staples, “Learning to Read and Write” by Frederick Douglass, “On Being a Cripple” by Nancy Mairs, “I Just Want to be Average,” by Mike Rose, “Aria: Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood,” by Richard Rodriguez, and “Two Ways to Belong in America,” by Bharati Mukherjee, among others. The writing prompts explicitly asked them to draw from their own experiences in order to engage more critically and fully with the texts, which, in their final reflections, they all appreciated: some had never before thought that they had anything worthwhile or meaningful to say or share. 

Instructors teaching in the Correctional Program would get weekly reports about the challenges each prison where the students were incarcerated faced: lockdowns, power failures, technology failures, lack of site liaison, no water, late books and other materials, and then COVID-19. Please, we were told, be flexible with due dates and only penalize if you feel the student could have completed the work on time but chose not to. Who, given the state of the world today and/or the state of prisons today, honestly convinced themselves that a student was just slacking off? But the program itself was communicating to us that care needed to be a central value that we practiced with our students, being ever mindful of the very real and daunting challenges they were facing in order to take our courses and learn. 

As we move forward towards what is certainly going to be some sort of online learning for the fall, as we start to think about our courses for the fall and how we will adapt them, think of the ways you are showing care for your students, care for your colleagues, care for your TAs through your design and pedagogical decisions. This isn’t ideal, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful. You just have to start from a place of care. 




Lee Skallerup Bessette is a learning design specialist at the Center for New Directions in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. She has been writing about teaching, learning and technology (among other things) for over a decade. She also co-hosts the podcast All The Things ADHD. You can find her writing and other work at readywriting.net. Most people know her as @readywriting on Twitter.


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