Emergency Educational Measures in a Time of Pandemics, Anti-Racism Protests, and Political Chaos: Is This All Going… Anywhere?

A few months ago, a former co-worker of mine Erika Beljaars-Harris asked me to come talk to the University she now works at – RMIT Australia. They were interested in hearing about the current problems U.S. education is facing and where it is going. While I am not a futurist by training, well, neither are half the people that put the term in their bio. But I think there are at least three obvious trends that are having  – and will continue to have – immediate impacts on education. I also think it is pretty obvious where they are going if you put aside what you would like to see happening and be honest about how difficult it is going to continue to get.

So I came up with the title for the presentation (that I re-used for this post) and a quick 10-minute intro to frame the discussion. I thought I would write this post to capture the basic thoughts I shared in that intro. I covered the three trends I mentioned in the title and where I think we (in the U.S., but many other countries are facing similar issues as well) are going with those, both good and bad.

Pandemic Responses

When I first wrote up the description, it was a month ago and few were really talking Fall seriously. Now a lot of places have started talking, and even releasing some plans. These plans, for the most part, say nothing concrete other than “back to campus! (we hope but won’t commit to fully)” I made a joke about how solid those plans feel:

Campuses need students, faculty, and staff back on campus to generate revenue. So they are going to wait as long as they can to make any decisions other than going back. But coronavirus numbers are growing. Politicians and leaders are not doing enough to reverse that. A small handful of schools have put out some good plans for the Fall (thank you to those that have), but most have released nothing, or even worse, confusing complicated plans that try to hard to get as many students on campus as possible.

So where is this going? Classes are going to be online at some point in the Fall – or even before the Fall. It will probably depend on how much death and sickness we can accept before making the decision. But make no mistake: we will be back online sooner rather than later. And I realize that is not necessarily a good thing for all – but it will happen regardless. As much as you will be told to get ready for on campus or hybrid options, I would put more effort towards getting your classes and yourself ready for online. Make plans to keep yourself and your students as safe as possible. Don’t wait for guidance from leaders, and if it does come, realize you will probably have to go above and beyond anything they plan for.

Anti-Racism and Education

I am not totally sure I used correct English in the title – but the main idea is that we have witnessed sustained protests against systemic racism in several ways following the murder of George Floyd, and many are noting that they seem to be having some effects. I suddenly got a bunch of emails on June 18th telling me about Juneteenth celebrations or events happening the next day – as if a bunch of companies suddenly realized they better do something. Sure, many people will probably lose interest in social justice and equality once the news cycle moves on, but I think we have finally crossed a line to where you need to decide to be anti-racist or not. The lines have been drawn

So where is this going? Don’t look at “diversity” as a thing that you do for a special one day thing in class, or leave to the People of Color in your life. Don’t look at it as something our Black colleague can fill you in on when ever you remember to ask. Don’t ask your Indigenous student to speak for all Indigenous Peoples during a class discussion. You will need to start doing the work to bring marginalized voices into your content from the beginning of class to the end. It will no longer be acceptable to lean on “traditional experts” (aka white males) to make up the main focus of your content. You will need to do the work of searching and learning for yourself who needs to be added to your lessons. You will also need to do the work yourself to examine your own biases and prejudices and how they affect how you teach and interact with students, colleagues, and co-workers. Critical educational practices / pedagogy will need to be practiced by all, not just those that study it as an academic field.

Update: an important aspect of this work is also listening:

Political Chaos

So even beyond academic leaders, it seems that political leaders at all levels and political parties are also falling apart in their response to COVID. Some have done well, but most have not. From reacting too late, to re-opening too soon, to realizing they opened too soon but took too long to reverse course, it has been a failure of partisan politics up and down the board. I am not getting into both side-ism here – one party clearly wanted to follow Science and the other did not (even though even those that wanted to follow Science could have done much better in most cases). Wearing masks, social distancing, supporting the economy after you ordered businesses to shut down, and so on should NOT have ever been political issues to disagree over. And I know that this problem comes from the top and affects the ability of all levels underneath to make decisions. But more leaders at state and local levels should have decided to do the right things regardless of what was happening at the national level. Many did and that helped for the people living in those areas. But many did not. And instead of getting over the worst of it by now as we should be, we are gearing up for the worst of it to still come.

So where is this going? I think we have to face the hard truth that we are on our own for now. You will have to find what ever group you can that will do the right thing and band together to do what you can. Whether a smaller group in the city, at the department level, a subsection of your department, an ongoing Twitter DM group, a Slack channel, a group Facebook Message, whatever it might be – find some people to connect with and band together to help. Whether it is emotional help online or in-person help in your community (socially distanced, of course), find those that are willing to do the right thing and form networks. Try to reach out to as big a level as you can, but don’t count on leaders to get things done. Some leaders may get some things done and that is great – connect with them. If not, find the people that will and band together with them to make it through.

 

Crash Course in Online Teaching 1: Starting With Theory (Wait, Wait – Give It a Chance! Really!)

With several universities now coming to grips with the fact that they will still be online in the Summer (and most likely the Fall), several are turning to how to quickly train their entire faculty in online teaching in a hurry. There really isn’t one ideal way to do this, but I want to offer up the way I would do it if given the chance to design a Crash Course in Online Learning (insert your Budgie/Metallica song parody here).

I would personally start off with a very basic intro to… stay with me here… learning theory. Wait – don’t click away just yet. Many would balk at the idea of starting with theory and not practical tool/building skills, while learning theorists would cry foul at thinking that a basic intro to learning theory is even possible. But I have found that a few basic concepts taught at a very intro level can help faculty not only understand how they have been taught in the past, but also how they can try new ideas and designs they may have never thought of.

So give it chance if you are tired of academia and theory, or give me some wide wiggle room for scaffolding if you are deep into learning theory. I’m going to combine and give examples that will make theory easy to digest, but also blur the lines of complexity that exist. Please keep that in mind as we go forward.

First of all, I will point out that I have published and taught this before. I will give the basics below, but if you have 30 minutes to an hour to dig in, there are slightly more explanatory resources out there. The first is the paper that I published called “From Instructivism to Connectivism: Theoretical Underpinnings of MOOCs.” Yes, it is about MOOCs, but the ideas can be applied to any course. Plus, it comes with a worksheet that you can use to plan your course. The second is a video archive of a training session I led from last year on the paper. If you prefer video more than blog posts or papers, this might work for you:

So, for those that are wanting the summary version, here we go….

Overall Power Dynamics

Out of all the different ways to approach learning theory, I like focus on power dynamics first when it comes to designing a course. So think about the overall power dynamic you want to see happening in your course. This can change from week to week, but in general most courses stick to one for the most part. The question is: who determines what learners will learn in your course, and who directs how it is learned? There are many ways to look at this, but I like to focus on three different -isms:

  • Instructivism: The course is controlled by an expert instructor, determined and directed by that expert.
  • Constructivism: Constructed self-discovery, sometimes determined by the expert, but usually directed by the learner.
  • Connectivism: Learner-determined and directed by the learner, enhanced by networking (connecting) with others (including other learners, the instructor, online resources, etc).

Yes, these can mix, and you can move between different ones. The main thing to think about is who is determining the overall knowledge and/or skills to be learned, and then who is directing how the learners will learn those knowledge and skills and then how they will prove they learned them.

Again, there are many different ways of looking at these terms, many other -isms you can use, and a lot of ambiguity that I am glossing over here. These three -isms (and how I described them) are just a good place to start for those that are new. Generally you pick one, but also think how elements of others might also be utilized in your course.

Methodology of Course Design

Course design methodology often overlaps with power structures. However, within various power structures, there still is room for different design methodologies. For example, even in connectivism there it is still possible to design a course that focuses on transmission of knowledge from experts, even if those experts are not always the instructor.

In this stage, you are thinking about where knowledge and/or skills training comes from, not just who controls the overall power dynamics. Again, there are many, many different ways to look at this. I want to start with three popular -agogies:

  • Pedagogy: many people use this as a catch-all phrase for all teaching design, but in a traditional sense for several centuries it has meant focusing on knowledge transfer from an expert (Update: please note there are many different ways of looking at the term that have gained traction over the past 80-100 years that  hope to cover in upcoming parts – see viewing pedagogy as a philosophy rather than a theory in fields like critical pedagogy).
  • Andragogy: learners draw upon their experience to connect what they already know with new content / knowledge / skills / etc (some have advocated to use the term “Anthropagogy” in place of Andragogy to be more inclusive, but I use the more common term here).
  • Heutagogy: learners focus on learning how to learn about a particular topic rather than just what to learn. Heutagogy is often seen as a critical response to the limitations of other -agogies.

Typically, you see pedagogy matching with instructivism, andragogy matching with constructivism, and heutagogy matching with connectivism. But it is possible for other combinations, such as constructivist heutagogy or connectivivist pedagogy. There is a chart of page 94 of the article above that explains the nine different combination and gives examples.

The main idea is that you choose which combination of the two you want for your class most often (even if if changes from time to time). I tend to advocate for a connectivist heutagogical approach the most often, as that is what more and more people need in the world today. Rather than memorizing expert facts as determined by a the instructor, we need more learners that know how to grow and learn about a topic by connecting with the people and resources that can teach them what they need to know.

At this point, you will start considering what activities and assignments you will be using in your course. It is also good to have some well-written and aligned goals, objectives, competencies, or other standards. I will cover that as a separate post next, but more than likely, you are transitioning a course that already exists on campus into an online course. So I will continue with the theory first, but keep in mind that even if you already have goals and objectives, it would be a good idea to review them after you work through learning theory.

Types of Interaction

Of course, your class will have all types of interaction. However, I have found that once people jump into creating activities and assignments and content first, they leave out interaction until after the bulk of the course activities have been created. At that point, interaction becomes an afterthought or an add-on addition to what has already been created. Which is not ideal.

Thinking through the types of communication that can happen in a course is a good way to proactively plan out different ways to foster interaction as you create content and activities. Most of us think of different types of communication like student-to-student, teacher-to-student, student-to-content, etc. There are already 12 types that have been identified in the literature, but there could be up to 20 emerging. I gave my run-down of communication types that currently exist and how they might change in the future here:

Updating Types of Interactions in Online Education to Reflect AI and Systemic Influence

You will probably want to pick several types of interaction for different parts or times in your course. Again, if you don’t plan for it from the beginning, it may never make it into your goals, objectives, or lesson plans. However, please keep in mind that you can come back and change/add/remove types throughout the design process.

Also, make sure to match the different types of interaction with the methodology and power structure you selected earlier, at least as you initially see them working out in your course. If you don’t have a good match for your previous choices, then you probably need to consider adding some appropriate interaction types.

Communicative Actions

The final theoretical part to think about will probably be something that you consider now, but come back to once you have an idea of what activities you want in your course. But I will cover it here since it is also in the article above, and it helps to think about it from the beginning as well. Once you know the power structure, methodology, and types of interaction you want, you will need to think through the form that various communication acts will take in your course.

There are many different theories of communication – one that I have found works well for instructors is Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions (LTCA) theory (based on the work of Jurgen Habermas, but created mainly by one of doctoral committee members Dr. Scott Warren for full disclosure). Current LTCA theory proposes four types of communicative actions:

  • Normative communicative actions: communication of knowledge that
    is based on past experiences (for example, class instructions that
    explain student learning expectations).
  • Strategic communicative actions: communication through textbooks,
    lectures, and other methods via transmission to the learner (probably
    the most utilized educational communicative actions).
  • Constative communicative actions: communication through
    discourses, debates, and arguments intended to allow learners to make
    claims and counterclaims (utilizing social constructivism and /or
    connectivism).
  • Dramaturgical communicative actions: communication for purposes
    of expression (reflecting or creating artifacts individually or as a group
    to demonstrate knowledge or skills gained).

As you can see, you will most likely need to mix these during the class – even for each lesson. The goal on this part is not to pick one or two, but to think through how you communicate what is happening in your course. Think through the activities you will have in your course, and then match those with at least one communicative action and power dynamic/methodological combination.

Pulling It All Together

So that is really it for a quick run through some of the basics of theory that can help you begin to design an online course. Like I have said, there are many other theories than those covered here, and deeper/more complex ways of looking at the ones that were covered. This is meant to be a quick guide to just get started, whether you are designing a new online course from scratch or converting an existing on-campus course to an online version. If you looked at the article, you saw that there is a one-page worksheet at the end to help you work through all of these theories in a fairly quick manner. I have also created a Word Doc version, a Google Doc version, and a PDF form version that you can use to fill out and use as you like.

In parts 2 and 3, I want to go back to some topics I have covered before – but for now, here are links to past posts that cover those basics if you can’t wait:

Goals, Objectives, and Competencies

An Emergency Guide (of sorts) to Getting This Week’s Class Online in About an Hour (or so)

Update: I wasn’t clear enough that this is a basic beginner’s way to look at the terms and ideas that are used in learning theory. This will continue to go deeper as I look at other areas of theory in future posts. Some people are not happy that I avoided using the term “Critical Pedagogy” anywhere in the article. I apologize for that. My main thought was that Critical Pedagogy is often classified as an educational philosophy because it puts theory into action, and therefore it would be better to cover that in practical areas like formative evaluation, writing objectives, creating content, etc. Examining power dynamics, who controls communication, and what forms communication take are one of the foundations of being critical about education, so it is still the foundation of everything in this post.

A Template, a Course, and an OER for an Emergency Switch to Online

So the last few weeks have been… something. Many of us found ourselves in the rush to get entire institutions online, often with incredibly limited resources to do so. I’ve been in the thick of this as well. Recently I shared some thoughts about institutions going online, as well as an emergency guide to taking a week of a class online quickly. I would like to add some more resources to the list that we have been developing since those posts.

First of all, I would like to repeat what many have said (and what I tried to emphasize in that first post): take care of your self, your family, and those around you first. Don’t expect perfection from yourself. Practice self-care as much as possible (I know that easier said that done). Then make sure to take care of your students as well. Communicate with them as much as possible, be flexible, remember that many aspects of their lives have been suddenly upended, and above all, make sure to be a voice of care in these times.

I also know that at some point, you will be expected to put your course online and teach something, whether you think it is a good idea or not. So for those that are at that stage, here are some more resources to help.

First of all, I am working with some other educators to put together a free course called Pivoting to Online Teaching: Research and Practitioner Perspectives (I didn’t really like the word “pivot,” but I was overruled). It is a course that you can take for free from edX, but for those that don’t want to register, we have been placing all of the content on an alternative website that requires no sign-up. Lessons are being created in H5P (remixable) and traditional html format. Archives of past events are also being stored here as well. We are halfway through Week 1, so plenty of time to join us.

As part of that course, I created a module template for an emergency switch to online. This is basically a series of pages that work together as a module that you can copy and modify to quickly create course content. It tends to follow many of the concepts we are promoting in the class (Community of Inquiry, ungrading, etc), but it can also easily be modified to fit other concepts as well. I basically went through my earlier post “An Emergency Guide (of sorts) to Getting This Week’s Class Online in About an Hour (or so)” and followed it in making a Geology module. Then I add some notes in red to talk about options and things you should think about if you are new to this. You can find the Canvas or IMS Common Cartridge version in the Canvas Commons that can be imported in Canvas, or downloaded and imported to systems that support IMS. However, since there are also other systems that don’t use either of these formats, I also made a Google Docs version as well as a Microsoft Word version for download.

And finally, the OER – our book Creating Online Learning Experiences:A Brief Guide to Online Courses, from Small and Private to Massive and Open is still available through Mavs OpenPress in Pressbooks (with Hypothes.is enabled for comments as well). I want to highlight a few of the chapters:

Of course, I like the whole book, so it was hard to pick just a few chapters, but those are the ones that would probably help those getting online quickly. When you get more caught up, I would also suggest the Basic Philosophies chapter as one to help guide you think through many underlying aspects to teaching online.

An Emergency Guide (of sorts) to Getting This Week’s Class Online in About an Hour (or so)

With all of the concern the past few weeks about getting courses online, many people are collecting or creating resources for how to get courses online in case of a last minute emergency switch to online teaching. Some are debating whether to call it “emergency remote teaching” (or some variation of that) instead of actual “online teaching.” I agree with the difference, but don’t think that the academic definitions of either one really brings about much change in the practical work of getting online.

There are many problematic issues to address that many are not talking about. Accessibility, student support, and social support structures that schools provide don’t always switch online so well. Some students are even being kicked off of campus, with little mention being made of finding out where they will go if they don’t have a place to go this early, if they can afford to get where they need to go if so, and if the environment they go to can even allow for them learning from online. On top of all of that, few are talking about the difficulty and chaos that going online will create.

Of course, a lot can be said about if closing schools or going online instead of canceling is a good idea. All are good questions to ask. But a lot of people out there have already been forced to go online whether they agree or not, and many more will be forced to do so in the coming weeks. So we have to talk practical steps for those that are in this predicament.

There are many okay to good guides out there for switching online. I see most of them will tell faculty to examine their syllabus to see what can and can’t go online. This is a good first step, but it often ends up being the last step mentioned in this process. There needs to be some quick and blunt guides for what that means to examine your syllabus. So I am going to dive into that here.

Most Instructional Designers will be able to put a week’s worth of a class online in a very short amount of time IF given free reign to apply effective practices focused on the bare minimum needed and a complete set of content based on those principles. Once IDs start getting away from that – adding in time consuming online options that faculty love but that are not absolutely necessary, or waiting for faulty to get them content – the time to create a class increases quickly. However, if you are willing to focus on the bare bones of good online course design, there are many things you can learn from IDs in a pinch.

As I go through this, I will be addressing accessibility issues along the way. The main thing to keep in mind is that media (mainly video, but also images) is easy to make accessible (due to built in alt tags and captioning features), but also the most time consuming. Auto captioning usually doesn’t cut it. You will still need to manually read through and correct any mistakes by hand. The more you can get away from relying on video or video services, the less time it will take to prepare course work (in general).

The first step in going online is to talk with your students about what that would mean before you are forced to make the switch. Talk with them about what it takes to learn online. Have them go through your syllabus and brainstorm ideas for how to transition your objectives to online. Give them the freedom to suggest changes to objectives, or to even think of different activities to meet objectives. Ask them to talk to you privately if they don’t have Internet access at home, of they need other support services. Make sure they all have a way to check in with you (just so you know they are okay), and a back-up method or two in case the main communication method is not working well (or goes down).

If you have already been forced online, or there will be no class meetings between now and when the switch happens, you will need to think through this yourself. Of course, thinking through this yourself might help you guide the discussion with your students – so do it either way.

Content Creation

The first thing to ask yourself is how new information/content/etc will be communicated to students:

  1. One-Way Communication: Typical lecture method, where you share the new information that students learn. Easiest communication to make accessible, but captions could still be time consuming if you are relying on video (especially longer ones). If your goal is one way communication, you don’t need synchronous video tools, even for questions (students can contact you for that, email them, comment if you use a blog, etc). Also, note that this type of communication can be made to work on mobile devices easier.
  2. Discussion Between Instructor and Students: If you really want the ability to interact, and not just answer questions, you do need to look at tools for interaction. Discussion forums are the most accessible (but a little less human), while video conferencing tools are more problematic in regards to accessibility. For example, people with various hearing issues report that Zoom’s accessibility tools start to fall way short of ideal once four people get on a session. So if you really need this, you might want to consider using small group structures that can use a variety of tools (even a phone). Which would bleed over into another communication modality:
  3. Students Communicating With Each Other: Yes, this would include small group discussion. However, also consider how you can encourage students to use your class as a support network. Don’t just lock-down class tools to only be used for class activities. Help students get that human connection they will start to miss once social distancing sets in. This communication modality can be very effective for mobile devices and accessibility needs if you can be flexible about tools and structures.

Here is the thing that will save you the most time: If it were up to me for a class I was teaching, I would not try to schedule meetings for online lectures or even record videos of my lectures to get those online. It is possible to do that well when going online, but time consuming and problematic in regards to accessibility. Even typing out my lecture for the week can take a while. I would go straight to the Internet:

  • With so much out there, you can probably find articles, blogs, websites, etc that contain the content you need in a 15-30 minute search (or less if you already know of some sources).
  • Then use this link to see how to set up a really fast accessibility check tool in your browser. Use this tool on each source you find.
  • Be careful of video sources – make sure they have accurate captions.
  • Then take another 15-30 minutes to create a content page or blog post that lists each source and adds any core concepts you couldn’t find. This will be the most accessible form of content to make, as well as mobile friendly, as long as the services you use are accessible and mobile friendly.
  • This is a great way to get a wider array of perspectives on course topics than a textbook usually provides. But check to make sure you have diverse perspectives – if your list relies heavily on white Western heterosexual cis males, then you will need to change the parameters of your search to be more inclusive.
  • If needed, you can print articles out on paper for those without Internet access (and just hope there is a way to get it to them still functioning).

Obviously, if you have a textbook that you base your lectures on, they you already have a source of content that you can write up some notes on. This won’t necessarily be the most diverse perspective, but it will be quick. Just be sure to think through issues like students that couldn’t afford the textbook (ahem – OER?), if they can access the eBook texts at home, and so on.

Even more advanced quick method: Turn to some student-centered design methodologies to make the course more engaging:

  • Spend the 15-30 minutes creating an activity for your students to go find the content for the week (online, at a library, etc).
  • Towards the end of the week, create a page or blog post collecting those sources with your commentary.
  • Put some time into creating something more than just “go find content!”
  • Think through how to address accessibility issues, as well as how students that don’t have Internet will find content. Be flexible on that last one – not every student can just go to the local library when they want (and what if libraries close?).

Be ready to have to use the mail service for some students if you have to, and don’t worry too much about deadlines if so.

If you really need to use video, you will need to have well-edited captions, This can take a while. There are really three main options you have:

  • Option 1: Record your video, upload for auto-captioning, and then edit the captions for errors. Not all video upload services allow all of this, so check before time. This will probably sound the most natural, but you will also probably be surprised at how much time you waste going “ummm…” or “let me start over….”
  • Option 2: Type out your content and read from the page, without worrying about the way it makes you look “stiff.” You don’t usually write the way you talk, so it will just have to come out that way in crunch. But you will probably focus without too many side tracks. If you keep the video length to about 2-3 minutes, you can probably write and record it in 30 minutes, depending on how fast you write.
  • Option 3: Record your video, upload to YouTube or something else that has auto captioning, download the auto captions, edit for mistakes (not style), and re-record the video reading this script. The fact that it was based on your natural speech will make it sound more natural. Plus you had a built in practice run. A better end result (not perfect), but also more time consuming.

Activity Creation

This part of the course could possibly be the easiest part to create, or the hardest part, depending on your topic. If you have extensive lab requirements that can’t or aren’t simulated online, you will need to get together as a department and figure out how to translate that into the online space. Unfortunately, there is no quick way around that.

Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to come up with a project or test every week. Sometimes projects take more than one week. Sometimes it is good to just relax and learn. Plus, tests are a problematic concept to begin with, and proctoring solutions will be hard to implement when a lot of people start staying home in the same house. So as much as you can move away from high stakes big tests, the better the online experience will be for you and your learners.

Here is the thing that will save you the most time: One thing that is very cliche but effective is to use your LMS test tool to create a low stakes understanding check:

  • 5-10 questions that covers the core things students should have learned for the week.
  • Give students unlimited attempts so that learners can take them over as needed to get all the questions right.
  • This is not the coolest online design method, but it does give students some relief to know they are on the right track.
  • It should only take 20-30 minutes to create 5-10 questions… if your focus is on making sure students have had some contact with core concepts, and not on trick questions or “gotcha!” fake answers.
  • The goal with this kind of activity is not to catch cheaters, but to help students know what you think is important.

Even more advanced quick method: Really what I would focus on is creating authentic / experiential / etc projects that allows learners to engage more deeply with what they are learning:

  • Think of something that would allow learners to apply the course content to their real lives.
  • Think of something that would also let them apply course knowledge to a real world situation.
  • Let students think of how they will communicate what they have learned. Don’t limit them to just what you think they should produce (like a paper).
  • If you are spending more than 15-20 minutes writing out the instructions to this, you are over-thinking it.
  • If you spend less than 5 minutes writing instructions, you are probably not giving students that are possibly new to this level of agency enough guidelines on how to do the project. Remember the students that are new to all of this.
  • Provide 3-4 example ideas of how students could complete the assignment. Don’t worry too much of several students use your idea. Think of some outside the box ideas, like skits, graphics, etc.
  • Remember flexibility and accessibility. If you have to accept a hand-written project sent through the mail – or maybe even one transcribed by a sibling or a spouse – then no problem. Just be glad they are learning.
  • Its best to grade these in more of a general way. Don’t get bogged down in exact point totals for every mistake. Consider ungrading if possible in your institutional structure.
  • For larger classes, have students self-organize into groups based on interests and/or desired artifact to create. Don’t forget that students might need help self-organizing online or at a distance. Again, remember those with accessibility issues, or internet access issues.

At this point, I would have spent about an hour creating my class for the week. This would have been 30 minutes researching and writing a blog post containing the week’s content (FYI – this blog post is waaaay too long for that, so don’t follow my example :) ), and 30 minutes creating a student-centered authentic open-ended project. And this project would take students 3-4 weeks to complete. If you are new to creating classes this way, your first time or two at doing this might take longer (especially if you are new to the tools you will use). Also, if you need other things like video or labs, that will take more time that this. But there is something else to plan for as well.

Course Communications

I have been touching on communication issues through out this post, so I will try not to repeat what I have already stated here. You will need to communicate other things like class norms and online etiquette outside of content and activities. While it may seem like I am against synchronous communication methods here, that is not the case. You can use both. You will just need to consider how to use synchronous tools in ways that addresses accessibility and internet access issues, as well as make sure the tools works well on mobile devices (which is hard to do for all, since a lot of that is personal preference).

Like I mentioned in a previous post, scheduling synchronous sessions can be tricky at best in shutdown / quarantine situations. Yes, you can do the “we will record it and you can watch later if you miss” thing, but that is also problematic. Some of the reasons that cause people to miss – like overwhelmed internet service – will prevent the same people from watching the recorded video. They will also feel a bit left out.

But here is what I would do for communication in a sudden switch to online:

  • Talk to students before hand if possible. Create a plan.
  • Use synchronous tools for open communal office hours.
  • Set-up alternate options for communication – phone, email, even mail if needed.
  • Send out an email, text, mass phone call, or something weekly. This is a good way to humanize your online learning – stick with those principles as much as possible.
  • Don’t totally avoid video if you don’t want to. Sometimes, a quick 1-2 minute “welcome to the remote version of class” can help. Just get the captions right first!
  • Students might be new to learning online. If your school has a Code of Conduct for online interactions, make sure to follow that and make your students aware of it. If your school doesn’t have one, or has one that you feel is not adequate enough, consider creating your own Code of Conduct for your class.

Every time I edit this post, I add a bunch of new sentences all over the place. There is a lot more that could be said, but I will stop here. I hope that this post gives faculty the idea that they can focus their classes on what works in online learning, not just re-creating the face to face class. Also, I hope this empowers you to save some time in the process, without sacrificing effective practices in the name of an emergency. If you have access to an Instructional Designer to help, please talk to that person even if you have read this post. They can give you even more specific advice related to your unique course needs than this post can.

Let’s Talk About “Shifting an Entire University Online as Disaster Preparedness”…

With the rapid spread of Covid-19 (aka “the Coronavirus” in shorthand for now), there has been an explosion of discussions about preparing for quarantines and societal closures of various kinds. Among these discussions are moving conferences, courses, and even entire institutions online. I have been tweeting about this for a few days, so I wanted to collect and expand some of my thoughts on this topic.

Since I have a Masters in Instructional Design and a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies, we spent many assignments in courses for both degrees discussing various benefits and pitfalls of online learning, and yes, switching to online in the case of an emergency was frequently covered. It’s a complicated and problematic idea, so this will be a bit dark and complex / rambling post to make.

First of all, let me start off by stating that no matter how well you plan, switching to online will be more chaotic and hard than you can imagine, and it will cause greater damage to disadvantaged students than you will probably notice. Your first and foremost duty is to consider your disadvantaged learners first, and to work on navigating chaos rather than trying to stop it. Because you won’t avoid chaos. Remember – it is called DISASTER preparedness for a reason.

Many disaster preparedness plans I have seen, as well as many conference and institutional reactions to Covid-19, seem to only focus on able-bodied younger people that are not older, immuno-compromised, living with those that are older or immuno-compromised, already affected by food insecurity, homeless or on the edge of homelessness, affected by digital redlining, dealing with disability, held back by systemic discrimination and intersectionality, and so on. The reactions are only taking into account young able-bodied people living with other young able-bodied people, with maybe a link to an external resource that mentions everyone else (occasionally in passing). This is not going to cut it. Please keep your entire population in mind, not just those that will probably be okay no matter what you do.

Next, you need to realize that just because a conference or university can pivot to online, there are still institutional / organizational barriers to the overall idea of online. Some just won’t pivot because they are against online in general. If an institution does not allow remote work options, they probably do so for reasons that other institutions that do so have already dealt with. Its usually an institutional preference to be against remote work at this point, so that will likely carry over to online courses as well. Therefore, don’t assume some big switch will happen in those situations. Besides, how will institutions switch courses over to online if they don’t already have the procedures in place for their employees to go online?

Where I work for my day job, we already allow remote work, and already have a robust array of online courses. We have also been providing LMS shells for every course section, to be utilized even in on-campus courses. The structure is already there for the switch. Yes, I know LMSs are not hugely popular right now – I’m with you on that. But the important issue is that there is a space online there already for every class. It could be in WordPress blogs or many other tools for all that it matters.

But I guess we should talk first about how there are different types of disasters at different levels. There aren’t really any hard lines between these categories (I kind of made them up on the spot)… but in general, you see a few different kinds (and probably more than these):

  • Individualized/localized disasters: This is anything from one or more person getting sick in an atypical way (for them, at least), to something that affects only certain people in one or some locations. Tornadoes are an example of that – living in Texas, we frequently have to consider plans on how adjust courses based on the fact that a portion of our class will be affected and the other portion won’t. These plans have to often create more flexibility for students. But they can also happen out of the blue, and cause portions of your courses to be out of sync.
  • Displacement disasters: These can affect entire cities, regions, states, or even countries. There might be some warning, but the situation does come about very suddenly. Things like hurricanes, floods, and other mass displacement events. In general, your students’ first priority will not be education. They will need to get out, find shelter, food, water, etc. Usually, this will call for cancellation, postponement, etc. I teach online courses for UT Rio Grande Valley. When hurricanes were heading for the valley, we had to postpone even the online courses. People are usually fleeing something, so don’t plan to switch to online right away – or maybe even ever. Do look for ways to find out where your students are and how they are doing. Don’t just lock down the campus and say “good luck!”
  • Quarantine/lockdown/closed borders disasters: To be honest, this is the one that most of us did not think much about in the U.S. until Covid-19. On a global scale, it is probably more common than we realize. Neighborhoods, cities, states, etc could be quarantined, closed down, blocked off, etc due to disease, civil unrest, climate change displacement, even economic issues. Some of these might happen suddenly, while others might happen on a slower basis with time to prepare. I think some institutions think you can just switch your face-to-face courses to video conference tools and be done with it, but it is really much more complicated than this.

Something to remember: not all disasters bring about changes for all learners. Some are already living in disaster conditions. We tend to make disaster plans with the stereotypical “traditional” student in mind – young, flexible, and financially stable people that are so focused on education that they will skip meals or sleep to study more. These imaginary students are also probably perfectly flexible in our minds, so our first plan is that education has to be switched online right away to help them. The truth is, many of our students are already not sure where they will get their next meal or place to sleep. While you are thinking about how to adjust your class for disaster preparedness, why not consider how those changes could go ahead and happen at your institution – as a way to help those that are already in a disaster situation personally?

So… how to make the switch to online – if you are at one of places that do that? First of all, I’m focusing mostly on higher ed here, which might also work for High School classes as well as maybe some Junior High contexts. Not sure if I would recommend K-6 going online – but if someone has found a way to do that without leaving behind disadvantaged students, I am all ears.

First I want to touch a little bit on what will likely happen IF some try to make the switch. I realize that more schools have some kind of “sudden switch to online” plan than many of us think, so it is possible that some schools might go ahead and make that switch. These kinds of plans were a thing for a while, so I know they are out there. Some of those plans are inadequate (probably mainly from becoming outdated), but also probably based on some popular faux-futurist scaremongering and not true trend analysis. But that depends on a lot of things, so that may not be the case your plan. If the plan focuses on one big, easy solution  – its not going to work that well. Look for one that is realistic with the idea that “its gonna be rough, here are several possible options and ideas.”

Even those well-thought out plans can not account for everything, so a sudden or relatively slow-moving switch to online will be mass chaos whether a school has no plan, has an adequate plan, or has a detailed plan. Its just that the detailed flexible plans will make people realize there will be chaos.

The ability to navigate through the chaos will probably depend on the size of your Distance Education / Instructional Design group in relation to the number of classes. Those that have small DE/ID groups will find that even a great contingency plan falls apart without enough people in their DE/ID department. Those with a large DE/ID group will find the chaos much more manageable (even if they lack a solid contingency plan) thanks to having a group of people that know how the tools work, as well as the theory and research and history of how to use it (and how not to).

Places that have found themselves in need of a mass switch to online have also found that humans can manage chaos to some degree even without a plan, and that the switch can happen… it just won’t be something to brag about. What will likely happen – assuming the typical modest contingency plan & small DE/ID group – is that most faculty will suddenly ditch a lot of what they are doing in their on-campus courses. They will just stick with “the basics” for their switch online (whatever that means to them – more than likely email with attachments and synchronous video conference sessions). Which, of course, raises all kinds of questions about what they really do in their class if so much can be ditched last minute. Many will find out that email will work just the same as the LMS for a lot of what they want to do, which will lead many people to live the reality that the technology should not be the focus of course design, even if they don’t realize it.

(One weird thing down the road that I would predict is that instructors with the overall attitude of “I just do whatever” will probably come out looking like stars, and will probably get several keynotes/TED talks/etc out of it. The lack of structure and planning in their on-campus courses will, unfortunately, work out quite well… for once. Meanwhile, the Instructional Designers and Tech Support People that saved their butts by fixing their mistakes behind the scenes will sit in the crowd, ignored…. but showing up still because that is what we always do…. yes, there is a reason I sound like I am speaking from experience… :) )

But let’s also discuss some ways to at least try and steer things towards some better outcomes, even amidst the chaos. Keep in mind I am talking about possible options that may not work out perfectly every time. Disaster response happens in situations when a lot of things like proper design of online courses (which takes a long time to do properly) has to take place in a very short time frame. Nothing is wrong with going with what just works in the moment. These are just some ideas of what to think about and possibly try to incorporate in your plans.

So, if you really are going to go down the path of planning for a mass switch to online, the biggest issue you need to deal with is convincing professors to switch from synchronous methods to asynchronous as much as possible (I always assume everyone knows what is meant by that, but that is not always the case – here is a good summary if you are not totally sure what I mean here). I can’t stress enough how disaster could cause synchronous to break down.

When a disaster strikes, especially like a quarantine, people lose a lot of the control over their schedule. Issues such as “when food arrives,” “when family are available to check in,” or even possibly “when they are able to use the Internet” (uh-oh!) will possibly be out of their control. All parts of life suddenly have to become coordinated, scheduled, and controlled by others, who themselves are most likely doing the best they can to get supplies out with limited staff and mobility. Students will need the ability to work learning around society that is not fully functioning – not the other way around.

The problem with quarantines is that you have a massive strain suddenly on resources in a matter of hours that last longer than the usual cyclical strains. Whether the quarantine is short or long term, there will be possibly be rationing and rolling stoppages of all kinds of services to offset loads on systems (don’t forget how this could also affect cell phone service when local towers become overloaded). So what are you going to do when a quarter of your students don’t have Internet service when you schedule synchronous sessions, and then when those students have Internet, another quarter is hit by rolling blackouts, and so on? Or what about other issues, like those that suddenly have to change work hours to keep income flowing to themselves or their employer due to societal upheaval?

I know that oftentimes, the solution to this is “schedule the teaching session through Zoom or some other tool, but record it for those that miss.” From experience, I can tell you that more and more will start missing because they can, even if they are available. Then they start to not get the same learning experience as others since they can’t ask questions live, or feel as connected to other learners. I’m not saying “don’t do synchronous meetings ever,” but just consider those are not the best way to do online learning by default. There are additional consequences for those that miss that can harm them in the long run, so why not consider ways to make it equitable for all?

Even in the first disaster scenario I described – the individualized disaster – some people say that they will just get a camera and live stream their class. That might work great, but what if that student is in the hospital, and not in control of their schedule enough to be online when your class meeting happens? Are you expecting the hospital (or family caregivers if they are at home) to re-arrange their schedules around your class? Probably not a priority when someone is getting medical help. Just a thought.

Additionally, don’t forget the technical problems that can arise during mass migration to synchronous sessions (which many will be familiar with because they also happen in non-disaster situations as well).  For example:

or

…just for a few examples. There are hundreds to consider. For asynchronous as well – there are pros and cons to both.

While many know that there are major differences between asynchronous and synchronous course design considerations that have to be accounted for in the switch between those two modalities, sometimes we also forget that even switching from on-campus classrooms to synchronous online sessions is also not that simple.

If you have used Zoom or some other video conferencing tool in an online setting, you know that there are big differences between on-campus and online meetings. Just remember that not all of your students and faculty have used those tools in online learning contexts, so they will need guidance on how to do that. Where I work for my day job, they are already on top of that aspect.

There are also many other issues to consider, and this post is too long as it is. Hopefully you can start thinking through all of the unique complexities that a switch to online would run into. For example, are you prepared to let students that are locked in dorms rooms and bored work ahead in courses/programs to fill their time? Are you going to let people use campus tools to organize supply distribution, news updates, just chat if bored, etc if needed? Are you considering the mental effects of long-term quarantine, and how to address that while still in quarantine? There are so many to think about.

And to those that say “how likely is that to happen?” Well, not very to be honest. But that is kind of the point of emergency disaster preparedness. You never know until its too late, so think about it now.

A final note – I am not trying to draw hard lines between asynchronous and synchronous. Asynchronous does not mean you can’t ever have the option of synchronous class sessions. Its not always an either/or. Like I have said, there are also things you have to do because that is all you can in a pinch. These are just some ideas to consider. Keep in mind that there are many great ideas that mix both, like putting students in groups and having those groups meet synchronously. These options can work out very well (especially since smaller groups are easier to schedule common times). Or another idea – you can (and should) meet with individual students synchronously as well.

Don’t draw hard lines. It will be chaos. Plan to be flexible. Good luck, and Godspeed…

(Top photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)