What I’ve Learned After Two Weeks of Teaching Virtually

After two weeks of teaching virtually at Penn State, I’ve learned some things:

  1. Teaching virtually is not the same thing as launching an online class. When you teach virtually, it’s a synchronous classroom where students join you during your scheduled class time for virtual instruction via Zoom (for example). An online course does not necessarily do this. It can, for example, work asynchronously, meaning you post assignments, pre-recorded lectures, discussions, or quizzes that the students complete on their own time. Nobody necessarily comes together at the same time in a purely online course. Why does this matter? Online course development requires training I do not have. My course isn’t designed for online instruction. So I seamlessly turned it into a virtual, synchronous classroom. We discuss things together at the same time. We can share our screens and look at our work at the same time. We’ve basically created a classroom via our screens. I would like more training in online teaching, but that’s not what I’m hired to do. And that’s OK. I know what I can do. However, this synchronous teaching challenges students who live in different time zones or who now find themselves caring for children or working jobs at home. Synchronous teaching also assumes all students have laptops and a stable internet situation. So I’m learning that recording classes to allow students to access later works. It also means I’ll try my hand at asynchronous strategies this week like emailing readings for students to respond to when they can.
  2. When you teach virtually, you must over-invest in student-teacher interaction to make up for the millions of little ways you connect when you’re in a residential classroom. I send more personal emails. I invite students to upload more writing for commentary. I hold more virtual office hours. Yes, it’s exhausting! But when you teach virtually, you miss the easy banter where you bounce around in conversation before class about Tyler’s new car or Lauren’s upcoming Calculus exam. Before, you’d arrive early to class to see students sprawled out in the hallway where you’d join them to discuss the basketball game or their paper topics or the Post Malone concert they went to over the weekend. You miss the walk to class where you enjoy the warm weather together or sip your lattes and smell the coffee. You even miss talking about new shoes (you don’t see anyone’s shoes on Zoom–a small thing).
  3. Your physical space matters. You’re going to see yourself for hours on a screen. You need good lighting, a clean background, and the kind of environment that energizes you. Last week, I sat in my upstairs office for five hours a day looking at a screen. I dreaded it. It was boring and dreary. This week, I moved a small table in front of my Weeping Cherry in my bedroom, right next to the yellow recliner where I read my Bible, scribble in my journal, and write my blog. It’s bright, cheerful, and tucked away from the family. It’s a cozier spot for me. The cat sleeps by me as I teach.
  4. It’s stressful, so build in non-screen time. I’m amped up every day. That’s why every day at exactly 4:15 PM, I depart to walk along Spring Creek for an hour. I look into the beautiful water instead of a screen; I gaze up at the budding trees; I listen to the birds; I talk with others on the walk. After an hour, I’ve calmed down. I’ve shed the stress of the teaching day.

I’ve also learned little tricks: inviting students with fresh Zoom invitations each day so they aren’t overwhelmed with a dozen links in old emails; polling them regularly about what they need more of or less of (I wanted to stop using Zoom on Friday’s, and students actually wanted it! They loved the routine of it! One said, “Could you please just keep a Zoom room open in case I need to talk to you?); using breakout rooms to ask students to connect with each other and share what’s working as they overcome challenges of isolation; and limiting lecture to 15-20 minutes if I can. What a journey it’s been during this COVID-19 world!

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