For the Inadvertent Online Professor

Like professors in colleges and universities across the country, I’m making the transition from face-to-face classes to the online classroom.

I have some experience with online classes, but not much. I don’t have anything against online education, it’s just that my work in higher ed has been limited to the traditional, physical classroom. As I prepared to make this change, colleagues who are experts with online teaching have been an amazing resource. I’m so grateful for their generosity in sharing what they know so that people like me can learn and, hopefully, be just a little bit better than we would have otherwise.

Of course, what me and others are doing isn’t exactly the same as just making the switch to online teaching. We’re being forced to make this change because of a pandemic, and not at the start of the term but midstream. What we’re grappling with isn’t just the move to online education but the challenge of making this switch with a class that has already begun and was not originally designed to be anything other than face-to-face.

As I make the transition, I’ve been giving myself advice, too. Here’s what I’m trying to do and remember to do:

Don’t pretend it’s the same.
We’re all living in––and teaching and learning in––an unstable and unpredictable context. Both students and faculty shouldn’t expect our experience to be the same. That doesn’t mean it can’t be good and productive. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn. But it does mean we should recognize from the start that it’s going to be different.

Reduce.
One of the ways this isn’t going to be the same is in the amount of work I expect out of my classes.  It’s both smart and fair to make reductions in the workload of our classes.  But how to reduce? Twenty years ago, when I began my first journey into the world of outcomes-based education, one of the most compelling lessons for me was to design courses around what the essential takeaways were for each class. What skills and understandings did I want them to leave with? How can I enable them to get there? As I make changes to the workload of my classes, it helps for me to identify (or remind myself of) those essential “need to know” outcomes and to try to foster an ability to reach them in as direct a way as possible.

Be sympathetic.
We’re all kind of stepping into the unknown and we’re doing so while our lives are in flux. I’m learning to be an online professor while my wife works and while I’m also homeschooling, feeding, and caring for three kids. The students I work with are going through their own adjustments. Students have a wide variety of home spaces and contexts in which they will now be learning, and the inequities of our society are only going to be more pronounced in the weeks ahead. Keeping all this in mind, we should be as sympathetic with each other (and with ourselves) as we can in the weeks ahead.

Be flexible.
I like beginning my smaller classes with a weekly check-in. I can’t think of anything more vital right now. How else can I be responsive to changing student needs if I don’t know about them?  Creating space to hear what’s going on in their lives and with their learning is not only smart, it’s ethical under these circumstances.   Being open to that information means also being prepared to be flexible.  All the changes I’ve made so far are really only a proposal to the students I work with.  None of us knows what the days and weeks ahead will bring. So, just like with our present––when we find ourselves in a place we could not have anticipated at the start of our term––we should anticipate having to make changes again as circumstances change and needs arise.

And so here we go! If you’re facing the same challenges in your life, I wish you the best of luck. Be patient and be kind and, please, stay put.

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