Over the past two or three weeks, most of us have made the shift to online learning as part of our nation-wide response to the corona virus pandemic. A number of helpful resources have been posted, from the most basic steps to these excellent ideas from Tina Shanahan specifically related to the corequisite course online.
As I have been shaping my courses for the move to an online environment, I have tried to follow the same principles I would use to design a face-to-face composition and corequisite paired course: structure, redundancy, transparency, connection, and opportunities for “high-quality” talk.
Structure: My online course is organized into weekly folders containing all readings, handouts, and assignments, so that students can access material easily. An overview to each week’s folder reminds students of the goals and due dates for the week.
Redundancy: Key information is available in multiple places and in multiple formats. For example, in addition to the overviews in the weekly folders, I post reminders in the course calendar, in the announcements (seen on the log-in screen), and in regular emails. I have colleagues who build in redundancy via texts, tweets, or apps such as Remind.
Transparency: I try to outline the purpose of assignments so that students can propose reasonable alternatives if circumstances or technology make completion difficult. If students are having trouble completing a reading journal in a Google Doc, they might propose a photo of a handwritten journal sent via email or text. If a student’s proposal fulfills the assignment goals, then I’ll take the alternative, no problem.
Connection: In a typical semester, I try to connect with online students at least once in a F2F or virtual one-on-one session, and that connection is all the more important in this mid-semester shift. That connection could occur via Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, or any other online interface—or by phone. I think it’s important to frame these check-ins with a personal connection, before turning to academics. Is the student well? How about his work? How’s her family doing? What is the biggest challenge at the moment? Are there resources (food pantries, campus medical clinics, community support) that might be helpful to the student?
“High-quality classroom talk”: This phrase comes from Myhill and Newman (2016), who suggest that students learn to think metalinguistically and apply that thinking in their writing through “high-quality classroom talk.” I think my greatest concern in the shift to a fully online environment was the loss of in-the-moment classroom talk about writing. But there are ways to foster such talk online, even if you have been discouraged from synchronous class sessions (which may not be feasible for all students). Of course, individual check-ins and online peer review (via Google Docs or other collaborative platforms) can support metalinguistic talk and reflection. Another option is the discussion board. If you choose to use a discussion in your online corequisite, consider the following ideas:
- Make sure students are comfortable with the format. You can record a short video (via Kaltura or another screen capture tool) to show students how to write, post, read, and reply in the discussion board (these will vary depending on your LMS). You might also offer to walk through the process with students during an individual check in.
- Clarify the purpose of the activity and make discussion prompts specific. If students are going to discuss a reading, ask 3-4 guiding questions, with a focus not only on paraphrasing content but also on analyzing, extending, and applying. Focus on questions where a range of answers are possible for exploration.
- Provide guidance as to the number, length, and formatting expectations for posts. If you expect complete sentences, make sure students know this up front—as well as the guidelines you will use to assess and evaluate their contributions.
- If possible, use multiple deadlines across an extended period of time. For example, instead of asking all students to post a reply and 3 responses by the deadline, set three deadlines: Post an initial response by Wednesday, respond to a classmate by Sunday, and respond again by Tuesday. You might want to negotiate deadlines in your weekly check-ins with students.
- If you are using multiple deadlines, join the discussion yourself, providing additional clarity, probing answers, modelling discussion strategies, and suggesting ways of connecting and developing ideas further.
- If your class is large, consider dividing into smaller groups for more efficient online discussions.
- Use the discussion as a platform for continued learning:
- Ask students to summarize or paraphrase the most important conclusions from a discussion.
- Ask students to review a discussion as part of a reading or reflection journal.
- Revisit discussions. If you’ve added a new reading, for example, you might ask students to pick three comments from a prior discussion and consider how the new reading confirms, contradicts, or complicates their previous conclusions.
- Quote student discussions in your announcements, comments, handouts, videos, or other materials. Show the students that you are reading and thinking about their ideas.
- Allow students to use a class discussion as a source for an essay assignment, citing their classmates as authors.
Online discussions actually provide a natural opportunity for integrated reading and writing instruction, but students do not always find their footing quickly or easily in an online forum. Your online presence—along with clear directions and multiple opportunities for participation—can ease students into the process.
Ultimately, the shift to online instruction can be anxiety-inducing for instructors and students alike. Find support among colleagues and technical staff—and know that rough spots are normal. In fact, my last suggestion is perhaps the most important: grant your students—and yourself—a hefty measure of flexibility and grace.