March 2020 brought about rapid change and disruption in higher education that left many teachers scrambling to move their face-to-face courses to the online environment. Some of us were suddenly faced with teaching Communication courses such as Basic Public Speaking, Communication Research Methods, and Group Communication online, via web conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams. These courses continued virtually, with students and teachers logging in during their regular class time for instruction. Other courses were converted to an asynchronous environment through the school’s learning management system (LMS); access and participation occurred at the student’s leisure rather than at a scheduled time. This environment allowed students to access their courses anytime, anywhere.
According to UNESCO, 1.5 billion students world-wide engaged in distance learning in March 2020. But not all students had access to the internet or the technology, because of geographical and financial limitations. For those who had access, US News and World Report lists seven challenges most students had with online learning this past year:
- Technical issues.
- Distractions and time management.
- Staying motivated.
- Understanding course expectations.
- Lack of in-person interaction.
- Adapting to unfamiliar technology.
- Uncertainty about the future.
Students with school-age children found themselves serving as both a teacher’s aid and a student when their children’s own schools went online, which added to their workload and affected the availability of equipment and bandwidth available for all to use in the virtual environment. Faculty members often confronted these same challenges.
In addition, some of us had never set up an online course before and were faced with radically adapting our traditional face-to-face course for the online environment without the assistance of a course designer trained in the pedagogy of online learning. Authors of a July 2020 article in Post Digital Science and Education labeled this “Emergency Remote Teaching.” We did the best we could, but the stress of quickly creating courses, with little time or assistance in using the LMS and other tools to create these courses, became an issue for us and our students. Nothing about teaching in this pandemic has been ideal.
While distance learning for most institutions continued throughout the summer, many schools set up protocols for socially distanced classrooms, for classroom sanitization, and for quarantining and isolating students in hopes of bringing back students and proceeding to “business as usual.” But nothing about this pandemic has been “business as usual.” “Usual” has evolved into an entirely different meaning.
This past fall and continuing through this spring, classes typically taught in a face-to-face environment are now being taught either in the asynchronous online environment or via a hybrid model. The hybrid model offers students the ability to attend class, even if they are isolated or quarantined. Class sessions are recorded so that students can attend either in real time or asynchronously. Some of us are now struggling with how to teach in a socially distanced classroom, where some of our students attend in person, some attend virtually through web conferencing, and some attend asynchronously by accessing recorded sessions. We suddenly need to manage the face-to-face activity, remember to check chat features for those joining the class virtually, and develop activities that work well in the face-to-face, synchronous, and asynchronous environment.
So now what?
Education, as we once knew it, has changed, and it’s doubtful it will return to the way it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Education, as we once knew it, has changed, and it’s doubtful it will return to the way it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Verbs such as “innovate,” “transform,” “reshape,” and “awaken” are used by pundits to describe an evolution they believe is occurring in higher ed. According to Anant Argawal, Professor and Founder of online learning platform edX, “Students and teachers will see a shift to blended learning (aka hybrid learning), which is a combination of online and in-person instruction, and formats that foster community and connectivity will be essential to online learning success.” This shift will be permanent. Yet issues abound in moving to this new learning environment, and communication is key in navigating these issues.
One issue is simply continuing to teach in this new environment. Most institutions were unprepared for this sudden shift to an online environment. There was little time for training faculty who had never taught online. Instructional designers quickly created written and video tutorials for LMS systems, web-conferencing platforms, and other types of tools. New summer faculty development opportunities focused on these platforms and tools. Yet how many of these tutorials and training sessions discussed the pedagogy of teaching in an online environment? How many provided tips for keeping students engaged, creating community in a virtual environment, or navigating the hybrid course?
Mike Caulfield, Director of Blended and Network Learning at Washington State University Vancouver, suggests reframing how we look at the hybrid course. Rather than looking at it as a face-to-face course with an online presence, we should envision it as an online course that includes face-to-face students. Caulfield calls this “Zoomflex” and suggests creating the presentation for the day, then having synchronous students go into virtual breakout rooms for discussion via Google docs. Asynchronous students can do this whenever they access the course, and face-to-face and synchronous students can do it in real time. The instructor then draws on the student-created document for topics to discuss with the group as a whole. This method melds the three modalities into one cohesive course, rather than forcing teachers to come up with a variety of methods to address each separate modality.
For the past 11 months, we have been, for the most part, isolated from extended family, friends, and colleagues. Many of us, including students, crave a sense of interaction and community. Research has shown the positive effect a classroom community has on student satisfaction and academic success. Creating a sense of community is easier in the face-to-face classroom, where students regularly see and interact with one another. Immediacy is quickly established. However, community can also be built online and virtually. In a face-to-face environment, we build it through icebreakers, group activities, discussion, and casual conversation. In online courses, community is often built through discussion forums, work groups, and peer reviews of papers, projects, and speeches. How does this work, though, especially in a course that meets face to face, in the synchronous virtual environment, and asynchronously?
Seeing and hearing both the student and the teacher through video and/or audio sources further a sense of presence—that students are not isolated and alone in their learning.
Introductions that integrate video, via such apps as Slack, Flipgrid, and Voice Thread, engage students, allowing them to make connections at the beginning of the course no matter how they access the course. Research has shown the importance of social presence in an online course. Seeing and hearing both the student and the teacher through video and/or audio sources further a sense of presence—that students are not isolated and alone in their learning. Discussion forums in the LMS provide opportunities for all to interact. Providing a question/answer forum allows students to be able to ask one another questions about the course, similar to opportunities provided through face-to-face attendance. CyberCafes, where the conversation is casual, offer a place for students to discuss day-to-day topics, such as how their favorite sports team is doing, recent career promotions, or the birth of a child. This type of forum is perfect for a non-mandatory weekly engagement topic, such as “Show us your pet!” or “What is your favorite movie?” These types of icebreaker questions, which often are used to form community in the traditional classroom, can be used in the hybrid course as well. Twitter might be used as a back channel for conversations, with hashtags that connect topics and comments. Creating this type of space is challenging but necessary in promoting course satisfaction, retention, and a sense of community.
Expectations for students in an online environment and how we communicate our expectations to students also present challenges. Should they get dressed for a synchronous class? Get out of bed? Attend class without distractions? Members of Facebook groups such as Pandemic Pedagogy describe students cooking, eating, working out, and driving while attending class synchronously. Is this appropriate? Whether students’ cameras should be on or off brings about much debate. On the one hand, we like seeing our students’ faces, as well as knowing that they are engaged and participating in the class. On the other hand, students may feel uncomfortable bringing the class virtually into their own living space. Expectations need to be communicated clearly in the syllabus, in announcements on the LMS, and through verbal messages. Additionally, this communication should be repeated periodically as a reminder. We have policies in our syllabi that describe late work, participation, and attendance; creating and communicating these expectations is not new.
All of these ideas are great, but what if students are not able to access the course in the online environment? How do we communicate with students who do not have access to the internet or do not have computers, tablets, or smart phones? What issues arise when our students must share their devices with family members? What do we do when our students’ bandwidth is low? In addition to school expenses, many students must pay for food, electricity, and internet access at their home. As the shutdown continued, these students often became unemployed and were forced to choose between digital access and other necessities. A June 20 Inside Higher Ed article labeled this the “Covid-igital Divide,” describing even deeper ramifications for students of color and for low-income students. What resources are available for students who cannot access campuses that are shut down?
In 2009, Valley City, ND, where my institution, Valley City State University, is located, dealt with record flooding from the Sheyenne River, which snakes through the city. Students went home during Easter break and were not allowed back on campus. Many did not bring their computers home during the break. Students dealt with similar issues of not having the technology or internet service required to access courses, which had quickly moved online. Students living in large cities used libraries to access computers and the internet. Many of our students were in small towns, though, without community libraries. We spent many hours exploring alternative for those students.
How do we communicate with students who have depended on our institutions’ internet access, but are now located remotely with limited service, especially with those who cannot financially afford monthly internet charges?
Jump ahead to 2020. Suggestions to go to public places just would not work. Libraries, schools, restaurants, and coffee shops were closed. While those locations have recently opened in some areas, many states are still mandating limited capacity. How do we communicate with students who have depended on our institutions’ internet access, but are now located remotely with limited service, especially with those who cannot financially afford monthly internet charges? Internet carriers offered free service for teachers and students at the start of the pandemic, but those amenities no longer exist. Some institutions have provided options for students, such as sending them Chromebooks and working with companies for reduced or free internet service. But many students who need to be off campus do not have access to the technology. As instructors, we must be cognizant of these limitations and offer alternative channels through which to communicate with students. We may need to consider granting incompletes. We may need to offer grace for situations beyond the students’ control, especially if they have been displaced, and to review our policies for late work and online presence.
Yet even with all of these challenges, the online environment provides opportunities to communicate and build relationships with our students.
Office hours can be held virtually. I have had more students set up virtual meetings with me this past semester via Teams than have occurred in several years. Students can use the chat function to ask questions, and teachers can use it to send out reminders to specific students. If a student disappears from a course, they may be more likely to visit with you and rejoin the course via a message in chat than to respond positively to a phone call or email. Virtual advising sessions provide opportunities to connect personally with students and build relationships with both face-to-face and distant advisees. Web conferencing is ideal for study sessions and question-and-answer sessions, as well as one-on-one conferences with each student to discuss their progress in the course, a project they are working on, or an issue you are seeing that is better addressed in a synchronous conversation than through an email or comment on a paper. Additionally, web conferencing offers channels that can be used to simply check in on a student or to send a note of encouragement or support.
We can use technology in a variety of ways to communicate with our students. Classes can be recorded for students to review again outside of the classroom. Announcements can be emailed out, posted on the LMS, tweeted, or texted directly to students through apps such as Remind or GroupMe. Additionally, we can record announcements and reminders via a variety apps including Quicktime, Screen-o-matic, and CamStudio. Or, we can use the record function of our web conferencing tool. These tools can also be used to record lectures, although it is important to remember that students learn better in microbursts or chunks than from watching 20 minutes of a talking head. A 2015 study by Microsoft found that the average attention span of a student viewing video in an online environment is eight minutes. So, even in synchronous courses, lectures should be short, with activities interspersed. Online, breaking up a long lecture into short, mini lectures allows students to stop and process what has been discussed. Shorter, two-three-minute videos also require less bandwidth to watch, which is important for students who are struggling to pay for internet service. Descriptors of many of these tools and others I mentioned in this article can be found on the NCA website under the Academic Resources tab in the Teaching and Learning section. Look for the eTools link.
The days that separated face-to-face and online courses are fading away; the dichotomy between classroom and online teaching has become blurred.
The days that separated face-to-face and online courses are fading away; the dichotomy between classroom and online teaching has become blurred. I do not foresee us returning to the old “normal.” Though most of us began teaching because we love interacting with students in person, options for synchronous and asynchronous learning as part of the class will continue, even when we all move back from remote learning. Change is not easy, especially for us “seasoned” instructors who are trying to learn new software and apps, as well as new methods of teaching and engaging with our students in any modality. Simply put, we will need to adapt. Through all these changes, though, one thing is consistent: the importance of communication and relationship building with our students. We need to keep that as the focus as we continue navigating through COVID-19 and beyond.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
SHANNON BORKE VANHORN is a Professor in both Communication Arts and the School of Education and Graduate Studies at Valley City State University. With a background in instructional design, VanHorn’s research interests include instructional communication and instructional technology. VanHorn has been published in Communication Quarterly, Journal of Communication Pedagogy, Communication Research Trends, and Qualitative Research Reports. VanHorn presents faculty development workshops and conference sessions on effective course design and teaching in the online environment. A recent Chair of NCA’s Teaching and Learning Council, VanHorn is a member of the Communication, Speech, and Theatre Association of North Dakota’s Hall of Fame.