Thursday, March 4, 2021
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I Won’t Be Teaching in a Classroom, but I’m Ready to Make the Best of a Most Unusual Semester

For the first time in 28 years, I am not starting the academic year in a classroom. Today is the first day of the 2020-2021 academic year and I will be at home. No stacks of syllabi to distribute on the first day. No new outfit or bag to carry my stuff to class. No excited early arrival at work to open up the office to welcome the onslaught of new students, returning students and faculty coming back to campus.

In response to the uncertainty of the pandemic, the faculty at Penn State and at many universities across the country were given an option of how to deliver our classes this semester. For a variety of reasons, I chose to go with full remote (also known as online) learning.   Although I will offer some synchronous meetings of my classes – required times that we all Zoom together — the bulk of the material has been shifted to an online format.

I plan to step out of the yoga clothes that I have been wearing since March and dress up for my first classes. The message that it sends to my students and to me will be important.

I am more ready this semester than I have been in the past. I had a head start.

Several years ago, our department made the decision to start moving our major to an online option. We planned to continue to offer the in-residence major at University Park but also have an online option. Offering classes online would not only potentially reach a new student market but help us expand the opportunities to some of the other campus locations across Penn State’s system.

I remember at the time rolling my eyes. How can a major that is so hands-on, so applied, work online? How could some of the classes we offer (e.g. the group dynamics and leadership class) work without groups in the same space, interacting in person?  What about all of the things that students learn in college that aren’t listed on a syllabus or a part of learning objectives.

I wasn’t convinced. 

In the face of hesitation, I decided I needed to learn more. I started taking the courses that Penn State offers for faculty to learn about teaching online. Through PSU’s World Campus, there are 13+ courses that teach faculty how to teach online by learning online. They cover everything from working with students in groups to addressing non-traditional students such as military veterans. The courses offer extensive information on ways to structure classes (i.e. heavily weighted exams are a no-no) and ways to foster discussion and interaction among students and faculty. Penn State even hands you certificates (and a little bit of cash) if you complete all of the courses in the specific modules.  

My husband laughed and said, “Of course you did them all.”

The next step was being assigned to develop courses to shift to online delivery. I was assigned to a team of instructional designers, video experts and education specialists to help me move my content in three classes to the online format. Each class is given two semesters of preparation and development before it pilots for the first “real” delivery. In those 30 weeks, I found that by reviewing my in-residence instruction and getting it ready for online presentation, I was able to improve my in-residence teaching.

Read that again. I think online teaching made me a better in-residence teacher.

And then I taught my first online class. In January, before the pandemic had officially hit the U.S., I was assigned to teach two versions of one of my classes – one in person and one online.  

To be honest, I didn’t have a great first semester of teaching online. It takes a bit of time to figure out how to build and maintain contact. How often should I send reminders? How flexible with deadlines and class policies? What about the students who disappear?

This summer, however, in the second offering of that same online class, I received some of the highest student ratings of teacher effectiveness scores of my career. I worked out the bugs and now feel like I have a pretty good handle on what it means to teach online. We had a great semester of learning.

Through that experience, I met wonderful students who are living in Michigan, Colorado, Virginia and even Pittsburgh. Some were non-traditional families with jobs and children. Others were trying to get the jump on their in-residence academic plan. I met their children, saw their pets and sometimes noted who makes their bed and who doesn’t. Most importantly, no one went by unnoticed. I knew them all. And, they didn’t all earn As.  

So what is my point?

My point to the students, parents and other stakeholders who are questioning online instruction for the fall: I was once a skeptic too. But, by being open and available to new ideas, it’s actually kind of cool.

We got this.

My point is that there are faculty all over the university who have spent the summer getting ready to teach online. It’s not the same as being in the classroom but it’s not intended to be the same. It offers students a different kind of creativity, a different flexibility and new ways to learn and interact with others. In this time of COVID, it allows us to do that without potentially spreading a deadly virus.

My point is that most of us would emphatically rather be in the university classroom but because of class size or room availability, or because of potential risk to ourselves or to our family members, we need to do our best.

My point is that the onus of responsibility for limiting the spread of a virus should not be falling to young adults. Online instruction allows them to learn, be safe and have a little space for them to make the inevitable mistakes that young people make – in the uncertainty of this environment. 

My point is that teaching online doesn’t mean we aren’t teaching. It doesn’t mean we aren’t working hard, grading, making ourselves available in office hours and supporting the college learning of our students. I may not be standing in front of the classroom but I will be teaching. It may not be the best way for everyone but for the short-term, it will be the best it can be.