A bridge in a park, on a sunny day

Spring 2020: A Look Back With Relief

The end of spring classes is now several weeks in the past. By this time the train has moved on and we are in the midst of another round of tasks that will eat up the summer: I (foolishly) promised online workshops on online Team-Based Learning and discussion boards; I have two week-long institutes on faculty portfolios to facilitate; I will support faculty who are applying for state-wide awards; and I’ll have to prepare this year’s new faculty orientation program, which probably will be online in some shape or form. And on top of this I’ve been pulled in to help a colleague with little tech preparation to run an online four-week course, adding 1-2 hours to five days of the week until the middle of June. And I should probably prepare a report on the assessment data that I collected last year about our New Faculty Academy. Good thing that I cannot leave the house!

So, how did the spring semester end? Not with a bang but with a whimper! (Funny how good poetry can devolve into cliché, eh?) I noticed that I was slo-mo crashing during the last two weeks of classes or so. Nothing dramatic, but working felt more and more like wading through some kind of jelly; you could do it, but it was more effort than usual. I was badly, badly behind with grading, and the class became less interactive than I wish it had been. In addition, the end of the semester provided an added need for educational development programs, so I helped write a CFI Teaching Toolbox about final exams and participated in open office hours and consults on that topic. At least I managed to record a few lectures on different approaches to interpreting the Constitution. These will be useful for future classes, even for flipping in-person classes. (And I just saw that the first video got 18 views, which means that 11 students out of 29 did not watch it—that’s a fairly typical “attendance” rate for the last week of classes. Sad in principle, but not too bad for this emergency!)

Looking back at the semester, here are some things that I’ve observed, some surprising, some not so:

  • While many students appreciated the flexibility of asynchronous course design, several had a strong desire for online (Zoom or WebEx) meetings during the old class times. So I offered these as an option once a week. Not many students showed up, but those who did appreciated it.
  • One reason that students stated for preferring online meetings during the “old” class times was organization: They found it hard to organize their days. To me, this shows how we have to teach organization and life skills in online classes. I am sure we all could need those as well…
  • But I think more was going on. One of the students one day disclosed that the 2:30 online class meeting was the only thing that got them out of bed. To me, this sounds like there’s more than just time organization at stakes and that the personal connection of talking to each other was so important.
  • Interestingly, through online class meetings and office hours (which I call “student hours”), I was in more direct contact with students during the online portion of the class than during the in-person portion. And I got to know some of the students that I probably wouldn’t have talked to as much in person.
  • The students who connected through video weren’t necessarily the ones with the best technology access, and some of them were not able to use video. But WebEx and Zoom are flexible platforms, and even students who call in by phone can participate in a conversation. To me, this means we have to think carefully about what different tools are best for. Conferencing platforms are for direct interaction, for example. Presentations are probably best delivered separately and should be offered in alternative formats, some of which should be easy to access at low bandwidth (like a text-based web page).
  • Not surprisingly (considering the literature), those students who participated most in the online portion of the class were not necessarily those who participated in the in-person portion, though there was some overlap. Some active students became passive, doing only what was absolutely required. In this emergency situation, this was fine by me. Some students found it difficult to adapt to the pace of asynchronous online classes (as noted above), but others thought that they did not get their money’s worth and hence were unmotivated. (I am wondering, though, what precisely makes a JMU class worth it, in their view.)
  • Last year, in the same class, a considerable number of students did not finish their final class project and received comparatively low grades. (I suspect that my college bean counters actually liked this, since they equate low grades with demanding teaching.) Interestingly, in this semester, this did not happen. One student did not complete the research assignment, but all others, even students who initially struggled, completed everything. Part of the reason was probably that I moved the due date for the research assignment to before spring break. While not all finished by the deadline, they at least had started working on the project and were able to complete it eventually, despite the disruptions.

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