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Suggestions for online teaching at Vanderbilt

Posted by on Thursday, July 16, 2020 in Commentary, Resource.

By Dr. Adriane Seiffert and Dr. Ashleigh Maxcey, Vanderbilt University Department of Psychology

The following are thoughts, reflections, and suggestions on teaching online based on our experiences teaching courses over Maymester and Summer 2020. We hope they help you plan your online course as we can all strive to deliver top-notch courses this fall.

Discuss why online classes feel different

Students and faculty alike prefer traditional in-person to online classes. It may be that students don’t like online classes because they feel that, all of a sudden, they have to work harder. In an online course that has mostly asynchronous activities, a considerable amount of the daily time management and planning is shifted to the student. The course instructor may be available for interaction for only very short periods, while the rest of the time the student is expected to work independently with little concurrent support. It may be useful to discuss this with students on the first day of classes. Faculty could acknowledge the difference in how an online and in-person class feels. Students could be encouraged to share their own assumptions about online learning and vent some frustrations that might have been created from the sudden transition to online in Spring 2020. Faculty could share their own frustrations as well. Moving discussion from these disappointments to a plan for how you will address these concerns and how the course will progress throughout the term might help students see the value of your online course.

A class is different from a course. A class is a group of people learning the same content at the same time. Asynchronous online learning was created to solve the problem for a student who could not attend classes. These are students wanting to learn course material, but unable to attend in person at a regularly scheduled time, possibly due to work, family or other commitments. Asynchronous activities fit perfectly into the time that these students could spend, after work, after children went to bed, or with a schedule that might change daily, weekly or monthly. The students who are enrolled in online courses at Vanderbilt in the Fall 2020 term, however, signed up to attend classes. They are interested in receiving the benefits that come from learning in a group. Social Psychology has well documented the benefits people gain from doing things together. People finish a race faster, enjoy eating chocolate more, and remember shared information better when surrounded by people doing the same. The presence of others is energizing and motivating, which is why professional athletes perform better with the roar of the home crowd. As many teachers would attest, the boost students get from one another in an active classroom is palpable. This benefit goes beyond a student’s social presence –the investment that individuals make to insert their own personhood into the course material, assignments or interactions within an online class. Rather, it is social facilitation –the flowing current that carries each person with the class along the ravine of course content – the support comes from all the other people traveling the same way. People perceive the same experience differently in the presence of others. One of the challenges that faces faculty preparing for Fall 2020 teaching is to create classes, whether fully online, hybrid or socially distanced face-to-face. To create that unique experience from the collection of minds dedicated to a topic and the common purpose to understand, that is a class.

Explain the benefits of an asynchronous online course

If you are teaching a course with asynchronous activities, it’s worth spending some time explaining to the students the many benefits of asynchronous work. Dr. Maxcey found that her course, Positive Psychology, was a great class to do this with because people are terrible at knowing what will make them happy (e.g., people think being left alone on the train or airplane is preferable, but actually people are happier when strangers talk to them). In a recorded video, or when talking through your syllabus, include points about the benefits of the asynchronous course design. The points to make vary by class, but here is an article with some ideas: One important point to make is about faculty-student interaction. Students think they want synchronous classes to interact with the professor, but actually very few people typically interact during an in-person lecture (especially in the larger enrollment courses). In fact, most people line up at the podium after lecture to speak with the instructor because they don’t want to ask their questions in front of the class. The online asynchronous format allows even the most timid students to interact one-on-one with their instructor by scheduling a zoom call or sending emails. The asynchronous format favors all those students who line up at the podium at the end of class and there seem to be many more students who want to speak after lecture than students who interact with the professor during lecture. During Dr. Maxcey’s Maymester class, two first year students who attended the optional zoom sessions later told her it was the first time they’d ever interacted with a professor at Vanderbilt despite being on campus since last August. Dr. Seiffert found that students were more willing to share personal stories of difficulties and challenges in online posts than during in-person discussion, making the course content more relatable for everyone. Another added benefit can also come to the instructor. When Dr. Maxcey interacted with students online, she learned their names faster because every interaction was labeled with their name (e.g., email, zoom), which led to a better connection between her and her students. This improved connection will enhance her ability to support them down the road (e.g., in advising, writing letters of recommendation).

Explain how you cultivate your class, even if lectures are pre-recorded

Faculty will likely put a huge amount of work into getting online classes ready to run before the semester starts, but the work won’t end there. Even if all lectures are posted and ready to go before the class even accesses the first video, faculty will still need to spend time evaluating discussion posts, responding to emails, making more videos explaining misconceptions or upcoming assignments, and zooming with students on individual meetings. Despite doing all this work, Dr. Maxcey had one student say, “The cynic in me feels like you didn’t really teach this class.” We recommend that faculty write a paragraph in the syllabus or take a few moments in a video to explain how you will be interacting with students over the term. Point out when and how you will be assessing their online work, how you will monitor their progress, and what they can expect from you in terms of day-to-day support of their learning. Throughout the term, you may also want to explain why you designed the class the way you did – why you selected the assigned course material, perhaps how the selected books compared to other available books, the benefits of the assignments, the logic behind the grading rubrics, and reiterating the objectives of the course. In the absence of face-to-face instruction, students might need to be reminded that instructors still cultivate the course in time with their learning.

Brightspace Access and Activity Logs

Brightspace is our primary system for interacting with students online at Vanderbilt. You can assume that all registered students will have access to the materials you post on Brightspace, but how and when they do so may differ. Some international students will be able to access Brightspace without difficulty, but some may not. Access issues can differ even between students in the same country. This creates major issues with maintaining deadlines in the course. VUIT made the following recommendation, which helped. We recommend including this in your syllabi:

If you are accessing Brightspace from another country, you may need to use Google Chrome and find and install a VPN that will make it appear you are connecting to the Internet from within the United States (e.g., NordVPN).

 In some circumstances, it is very useful to be able to access students’ login history and activity logs on Brightspace. You can see what content they have accessed, when they accessed it, and how many times. You can use this information to know if students are managing their time well by accessing grading rubrics sufficiently in advance of a deadline, accessing optional content you are cultivating, or having trouble accessing the course website. As your course unfolds these activity logs allow you to intervene when your students need to be more efficient (e.g., point out they should have started on a paper assignment if few students have accessed the rubric), manage your time (e.g., determine if it’s worth your time to create supplemental content), and reach out to students who have not logged on in certain period of time. Unfortunately, activity logs only track items posted under Content. Course website activity does not seem to be logged for Announcements or the Syllabus module, so it is difficult to determine if a student has accessed them. In other words, just because a log shows a student hasn’t accessed something under Content, it doesn’t mean they did not access that item under Announcements. Although Announcements are helpful, try to post under Content and orient students to access material only that way. This will allow you to check their activity logs later. You should also know that students can download everything from your online course on Brightspace with one click by using the download button on their Content screen. This makes it easier for them to engage asynchronously, but it also means clicks aren’t tracked. So that you can accurately assess student engagement with the course content, we recommend making materials available only as students need them – either by posting them to Brightspace later, or, by making them “not visible” to students until they are needed.

Remember to enjoy the ride

The tone of any class is set by the instructor. If you are anxious about online teaching, frustrated by the use of new software, saddened by the loss of face-to-face interactions or have other concerns, students will pick up on those negative feelings. You may even inadvertently transfer those to the class itself. This new way of teaching and learning is difficult for everyone, to be sure, but as the leader of your class, it’s up to you to strike the positive tone. Keep an open mind about the possibilities that a new teaching format can provide. Be resilient – perhaps even playful – when overcoming obstacles that stem from new tools. Reach out to individuals in your classes to make connections with the people behind the pictures, by asking about their personal experiences, their thoughts and feelings. Purposely add more positive and encouraging comments into your interactions, perhaps with a weekly announcement that enumerates all the successes that students in the class have achieved so far.  Make this coming term an exploration of a new domain, filled with the awe and joy of any discovery.


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