Shifting Online

The global pandemic (COVID-19) has universities deciding to shift classes from in-person to online quicklyquickly ranging from overnight to something like three weeks. Shorter than a couch-to-5k, in other words. As rapid changes like these spread through higher education, people speculate, wondering what it means, how long such changes will last, whether anyone (students and faculty alike) is really prepared, and so on. Everyone’s doing their part to make sense of an unfamiliar phenomenon, and that sense-making takes a variety of shapes–blobby, tentative, many temporary. A medical doctor in this coffee shop just walked in and said to me oh, hey, VT (coffee mug gifted from a former grad student gives it away); “this is gonna be okay; there’s a 97% survival rate.”

Insofar as the generally altruistic goal of social distancing as a measure to reduce human to human contact and thereby to slow rates of transmission, campuses are un-bunching themselves, emptying the dorms as much as possible, interrupting residential and study abroad programs, adjusting. Just yesterday afternoon I was emailed a fair forewarning heads-up–come up with a plan for supporting teachers in the Composition Program if and when this shift happens. I had a call with the program’s associate director, opened a Google Doc, and we generated with help from others on the leadership team a six page document: 1) key principles guiding modified teaching in Spring 2020, 2) reasonable and appropriate curricular adjustments, 3) allowances for the labor involved with adjusting a class initially designed to happen in-person, 4) a caveat about how this is not an effort to forge at overdrive clip through elaborate training in Online Writing Instruction, and 5) a modest collection of resources for re-orienting instructional staff to the university’s LMS. I don’t know if this is the right approach. It is a lean approach–minimalist, humane, focused as narrowly as possible on the problem before us as an eight-week problem, a getting-to-May-6 problem. COVID-19 and social distancing efforts may continuing into summer and fall, but we will think together about appropriate pedagogical responses to those terms later. If and when we get the email to go ahead, we will circulate the Spring 2020 plan with what we believe will suffice for now in its honoring student and instructor well-being; urging flexibility and direct, timely communication; and extending again the forms of support we can make available (responsiveness to questions, openness to working through specific problems, general and continuing availability, administrative reassurance, etc.). No magic beans; no more warrants for drama or anxiety than the pandemic has already touched off.

In talking through the shift to online and upon witnessing quite a bit of buzz about what such a shift presumes about the work of teaching and learning, the planning involved, or the nimbleness of faculty–conceptual, communicative, and technological nimblenesses varied and intersecting as they are–there’s been a (at risk of sounding mildly judgmental, I’ll say it) clumsy differentiation between face-to-face and online teaching. True, at its crudest, some teaching happens with human bodies in the same room at the same time and some other teaching happens with human bodies not in the same room at the same time. We’re at the cusp of a pivot from one model to the other. But that other model–the one where human bodies are not in the same room at the same time–need not measure itself against the intricate and expert apparatuses now long established informing online pedagogies. That is, for now, in this switch-over, we don’t have to lug out the longest-scrolling web pages or the heaviest volumes on online instruction. We don’t have to school everyone new to teaching in online environments about the intricacies and affordances; getting to May 6 is a make-do goal. With this in mind, I’ve been partial to framing this not as a full, frenzied move to online writing instruction (OWI in a hurry), but instead as an ad hoc Spring 2020 modification in which we do our best to solve a short-term problem, respecting novice-ness as genuine (and vulnerable) and exercising scope restraint. Rather than touting this as a full and comprehensive shift online, I’m advocating for something more like online-lite, a minimalist approach cast perhaps a bit more in the shadow of correspondence courses than media-rich and daresay over-produced LMS-sparkled palaces. We can in time make sure everyone knows about the scholarly traditions informing such well-designed, well-made online courses, and, to the extent that pandemic-motivated social distancing becomes more world feature than world bug, we can get better at tying in our programs with that important body of work. But for now, for this moment, a spare approach will suffice:

  • communicate with students (promptly and supportively)
  • express clear and as-stable-as-possible dates and times for drafts and intervals of drafts
  • let existing course materials (curriculum maps and textbooks) do the work they were set in place to do
  • build in constructive interactions, focused as much as possible on uncertainties, opportunities for developing the draft (feedback-oriented stuff whether with peers or instructor led). Also, check out Bill Hart-Davidson’s “Feedback Cultures – A Guide For Teachers Thinking about Moving Student-Centered Learning Online” at
  • err on the side of being positive, constructive, encouraging, and reassuring with students, with colleagues, with administrators working fitfully to unpick snarled problems, but especially with students.

For right now, for this moment, that’s enough.

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