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Fully Remote: Lessons Learned and Revised (Part 1)

susan_bernstein
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As much as I miss teaching face-to-face, online learning has its own rewards, for both students and teachers. One of the many challenges in teaching online is remaining mindful of students’ needs even as students’ faces and voices are often not available to us. 

 

For guidance in this endeavor, I turned to Beth Hewlett’s essay “Anyone Can Teach an Online Writing Course” (see Bad Ideas about Writing pages 356-362). Hewlett suggests that one of the primary most important practices is “to think differently—less linearly and more three-dimensionally” (359). Because of the affordances of my neurodiversity, I have practiced three-dimensional thinking for most of my life.  For me, three-dimensional thinking requires thinking outside the box and detaching from “best practices” that are not necessarily best for everyone on the other side of the screen. Hewlett explains:

 

online teachers must understand both the legal and moral requirements of equal access as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They must be able to understand how to use digital tools to enhance learning for students with physical disabilities, emotional challenges, learning differences, multilingual abilities, and varied socioeconomic backgrounds. These are learned, not inherent, digital teaching skills (Bad Ideas about Writing 359).

 

While Hewlett’s essay was published before the pandemic began, the requirements she describes have become even more dire. As suggested by a recent ACT study, in Spring 2020,  two-thirds of students struggled with the transition to online learning and “one-third of first-year students reported frequent troubles with an unreliable computer and 21 percent said they had unpredictable or no access to the internet” (Inside Higher Education August 25, 2021). While Zoom creates an additional burden on wifi and unreliable computers, the problems of inequitable access to wifi, technology, and quiet places to study were at issue long before the pandemic. 

 

Before the pandemic, students struggled with balancing work, school, and family responsibilities. Then, as now, it was hard to find quiet places outside of the classroom to complete homework. Equitable access to food, housing, and healthcare also were at issue before the pandemic, exacerbated by national disasters and international catastrophes. In other words, the pandemic is more than a temporary inconvenience, and teaching online is not necessarily a contingency plan.  

 

Indeed, the New York Times reports that “Even just knowing that online classes are an option can help students with disabilities by assuring them that there is a safety net.” This safety net is also a literal lifeline for teachers with disabilities. In advocating for ourselves, we are also advocating for our students, creating awareness and honoring, rather than merely performing, a deep care for human diversity that offers alternative forms for facilitating learning. In beginning a third semester of fully remote teaching on Zoom (of course), in my Bits posts this Fall I want to consider what the glitches were and how I might revise them. 

I start with the first glitch: Zoom itself.

 

Problem: In face-to-face classes at the college where I teach, we met 1 hour and fifty-five minutes long, two days a week, with part of that hour devoted to small group work. However,

Zoom is exhausting for people with and without neurodiversities, and it cannot replace the rapport and familiarity of face-to-face teaching. 

 

Rethinking it: The first revision was to reduce Zoom time to one day a week. With less Zoom time, I hope to make our meetings more engaging and worthwhile for students. Nevertheless, with fewer hours on Zoom, students might need more guidance for self-paced learning. 

 

Revisions: 

  • ZOOM TIME: Zoom time is used to explain assignments, to ask questions, and to write together. Writing together allows students to practice what they must do away from Zoom, and to ask questions and concerns in real time. 
  • BEYOND THE CHAT BOX: For questions and concerns, beyond the Zoom chat box, I also include a Google Doc Q&A for addressing issues large and small, and trying out ideas. Google Docs work especially well for students with anxiety and other neuro diversities, and also for students whose video conferencing access is less than optimal because of background distractions and privacy issues. Students can access and add to the Google Doc Q&A after class and during asynchronous office hours as questions occur to them.
  • GROUP CHAT: Students initiated a group chat to support each other in a student-centered space away from Zoom. 

 

 

Problem: The syllabus was incredibly long and unwieldy, which made it difficult to find significant information about readings, assignments, and due dates.

 

Rethinking it:  In the late 1980s, when I began teaching, there was no internet and our syllabi were often only 2-3 pages. While not nostalgic for the late twentieth century, I wanted to combine the most useful elements of a shorter syllabus with the affordances of the internet.

 

Revision: 

SELF-PACED LEARNING GUIDE: I familiarized myself with pacing guides, learning maps, and unit planners. This CDC handout for health education was particularly helpful. The Guide is color coded to the assignment sheets, and breaks the main features of the syllabus calendar into two pages (three major writing assignments and journals). The guide helps make the key features of the course more visual and offers major components of the course in one convenient handout.  Following is the template I used for the Self-Paced Learning Guide.

 

First-Year Writing Self-Paced Learning Guide. Changes announced in advance of due dates

Assignment

Sources

Requirements

Goals

DEADLINES

Writing Project 1:

Presents the WHAT of Writing Project 1 with a link to the assignment sheet

 

Content warning for materials with which students will be engaged


Link to a sample student essay

Links to the readings and other sources on which the writing project is based 



Explanation of nuts and bolts: page length, style guide requirements, and use of sources

Presents the WHY

of Writing Project 1, briefly explaining how the writing project is connected to course goals

Draft Due Date


Suggested Due Date


Extended Due Date*

 *Offering extensions in advance allows students to time and space to revise their work

 

Writing Project 2: 

 Follows the same pattern as Writing Project 1

Follows the same pattern as Writing Project 1



 

Follows the same pattern as Writing Project 1



Follows the same pattern as Writing Project 1



Follows the same pattern as Writing Project 1 with draft, suggested, and extended due dates  

Journals: Link to the Slides and videos that explain what journals are and how journals are used in the class 




Follows the same pattern as Writing Project 1 

Follows the same pattern as Writing Project 1  

Follows the same pattern as Writing Project 1  


Offers critical links to support students reaching their goals for the course

Follows the same pattern as Writing Project 1 with draft, suggested, and extended due dates  


Offers interim suggested due dates so that students can plan how many entries students will write for each unit in the course

About the Author
I am a writer and teacher living in Queens, New York. My book is "Teaching Developmental Writing" 4e. Other recent publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity.