Flexibility was also important in adapting to our altered circumstances. In my
Visual Rhetoric course, for example, I was able to integrate recent events into the
curriculum. I created an assignment called “Visualizing COVID-19,” in which students
analyzed and discussed data visualizations of arguments to “flatten the curve.” Many
students commented that the assignment helped them evaluate the claims of visualizations
they were encountering in the media. I shared this assignment with one of my colleagues,
whose student commented, “I just wanted to thank you for keeping the class engaging
and relevant to current events. Viewing these events in the light of the class has
been fun and engaging.”
Since we couldn’t hold student presentations of their final projects in the physical
classroom as usual, I asked my students to create videos using Adobe Spark. Surprisingly,
their projects were the strongest ever in my decade of teaching the course: The video
format, I discovered, allowed students to more clearly organize and articulate their
ideas. One student remarked that the video presentation “pushed me out of my comfort
zone and stretched my artistic abilities.” In this case, our online migration allowed
me to experiment with a format that ended up encouraging students’ best work and is
a practice I’ll continue next year, regardless of whether my class meets in person,
in a hybrid format or online.
This is not to say that everything went smoothly as we shifted online. My students
were impacted in significant, material ways by the pandemic and the ensuing economic
downturn. Those with challenging personal circumstances found it increasingly difficult
to complete coursework. One of my students confided that he was experiencing daily,
debilitating, panic attacks. Another lost her job; although she was able to find temporary
work to support her family, her new position had unpredictable hours. A young father
unexpectedly found himself the primary caregiver for his 2-year-old daughter. Yet
another student had a family member diagnosed with COVID-19.
Teaching online ... centers on designing and fostering a digital learning community.
These are the students who felt comfortable reaching out to me about their struggles;
no doubt many others grappled with issues like decreased access to the internet or
altered living situations. Supporting my students during this time required greater
openness and flexibility with deadlines, so they could progress toward their educational
goals. Access to technology also became an obstacle for many, and I needed to adjust
therequirements for a Digital Storytelling course project to ensure access when students
couldn’t use university audiovisual equipment after campus buildings closed.
The teaching strategies I’ve discussed here—for fostering community, flexibility,
and accessibility—are not only important to migrating courses online during a pandemic,
but are key to the responsiveness and quality of any learning in digital environments.
There is also much to learn from emerging research on best teaching practices. The
pandemic has placed a sudden spotlight on online instruction: We have a unique opportunity
to employ it as more than simply a backup for in-person teaching but as an effective
way to construct knowledge with others.