Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Free Advice for New Online Students (and Worth Every Penny!)

So you’re going online, huh?

A lot of us are these days.  And with probably less preparation than we’d like.  It’s going to be interesting, in the liberal arts sense of that term, the way three-headed frogs are … um … interesting.

I’ve been teaching online for over a decade now, for at least three different universities.  I’ve built my own classes – some of them fully online, some of them hybrids.  And since that experience might come in handy for students, I’m just going to throw out a couple of fairly simple ideas and hope for the best.

If any of this is at all is useful to you, take it with my blessing.

The first thing about online classes in general is that they require discipline in a way that most face-to-face classes don’t.  You’re on your own in some ways.  There’s no little bell in your head that says “Oh, at 9am on Monday I need to be sitting in that seat in that room.”  It is, in other words, very easy to drift off into the ether, and those are the students who fail.  Log in every day.  Every single day, without fail.  Things may change between logins, and they probably will.  Best case, there’s nothing to do and you log back out.  More likely, you’ll stay current on what needs to happen and not fall behind.  Because without that little reminder, without that self-discipline, it’s really, really easy to miss a day, and then a day turns into three days, which turns into a week, which turns into an F.  This may be less of an issue with full online schooling, which will make that every day demand more strenuously than a single course will, but it’s still important.

Similarly, these classes require time management.  It’s very tempting not to pay attention to deadlines when you’re at home, surrounded by any number of distractions.  Time management is the key to any academic success, but more so online.  Set yourself a schedule.  Be aware of your deadlines.  Make sure you give yourself the time to do what needs to be done.

Another key thing to any class is communication, and online classes are no different.  Email your instructor if you have problems.  Call.  Post something.  Let them know what is going on.  Instructors can work with you if you keep them posted, but if you disappear they will assume you don’t care and write you off.  Communication skills and time management are the two most important things that will get you to graduation at any level – far more than native intelligence – and you need to develop and use them.

Online classes all come on different platforms depending on what your institution has contracted for and what things cost.  I’m familiar with D2L and Canvas.  I’ve worked with Moodle and, once upon a disturbingly long time ago, Blackboard.  I have no experience with Google Classroom or any of the others.  These platforms all function relatively similarly, though the specifics vary.  The first thing you should do is explore the platform.  Click on things.  Click on everything.  You can’t break it and Moscow will remain un-nuked no matter what you do.  But get to know where things are and how they work because I cannot tell you how many students I have spoken with who discovered entirely new areas of assignments and graded tasks that they didn’t know about until halfway through the semester.  Click on everything.  Every single link.

All of these platforms have some kind of announcement space for teachers to get quick notes across to students.  Pay attention to those, especially now when a lot of teachers who never thought they’d be running an online class are suddenly thrust into it and need to get information out to you quickly.  For the same reason, always check your email.  Yes, email is old fashioned and ranks just one step above hard candy as something your grandparents try to foist off on you, but email is how colleges and high schools communicate these days.  Read the announcements, double check your email, and you won’t miss as much.

They all have some kind of content area where your teachers can post documents.  Go explore.  In a normal time that content would probably be timed to appear gradually as you progressed through the course, but it may just all get thrown up there now.  Download it all so you have it even if your internet connection goes down.

They all have some kind of discussion board area.  Figure out how to make posts and how to respond to posts, because that’s going to matter.  You’ll probably have assignments that require online discussion.  Write professionally – this is not SnapChat, Tumblr, or whatever new app is the hottest thing on social media.  You need to write in complete sentences.  The word “dude” should never appear, and most of your teachers are better at profanity than you are so don’t even go there.  You will not win.

They all have some kind of system for uploading assignments – Dropbox in D2L, for example, or Assignments in Canvas.  Again, figure out how it works.

Many classes will be having recordings of lectures or presentations – my own hybrid class this semester will likely continue having lectures since most of my students are used to logging in from home anyway, though I will record them for those who can’t log in.  Make sure you can log into whatever connection system the class uses.  My current hybrid class works with a BlueJeans connection, which I find simple and fairly intuitive, and my home campus uses Webex, which I’ve been given some quick training on this week.  Zoom is popular, and so are any number of other systems.  Figure out how they work and make sure you can log in before you have to log in.

All of these things have online help sites, toll-free numbers, and FAQs.  There are probably YouTube tutorials.  A lot of education is just learning how to make use of the resources available to you.  Make use of them.

Also, remember to mute your microphone if you’re not speaking and be careful about your computer’s camera.  TMI is a thing.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re all struggling here.  This has been one giant clusterfornication of a month and everyone is ragged, stressed, and trying to figure out how this is going to work – and this includes your teachers.  We’re all winging it here, folks.  We need to cut each other some slack and be kind to each other.

Just to give you some idea of the advice that your teachers have been getting – or should have been getting anyway – here is a selection of what came my way.

We need to be gentle with each other.  We’re all stressed.  This can’t be repeated enough.  Be kind.

We will not recreate our regular classes online, nor will we be following “best practices.”  This is triage.  We’re trying to get enough up in the short time we have been given to give you the essentials of what our courses are trying to teach you.  As I said at the beginning, I’ve built online classes before.  They don’t happen in a week.  They don’t happen in two weeks.  These will be rushed.  These will have mistakes, technical glitches, and gaps.  Many of your teachers have not been trained to do this and are making do.  We’re doing the best we can and everyone needs to calm down and accept that.

We need to remember that this is a health care crisis and Shit Will Happen.  People will get sick.  People will have to care for those who are sick.  People will have to deal with all sorts of crises.  Be flexible.  Be open to accommodations.  Remember that bit about communication skills?  Everyone involved here – students, teachers, administrators, parents – needs to use those.  Let people know.  And don’t be a jerk about it either (see above).

We need to remember that not everyone has a good internet connection, not everyone has the equipment they need for an online class, and not everyone is in a good position to be the priority user of what equipment and connections they do have.  Many people will suddenly have new responsibilities and new stresses – lost jobs, more demands from jobs, family struggles, and so on.  Keep people informed (see above) and be flexible.

I have no idea if any of this will be helpful or not.

But there you have it.


Julie Morris said...

Can I share this on FB?? I know a few people that could use this info.

David said...

Absolutely! It's meant to be public.

Ewan said...

Thanks again, again.

David said...

You're welcome! :)

KimK said...

Parts of this remind me of a statement that Tony M. has in his syllabus. Something to the effect that, "I will care as much about your success in this class as you do."

David said...

I'm going to have to remember that one. :)