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Uncharted Waters: The Top 5 Tips for Transitioning to Remote Learning

This week may mark your first time remote teaching. Maybe your institution remains on spring break, and your transition is next week. Or perhaps you’ve been embroiled in our new normal for a few weeks now. No matter what phase of a COVID-19 environment you are in, as professors all across the world engage in remote teaching, having a plan in place is the best strategy.

This is an extraordinary time where institutions of higher learning must uphold a dedication to academic excellence while remaining flexible as we move to remote instruction.

Before we get into specifics, it’s important to first remember that remote learning choices will depend on what options are available, how many students one is teaching, and the discipline being taught. I am at the University of Richmond, a liberal arts college, where I teach math. I am not a distance learning expert. I am just a faculty member who has been thinking about and preparing for this transition for the last couple of weeks, and I am deeply invested in the well-being of my students and helping them succeed. After talking with colleagues from around the country, I am employing these five tips in my own transition to remote teaching, and I hope other faculty may find these ideas helpful.

  1. Communicate with your students early and often. As soon as I got the news that the University of Richmond would be moving to distance learning, I sent an email to my students letting them know I was in the process of coming up with a plan. Once I drafted a plan, I shared it with them asking for feedback, questions, and suggestions. When the university updated grading policies for the semester, I emailed students and offered to help them understand the changes. Communicating with my students regarding course logistics provides security and reduces their stress. As evidence, I received an email from a student saying, “Thank you for all your emails during this confusing time and your diligence in explaining how the course is going to progress and what is going to be expected of us.” Communication matters!

I also sent a distance learning survey to my students. I used Google Forms to collect their responses, but one could also use Qualtrics or just ask students to respond directly to an email. My survey asked about internet reliability, ability to stream videos, access to course materials, and time zone. I also gave open-ended questions through which students could voice other concerns. One-third of my students responded to my survey in the first hour. To me, this was evidence they are hungry for something to do and wanting to engage in conversations about their learning.

Dr. Heather RussellDr. Heather Russell
  1. Consider asynchronous instruction where possible. Some of my students will be living in distant time zones; some have unreliable internet connections; and some are sharing small spaces with many other people. With all of these added constraints, it might be tough for students to attend a lecture or class meeting at a specific time. I have previously recorded asynchronous lectures on my iPad via the Doceri app, so that is what I am using. Others are recording content with Panopto or Explain Everything. There are many options.

I am also doing live meetings with my students via Zoom as a way to answer their questions, clarify points that were unclear in my videos, and discuss additional examples. I will offer several options for meeting times including an early-morning time that is easier for my students in countries like China (which is about 12 hours ahead of EST) to attend. I am also posting a rough list of topics or questions we might discuss in our Zoom meetings, so students that cannot attend can work on their own through that list. One could also consider recording live meetings and posting them for students to watch later. Make sure to ask students for permission! I chose not to record my classes because I want to minimize student discomfort and maximize participation.

  1. Find ways to help students stay on task. One of the biggest concerns my students voiced in their distance learning surveys was a fear that they would not stay motivated. A practice I have already been using with success is short questionnaires or summaries students submit through Blackboard. These brief online assessments ask students to summarize out of class material like readings or video lectures. I grade them based on completion rather than correctness, and I always require students to ask one question about the material. Questions are often incredibly insightful and give me a different perspective on student learning.

Time and time again, students have told me having to post these summaries encourages them to actually do the reading or watch the video. As an added benefit, this practice promotes reflection, which is a key part of learning. I had actually taken the summaries out of my distance learning plan because I was trying to simplify what was required of my students. The students requested I put them back in to help them stay motivated. As another method to incentivize student engagement, I am shifting some portion of my students’ grades for the remainder of the semester to reward regular participation.

  1. Go with your strengths! I am a very interactive teacher who lives for office hours. Because of that, I am working to preference contact time over other teaching tasks where possible. For instance, I will try to simplify my grading process for student homework this semester to free up more time for virtual office-hours. I plan to assign only numerical grades to problem sets and eliminate individual written comments. Then I will record a video of myself working the homework problems and make comments on common errors I saw in student work.

Virtual timed tests are very difficult to administer reliably. Some of my colleagues write amazing take-home exams, and they can use that skill this semester for remote assessment. I envy those talented people, but I am not one of them. Hence, my exams will be somewhat minimal. My colleague and fellow mathematician Della Dumbaugh offers this insight: “The real learning for an exam happens during the preparation.” With this in mind, I am thinking of administering short, individual, oral final exams where questions are taken from a lengthy but finite list of the most important things I want students to know from the course. I can use this format to shift the focus away from grading towards individual one-on-one interaction and assessment. I might also have students submit an executive summary of the course as part of the final.

  1. Have compassion and kindness for yourself and your students. Even if you feel like you are handling this shift well, we are swimming in a stressful environment and not fully aware of the impact it is having on us. Things are changing constantly, and it is hard to keep up. Many of my students need individual consideration and some kind of special arrangements this semester, and I am doing my best to handle this with grace and patience. I am already expecting that the plans I’ve made could go completely awry when someone (perhaps me) gets sick or the internet goes down.

Remote teaching will give us an opportunity to share a bit of our non-academic lives with our students. Many of us will be meeting with them from our home offices or kitchen tables where our dogs or our children may casually saunter through the background in the midst of a Zoom meeting. This is a beautiful moment to acknowledge that we are all whole, multi-faceted people with a diversity of experience.

It is my hope that this unprecedented moment, with so much uncertainty and stress, can provide us a pathway to bring our humanity forth as part of the learning process and encourage our students to do the same. I wish the best of luck to my faculty colleagues across the country as we enter these uncharted waters.

Dr. Heather Russell is an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Richmond.

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