Crossing Planes: Fostering Moments of Honest Connection in the Online Learning Environment

Courses: Reading Endorsement and M.Ed. in Literacy

Department: Education

Institution: Lake Erie College

Instructor: Beth Walsh-Moorman

Students: About 50 across five courses, graduates

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: College LMS, Blogging, Flipgrid, Virtual Meetings, Student-created websites

Author Biography: Beth Walsh-Moorman is the assistant professor of literacy at Lake Erie College in Painesville OH, where she coordinates the reading endorsement and M.Ed. literacy programs. After teaching secondary ELA for 22 years, Beth earned her Ph.D. from Kent State University. Her research interests include adolescent literacy, multimodal composing, digital literacies. Beth also edits the Ohio Journal of English Language Arts and was named Ohio Teacher of Excellence (College Division) by the Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts in 2020.

Let me begin this essay by sharing that I love classroom banter. When I taught high school English (which I did for 22 years), my classroom was the noisy one down the hall. You know, the one where the teacher across the hall swings open the classroom door to chastise the students who she assumes have been left unsupervised, only to find the teacher (me) standing in the midst of the laughter. In my reveries, I like to think this is organized chaos, and that the Spanish teacher just needs to calm down. I recall that these moments were orchestrated by me to lure my students into related discussions (I remember hearing a quote attributed to Mark Twain that said, “It takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”). Maybe I’m fooling myself into believing there was any strategy, but my best teaching days were ones that included the unexpected.

The Move to Online Teaching

Three years ago, I completed my doctorate with a literacy specialization from Kent State University, and I was eager to use that training. After all, who dedicates three years of their life to writing a dry bit of academic ramblings only to turn up in Room 239 like they always have? So, when I was offered the opportunity to serve as the assistant professor of literacy at Lake Erie College in Painesville, OH, I jumped at the chance. I imagined my new role as one filled with classrooms of older and wiser students, minus the disapproving gaze of the colleague across the hall or the need to address a wildly inappropriate comment with a discussion of boundaries. But as I settled into my new role, a realization struck me: I was going to be teaching fully, completely, and exclusively online. Our reading endorsement and M.Ed. literacy classes are asynchronous, remote, and accelerated. The classroom banter was going to be replaced with discussion boards and emails. My noisy world got a whole lot quieter.

Conventional wisdom suggests that I should have expected this to be at least part of my new career. According to Insidehighered.com, the percentage of students who took at least one online class continues to rise and “online education remains the main driver of growth in postsecondary enrollments” (Lederman, 2019). Still, colleges and universities have been slow to embrace this new modality, even as it has become clear that the traditional business models of higher education remain problematic (Gallagher & Palmer, 2020).  Yet, I still privileged seminar-style teaching and in-person classroom environments, even though my own academic studies had focused on digital literacies and the affordances of multimodal learning.

Transitioning

For me, the move to fully online teaching was a difficult one to make, in part because it requires so much more precision of outcomes. While I have always worked to align with standards and curriculum maps, planning for online teaching was entirely more focused. Understanding By Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) introduced the framework that shaped my teaching and planning, but beginning with the end in mind had a whole new meaning when I was designing an asynchronous, accelerated course.  Every step in the course was carefully planned and mapped out: what was said in every lecture I gave in the course in the course, or what was asked in every discussion that was had in the course had to be considered and planned before I even met one student. It was like stepping into the classroom in August with every lesson plan written for every class my students and I would hold that year. Add to that the fact that my dean expected me to have the entire course ready and open for my students from Week 1, allowing them to work ahead as time allowed. It was an appropriate expectation, given that our students were classroom teachers who needed such autonomy, but it was intense.

My first two years of teaching online, I moved into a pattern. I worked to revise and refine courses the semesters I was not teaching them, opening six or seven fully prepared modules the very first meeting of the class the next semester. I was proud of the assignments and adjustments I made, and I was certain that the college teaching experience I gained was helping me make more purposeful planning choices. But it meant that I was almost always focused on the courses that were coming next semester, while my students were focused on the ones they were taking (obviously). Each module included assignments due on Sunday nights, and every Monday I would dutifully log in to grade. I’d send a few head’s up emails and update collaborative tools, but my students and I were working on two different planes.   While our planes of virtual existence might intersect on any given Monday morning, it was not enough.

Intersecting with my Students

My eureka moment came when we hired a local administrator to teach one of my favorite courses, Theory and Practice of Reading. Upon her hire, she and I sat down to talk through the course. I showed her my readings, assignments, video lectures and rubrics. She took it all in, complimenting my thoroughness (she has since realized my weakness in organizing things, I’m sure) and emphasizing her desire to use most of what I had created. I felt pretty good, like I was the one with the answers. A month or two later, I reached out to ask her to share her syllabus for a report to the Ohio Department of Higher Education.  When I opened the Google document, three things struck me: one, she was much better at creating a graphically pleasing syllabus (she understands the power of subtle font changes and creates much prettier tables), two, she broke the modules down by adding Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday due dates, and three, she had some answers for me. When I emailed her to ask about the changes, she said it helped her spread out the grading across the week, which was important given that she needed to keep her day job. But I suspected it was a bit more transformative than that, and I asked if she would mind if I followed her pattern when I took the course back over in the summer. She readily agreed to let me “borrow” her syllabus.

Figure 1. Syllabus from my colleague that organized the module work across the week. This is what inspired me to start rethinking my own course.

So, I spent much of the spring semester re-structuring my courses. Using her model and knowing my own priorities, I worked through the due dates to offer what I hoped was a logical workflow. Discussion posts would now be due on a Tuesday, for example, and the responses would have to be shared by Thursday. Major written assignments or readings were usually due on Sundays to allow my students as much time as possible. I chose to use this same pattern in all the core reading courses. In May, I launched the new, improved versions of my courses and waited to see what happened. I was worried the returning reading might balk at this new work pattern.

Figure 2. Screenshot of a weekly module from a summer course. In the past, all work would have been entered separately and due on Sunday. With the change, the due dates are staggered across the week.

The first week of the course, I logged onto the class discussion board on Tuesday to read the students’ messages. As I read what they shared, I realized that I had several students who work in secondary settings. I spent a few hours gathering a reading alternative for the next week, thinking they might find it a bit more relevant to their teaching. I sent out an email and updated my course website with the change. I got an email reply from a student: “Thanks for thinking of us in your planning.” It was a simple message, but it clarified something right then and there: I had been engaged in thinking about the course with my students. We were no longer working on two different planes.

These summer courses were by far the most interactive courses I have taught online. I offered an optional book discussion virtually, and 11 out of 12 students showed up. I received several emails from one student with articles or videos she had seen that “made me think of you.” I quickly learned which student taught which subject and what grade. I knew who taught locally, and who was distant. My comments on papers or responses to blog and discussion posts grew longer, more developed, and more personal. I had not only distributed their workload; I had carved space and time for me to respond to their work in more meaningful ways.

While I still crave the noisy banter of my classroom, I have come to cherish the introspection online learning allows. My students can engage in deep and critical thinking on their own time. They have genuine agency over their own learning, and I am the engineer building the structures through which this happens. By structuring the course a little differently, I have made room to respond to my students with more depth– both literally, as I now have a dedicated time for responding to class discussion posts and figuratively, as I have been able to incorporate what I know about my students into the class by adding small changes that meet their needs. This small change to my syllabus–  spreading a module’s due dates across the week– has offered me the chance to use those structures for moments of honest connection.

Reference

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd Ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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