For the last 28 years, before the words “online” and “internet” meant anything to anybody, Washington State University has taught classes remotely — offering a bachelor’s degree to students who would never set foot on campus.
Now, WSU and other schools are sharing ideas about how to teach virtually at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered every college, university and K-12 school in the state. The disease has forced about 1.5 million Washington college and public school students to stay home where they are trying to earn a degree, pass a class, or keep up with school on their computers.
Educators had little warning that a pandemic would disrupt the 2020 academic year, and they must accomplish a herculean task: Adapting every course to an online format in real time, for students who don’t all have the same level of access, preparedness and technical skills. There’s concern that virtual courses can be a recipe for inequality — research has shown that students who are less well-prepared don’t do as well in an online class.
At the University of Washington, a sampling of students interviewed via email say they’re struggling to keep their attention focused on a screen all day long, and they miss making connections with professors and other students.
Online-learning experts say there are ways to make online learning more effective, and those lessons are just as applicable for teachers in a K12 classroom.
The first step, they say, is to decide what the student should know how to do at the end of the course, then think backward about how to teach it. Teachers and professors should be transparent about how the course is organized, letting students (or their parents) see a detailed syllabus that lays out expectations.
It’s vital to build good relationships online, so students get to know that the teacher or faculty member on their computer screen cares about them and their education. And educators and students alike say it’s important to be empathetic toward one another as everyone tries to navigate an overwhelming situation.
Typically, it takes three months or more to develop an online course, said David Cillay, chancellor of WSU Global Campus, the school’s distance-learning branch with an enrollment of 3,400 students. The work includes developing an instructional blueprint that guides what students should be able to do, understand and create by the end of the class.
But no one has three months to develop a course. So the first step, simply, is to relax, said Global Campus accounting professor Jason Porter.
“We’re still sharing in the passion for the subject, and none of that changes,” Porter said. “And neither does your students’ desire to do well and learn.”
Porter, who has been teaching at WSU for two years, posts a highly detailed, organized syllabus that clearly lays out expectations for his accounting classes. He also puts up as many materials as possible, and counsels against what he calls the “murder mystery” approach to class — holding out notes until just before they’re needed. By making everything available, he invites students to work ahead, and gives bonus points if they catch mistakes and typos.
Professors say building a good relationship invites students to actively participate in class. “The online environment can feel alienating (to students) unless they feel there’s a real human being on the other side who’s invested in their learning,” said Jennifer Thigpen, who teaches history online, through the Global Campus, as well as in-person in Pullman.
It’s important to show up as your real self, and model that for everyone, said University of Washington doctoral candidate Elba Moise, who is teaching a class on adult learning this quarter. “We need to create space for everybody … to show a little more of who they are, so we don’t reduce everybody to a Zoom box,” said Moise, referring to the tiny video boxes created by the videoconferencing platform.
Thigpen says online and in-person can be equally rigorous, and a good instructor will find ways to work with tech’s advantages when it’s not possible to meet face to face. For example, when Thigpen asks a question of her online class, students have time to write answers that are longer and often more thoughtful than they would be in a typical back-and-forth verbal exchange. And students get more writing practice.
She recommends keeping the tech simple. “Try not to use every tool in your toolbox — use a couple, leave it at that,” she said.
A recorded lecture may not have the sizzle of a live one, but it can be played back, slowed down or even sped up so students can review concepts they didn’t get the first time, said UW senior lecturer Matt McGarrity, who is spending 8 to 10 hours a day recording lectures he’d normally do in-person for a public speaking and a communications class.
What do students need to stay on top of classes? WSU Global Campus student Morgan Atwood, a senior majoring in social sciences, says students must be very organized to keep track of online courses. She uses a planner to keep track of due dates.
She also stays active socially. “Use virtual options to hold study groups or to socialize with friends,” she said, and don’t be afraid to reach out to professors. “Ask questions, ask for extra credit, even holding a conversation is fine,” she said. “Many professors are trying to adapt, too, and they are usually very understanding.”
WSU’s Global Campus has a virtual student government (Atwood is this year’s president) and encourages students to organize clubs as a way to build relationships with one another.
UW students say they miss the social aspects of college most of all. Noah Krohngold, a first-year UW computer-science student who moved home to Renton, can no longer have spontaneous conversations with professors and other students in that transition period before and after classes.
“The humanity of seeing people in classes and on campus is nowhere to be found,” said Krohngold via email.
Kelly Guangyin Hou, a freshman majoring in informatics and music performance in harp at UW, says she spends eight or nine hours in front of her computer every day, juggling between live and recorded lectures. It’s hard to keep her attention focused because there are so many distractions at home, she said via email, and some classes are better than others.
The pandemic has forced professors to be inventive.
Normally this quarter, UW professor Laura Prugh is teaching a favorite class, a hands-on course on wildlife management. Students practice trapping amphibians and small mammals and surveying their populations, among other things. Those activities can’t happen during a stay-at-home order.
So Prugh has mailed her students binoculars, a recorder, camera trap and a journal and asked them to take hourlong, weekly wildlife walks observing what’s going on in their neighborhoods. Later in the class, they’ll record the sounds animals are making and use the motion-sensitive cameras to capture pictures of wildlife.
The pandemic, she says, is a unique opportunity to measure how wildlife activity changes when human activity is largely shut down.
Last week, senior Henry Bates took his first wildlife walk at Seattle’s Union Bay Natural Area. Bates, who is majoring in environmental science and field research, saw a bald eagle, a Cooper’s hawk, a northern shoveler and other ducks and songbirds.
Bates said he enjoyed the assignment. “Getting out and paying attention to every little bird call let me notice a lot of behavior and species that I never would have seen,” he said by email.