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Online Teaching with Technology: My Adventure (with a cat too...)

Heather Bouwman
Apr 22, 2020 10:00:00 AM

As a creative writing professor, I’m a bit of a stereotype: nerdy, bookish, and not very tech-savvy. And prone to bad jokes. Before I taught my first Zoom session with my pandemically-online course, I gestured to my dressy top and pajama bottoms and said to my son, “Look! Business up top, party down below.” Then I paused for the laugh.

“Never,” he said, frowning deeply, “say that again.”

All my jokes are bad, it’s true. But in this instance the joke was coming from panic, so I think it’s excused. The panic wasn’t pandemic-related (at least, not then): it was about teaching online. My transition has not been pretty. I’ve avoided learning new technology for twenty years. I mean, I’m a novelist; I use word processing and email; what else do I need? When my university tells me I need to upgrade my computer, I always ask if I really have to. And now that we’re going all online? I feel like a student who hasn’t studied for two decades, who finds out she suddenly has to cram for a final that will take place in three days.

Three days is, officially, the amount of time faculty at my university were given to get our courses online. On a Thursday afternoon, it was announced that, on Monday, we’d no longer be meeting face to face. So…it was a scramble.

But of course, we saw the school closure coming about a week before it happened, and as a person who regularly has a month’s worth of canned goods in her basement, I started preparing right away, by learning how Zoom worked and figuring out where our discussion board was located on Canvas. (No, I knew neither of those things.) 

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The smart things I did? First, I set expectations: I explained to my students that I wasn’t a tech guru (…as if they hadn’t already gathered this) and that I would surely make mistakes going online. And I did … and they were forgiving. Second, I practiced before the first real Zoom class, at home with my tech support  draftee teenage child. And I held a practice session with my students: the day that in-person classes were cancelled for the semester, we took 20 minutes of class time to practice getting on to Zoom and to make sure we could all see and hear each other. 

What has happened in the first two weeks of online teaching? Well, I haven’t become an expert. But I have: Zoomed in my pjs (bottoms only. Business on top, remember?). And I have yanked my earbud cords out of my cat’s mouth. I’ve shown a video clip without sound. I’ve accidentally ended the Zoom meeting instead of ending breakout rooms. (Uh…three times now; my students are getting good at re-signing on.) I’ve had a student arrive late because he had to drive to his uncle’s house to get wifi. I’ve had students cut out because of wifi issues. I have a student three time zones away suddenly having to take a 6:55 am course instead of the 9:55 am course she signed up for. I’ve had a kid interrupt me to ask about dinner. And I’ve had students get sick, and their family members get sick. They miss their friends. They are suddenly jobless and stuck at home. We are all struggling. It’s a hard semester; if anything, the cat eating my earbuds is a welcome moment of comic relief. The students have been more gracious than I would have ever expected. We are all being gracious.

Because I’m trying to balance connectivity issues with my students’ desire (and mine) for face-to-face instruction, and I’m trying to keep things simple for myself and for them, I’m splitting the class meetings between Zoom sessions and Canvas discussion board sessions: Canvas for drafts of papers and creative writing projects and critiques, and Zoom for literature discussions. (My grad students asked for only Zoom sessions, but they all have good wifi and computers and live in town; not so for my undergrads.)

This week—my second week of online teaching—I am beginning to feel more confident, so much so that I agreed to record a short guest lecture for a colleague’s class. Did I know how to do that? NOPE. Did I crowdsource on Facebook as to how to record myself for the lecture? Friends, I did. Did I call my university’s tech support when the QuickTime video was too large to email and have them walk me through how to Google share a video? You betcha. And did I feel like a tech goddess when it was all over? YES. YES I DID.

I’m not a natural online teacher. Mostly I want to lead discussions of the books we’re reading, and these discussions have been less lively than the ones we had in real life: my students seem to find it suuuuuper hard to unmute themselves to make a comment. But I am beginning to see some upsides to online teaching, too. While my students definitely talk less in full-class Zoom sessions, they do send me private chats with questions they might not have dared to ask aloud in class for fear of looking stupid. And they make offhand (and often funny) comments in the public chat: when I showed a short interview with an author, they started typing comments without my even prompting them. (Mostly, the comments were about how the author—Benjamin Percy—has a scarily low voice, like waaay below the register for normal humans. But still: they were chatting about the interview! I’m gonna call that a win.) They participate willingly in polls: when I asked my students to vote on how well the ending of a novel worked for them, they enjoyed seeing what the results looked like. And in breakout rooms: they talk up a storm, and they come back recharged and with things they want to say. I need to remember that the things that worked in our face-to-face class can’t be replicated exactly online … but other good things can happen.

At this point, I don’t have any desire to teach an online course when this pandemic is over. However, now that I know a bit about these online tools, I will be able to use them as adjuncts to my in-person teaching. For now, I’m relatively happy to teach online—something I thought I’d NEVER EVER say. And bonus: I get to teach without putting on real pants.

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