Week 2: Managing expectations

We’re now in Week 2 of this bizarre and unasked-for experiment in online education. While I won’t say that I’ve settled into any comfortable pattern yet, I have settled into an uneasy acceptance. I am, as Steve Krug discusses in my course’s readings for the week, “muddling through” with the tools and the structure.

Last Friday, the college announced officially that we were not coming back to complete Spring Term on campus in May, that the entire term would be virtual, and canceling both Commencement and Reunion in June. Not a surprise, to be sure. I did not, however, expect the profound feelings of loss and sadness the announcement brought. I expect that it’s the finality imparted by the decision, the squashing of that last (and totally unrealistic) glimmer of hope that things would return to “normal” soon. This announcement is just another indicator that we’re not returning to any sort of “normal” anytime soon — not in a few weeks, and probably not in a few months. “Normal” changed overnight, and no one knows what “normal” is supposed to connote anymore.

This announcement framed Week 2 for me, and my Week 2 goals for my course:

  • Acknowledge the loss we’re all feeling (particularly the seniors)
  • Set and reinforce the weekly course rhythms
  • Develop workable and sustainable ways of “working together apart”

Acknowledge the loss we’re all feeling

Our amazing Instructional Continuity team (the director of our learning and teaching center, the academic technologists, and various IT staff) suggested that professors create a short video at the start of each week, summarizing the previous week and previewing/framing the content for the upcoming week. I often did this in my pre-pandemic Monday class meetings, so I eagerly adopted this suggestion. Doing this sort of review/preview is especially important in a course like Software Design, which can sometimes feel like “a loose collection of things that didn’t fit anywhere else in the curriculum”. I like to remind my students of how all of the threads weave together to form a whole.

I realized that it’s also helpful for me to acknowledge what’s happening outside of the course — reiterating that we can’t untangle ourselves from the context in which we’re learning, and that these are weird and hard times. This week, I started my video recognizing the sadness and loss we’re likely all feeling from the official announcement, and particularly the seniors. I ended my video acknowledging that some students in the class were struggling with much bigger issues, like the health of family members, increased family obligations, or other forms of uncertainty. I reaffirmed that while the course itself has particular learning objectives, my objective as a professor is to teach and lead with compassion above all else during this time.

Set and reinforce weekly course rhythms

Week 1 in Software Design is a bit odd, in that I cover 4 distinct topics in 3 days: framing the larger course questions; the qualities of effective teams and teamwork; a very quick overview of Agile development; and an introduction to git and GitHub. This term, the distinct topics actually worked in my favor. I could experiment with different tools and structures for each topic without worrying too much about how they all “flowed” together, because a normal Week 1 in this course doesn’t “flow” perfectly anyway.

Most of the remaining weeks in the course cover one, or two very tightly related, topics, and thus lend themselves better to a predictable structure. This week is one such week: we cover web usability and accessibility, with a first taste of ethics thrown in for good measure. This week also, the concepts are easily “chunkable” into mini-lecture/example and corresponding activity. And there’s a clear deliverable at the end of the week, the first big assignment of the term.

I currently struggle with how to time the asynchronous activity completion dates. I want to respect the need for my students to work when they can, which might not always be perfectly timed with our MWF schedule and may be disrupted at any time by technology issues or family expectations. This is particularly important because the asynchronous activities often have a team component to them, so I want to make sure teams have time to collaborate on the activity. But I also want to make sure completion dates are spaced out appropriately and that the students have certain things completed, if at all possible, by our synchronous class meeting.

To try and address this, I’ve used Activity Completion on Moodle more liberally this week. Not so much as a mandate, but more as a signal of “these are my expectations, and this is roughly the order in which I expect you to complete them”. I do “lock” some activities into a particular order — complete the reading quiz with a passing grade before you can access the lectures and activities related to that quiz and readings — but many of the activities just require the students to manually check off that they completed them.

Honestly, though, the biggest challenge for me is making sure I have the material ready to go for the start of the next week by the end of the previous week! I … did not succeed on this front this week. But hey, I’m learning.

Develop workable, sustainable ways of “working together apart”

I still struggle with the central question of how to create the collaborative, small group spirit I work so hard to foster in this course in a completely virtual environment. I placed the students into stable, 4-person teams and set up asynchronous activities so that they at least confer with each other when completing the activity. I use these teams during breakouts during our synchronous class meetings, too. (The technology failed me a bit on this front last week, but I think I resolved the issue.)

Beyond this, I want to re-create the between-teams sharing of ideas that often happens in a physical class meeting, or as teams work in our computer labs. I also want to make sure that students know that they can ask me questions just like they’d do in a physical classroom, or by popping into my office when my door’s open — basically, that they don’t and shouldn’t struggle alone.

I’m using Slack heavily for these last purposes. I set up a #coursework channel specifically for students to ask/answer questions or post comments as they work through the asynchronous activities. I am on Slack a lot anyway, but I told my students that I will definitely hang out on Slack during our scheduled meeting times, so if they post then they can expect to get an answer right away. I’ve also tried to be more responsive “outside hours” than I’d normally be, because I don’t want students to feel lost or discouraged.

That said, I am setting boundaries, too! But I’m still trying to strike that balance between being “available enough” and “too available”.

I also haven’t yet been successful at selling open office hours as “time available to work simultaneously with your peers with me available to answer questions in real time”, so I’m thinking of ways to modify the office hours model to make sense for me and for my students.

Beyond this, I continue to struggle with things that I suspect will be issues the entire term: the fatigue of being always-online and interacting in small Zoom windows for a good part of the day; the fact that everything related to virtual teaching takes 10 times longer than face-to-face teaching; the constant worry that students will fall through the cracks; the worry that we will lose members of the Carleton community to COVID-19. And, of course, managing my own expectations, for myself, continues to be a struggle — but I suppose that’s true of non-virtual terms as well.