Graduate education

At the 2021 MLA Annual Convention, Chris Golde, Stanford U, organized and presided over a special session on graduate education: “Reforming Graduate School: Theories, Practices, and Goals.” The session was described thus:

A broadening consensus has emerged in recent years that graduate education has fundamental problems, but that recognition does not make the solutions obvious. Participants showcase some successful strategies for practical reforms from campuses around the country.

Speakers included Benjamin Reiss, Emory U, Maria LaMonaca Wisdom, Duke U, Augusta Rohrbach, Tufts U, Leonard Cassuto, Fordham U, Lincoln Center. After the session, Golde, the participants, and many attendees created this list of resources.

Resources and Ideas

Assignments and Activities

nuts and bolts arranged in a tray

As you revise your course to take place remotely, consider what want to cover and what kind of structure would facilitate those goals. Limiting lecture time and incorporating activities to allow students to reflect on the material and interact with one another, if possible, can be effective.

Resources like the Online Writing Instruction Community can provide advice as well as examples of assignments and ways to structure a course.

Greg Campbell’s “Digital Engagement” post describes ways to use low-stakes assignments, including quizzes and discussion posts.

Quizzes can prompt students to revisit readings. On Twitter, James Gifford describes how he approaches quizzes:

If the quiz sends them back to the readings (I let them repeat quizzes as much as they like), then it served its purpose. I do 10 questions from a random pool of 30, leaning hard on rewarding task completion.

With higher stakes assignments, consider what you can do to break up the tasks involved and facilitate students’ success completing them. This may also be a moment to tweak the assignments or exams you have planned.

Alison Yang’s “Do This, Not That” post and infographic suggests a “less is more” approach to assigments and encourages instructors to communicate clearly about expectations for assignments.

If you typically have students work in groups or review each other’s work, you may be able to provide a structure for that to happen remotely. Lori Landay describes on Twitter (in two tweets) an approach to larger assignments:

Google Meet is good for synchronous video class meetings. Mozilla Hubs https://hubs.mozilla.com/#/ offers virtual rooms accessible on mobile, desktop, across platform, in VR headsets, in browsers. Use both to set up group and independent projects for students to complete with short, medium and long term goals, peer editing/check-ins, iterations of drafts or prototypes, and communication among partners or small groups of students with video and text messages, as well as LMS.

Resources for Assignments and Activities

For those looking to dig further into digital pedagogy, the following publications may offer inspiration as well as specific models to follow:

Decide on an Approach: Tools and More

a curb cut and crosswalk

With your and your students’ resources and challenges in mind, you’ll want to decide on an approach. Will you meet synchronously with video sessions? Can students access course materials and respond to them asyncronously? Do you want to use an LMS or a course site? What can you accomplish with e-mail? These decisions will be informed by your and your students’ institutional, geographic, and social contexts as well as your familiarity with the technological options available.

In addition, evaluate your goals for students in the course. What of the course is most crucial and feasible for students to tackle in what remains of the semester, operating remotely? What kinds of activities will help students to get the information they need, practice the skills the course covers, and feel supported and part of a community?

Tools

Video conferencing, learning management systems, presentation slides, discussion boards, blogs, annotation tools, e-mail. The options may feel overwhelming. If you’ve gathered information from your students about their preferences and whether they have access to a computer and wifi, this may inform your approach. For instance, if your students are using their cellular data plans to access course materials, you may not want to rely heavily on video streaming. What is the most minimal approach you could take?

As you decide on tool(s) to use, you may want to review privacy policies and terms to consider how they handle personal data and the content shared on the platform. The Ethical EdTech wiki and Library Freedom Project’s Privacy for Online Teaching provide some guidance on privacy issues.

Whatever plan you make, try to have a backup in case students (or you!) encounter difficulties or the platform you’re using is overwhelmed and doesn’t work. If you’re planning to have a video conference but the service is glitchy, have an asynchronous activity or discussion prompt in mind to distribute by email. Have suggestions for back up plans? Comment below!

Sharing Course Material

You might share course information via a textual format, like e-mail, discussion board, or a course website.

You might also use recordings to share information with students.

Lindsey Passenger Wieck’s “An Equitable Transition to Online Learning—Flexibility, Low Bandwidth, Cell Phones, and More” recommends alternatives and accessibility features to consider if you plan to use recordings. If your students don’t have reliable access to wifi, using less bandwidth-heavy options than video (like audio) and providing transcripts can help them to access the material.

Greg Campbell’s “Digital Engagement” post includes advice about using video recordings as a component of online teaching.

On Twitter, Sara Chatfield shared a tip about using PowerPoint to record a slideshow with voiceover:

if you don’t have the time/capacity right now to learn new technology, PowerPoint allows you to record narration through the “Slide Show” menu, and then save as a video.

Catherine Holochwost tweets the suggestion to “screencast w QuickTime, keep lectures to 15 min.”

Amanda Golden notes, also on Twitter, that video recording can be helpful for demonstrating how to use new tools:

You can also make a video in advance, using share your screen, to walk through how students can navigate various applications or resources. Doing so is also useful for instructions, such as an overview to an assignment.

Lori Landay, on Twitter, describes how an instructor might use recordings that students can watch on their own time in tandem with synchronous discussions and activity to maintain a sense of community:

Teachers can record content delivery/screen share of presentations for students to watch in their own time, and use class times for learning activities that help students feel connected to each other.

Asynchronous Discussion

Asynchronous options will provide the most flexibility for students. Tools to communicate and collaborate asynchronously include things like e-mail, discussion boards, social annotation, blog posts, video or audio recordings.

For those with accounts on MLA Commons (MLA members) and/or Humanities Commons (open to anyone to join), the Educator’s Guide to Humanities Commons provides some information about teaching with  Commons groups and sites.

Recently, the MLA developed a theme to help instructors quickly set up a course site on the Commons. Explore the Learning Space Demo site and learn how to set up your own course site on the network.

If your institution provides access to a learning management system, you could use its features to facilitate discussion and collaboration. For instance, on Twitter, Melissa Dennihy writes,

It doesn’t have to be fancy. Your LMS is probably just fine. I love Blackboard’s discussion boards and wiki features. Colleagues of mine have had great success with Blackboard Collaborate and Voice Thread.

This Twitter thread by Jessie Male collects suggestions from her Disability Memoir students on a range of synchronous and asynchronous approaches. For asynchronous discussions, she notes,

Prompts to facilitate discussion. Every LMS I know has a discussion board section. You can post a prompt/class and have students post and reply to each other. Maintain a schedule for when prompts are posted/due. Posts can include a critical question to generate conversation.

For social reading—a practice in which students can comment on an online text and respond to one another’s comments—tools like hypothes.is and Perusall may be helpful.

Amanda Licastro created a quick guide to using the hypothes.is LMS plugin for instructors who would like to use an annotation tool with Blackboard or another learning management system. Her post includes information about using hypothes.is as a standalone tool, as well.

A member of the MLA Committee on Community Colleges suggests the social reading platform Perusall for literature, film, or cultural studies courses: “it’s free, it has the ability of grading reading comments automatically, and allows you to have collaborative conversations about texts.”

Synchronous Lectures and Discussion

Meeting synchronously requires you and students have access to technology, wifi, space (ideally private and quiet space), and availability at the specified time. Your institution may provide a video or audio conferencing tool for such meetings, or you might arrange to use another service.

This Twitter thread by Jim McGrath reflects on teaching a class with Monica Muñoz Martinez via Zoom. McGrath suggests students use background filters for privacy and notes issues including “different time zones, access to wifi and physical space.”

Accessibility

Consider ways you can make your course materials more accessible to students—especially as you introduce new technologies and modes of instruction and participation. Aimi Hamraie’s “Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19” gathers and builds on information from their Twitter thread. The guide encourages web accessibility practices, like providing alt-text for images and transcripts for audio and time-based media, as well as flexibility to accommodate students’ needs.

Ten Steps Toward Universal Design of Online Courses (Disability Resource Center, U Arkansas Little Rock) covers a number of accessibility considerations and provides guidance on choosing tools as well as creating course materials.

Resources for Choosing Tools

Reflect and Make a Plan

an electronic call box on a brick wall

Before you decide exactly how to move your course online, try to gather some information from your students about the challenges they anticipate and preferences they have. Take some time also to reflect on your own resources, preferences, and challenges.

Ask Students

Gather information about students’ access to the internet and comfort using the kinds of technology you anticipate using. This can help you make choices and determine what information will help your students make this transition.

Andrea Kaston Tange provides an example of a survey to gather such information. The survey asks about remote access to a computer and internet connection, preferences about how to conduct the course remotely, and concerns about the course and more broadly:

Dennis E. Showalter encourages teachers to collaborate with students to make a backup plan if they don’t have internet access at home.

Self-Reflection

Amanda Henrichs has shared a handout, “Switching to Online Learning in 9 Days,” which prompts teachers to reflect on their goals and what they already know how to do. Henrichs reminds us that this shift to online learning “requires you and your students to thoroughly shift your intellectual, physical, material, and even emotional frameworks around what it means to learn and to teach.”

Tony Russell’s Service Interruption Readiness Survey for faculty at Central Oregon Community College offers another tool for instructors to assess their level of preparedness and interest in the technological options available.

You and your students may be facing a number of challenges, like access to a computer, access to reliable wifi, access to private space, caring for children and other family members, work responsibilities, unemployment, and more.

As you make decisions about how to handle the remainder of your course, take these challenges into consideration.

Resources for Making a Plan

Digital Engagement

Greg Campbell, Assistant Professor, Community College of Baltimore County and Deputy Executive Director, Community College Humanities Association

Initial Steps

Have a solid introductory area where you first introduce yourself and then the course.  The online setting isn’t really different space when compared to the physical classroom, so try to maintain that as a driving motivator when thinking about the online class.

Intro yourself with a basic video. DO NOT make it super flashy with high production value. Focus on authenticity and being yourself.  Your face-to-face intro isn’t over the top, so why would this be? The authenticity matters, especially in lower-level classes for which it may be a student’s first online class.  Knowing that you are a real person, really there, can help put them at ease as this might be out of the comfort level of many students.

Get a Google Voice number and give it to your students and let them call you or text you on it. I am only contacted this way 2–3 times per week, but the students like knowing that I am accessible and not some digital apparition.

Create an early quiz on the syllabus or something similar that is very low stakes but that also uses every kind of question type that you will use in online assessments. If you give digital quizzes that use machine or fill-in-the blank, mimic these for your syllabus quiz.  This familiarizes students with the systems you use while the stakes are low. Then, come quiz or test time, it’s nothing new and you have worked out any issues students had before the stakes are elevated.

Do the same with a discussion board, blog, or whatever tools you utilize to get low-stakes familiarity in place. 

Ongoing

Create chunks of information.  I like to do 2–3 readings, followed by a 5–7 minute video that relates to these, followed by a quiz, discussion board, or other form of lower-stakes assessment. I’ll generally have 2–4 chunks like this per week/module depending on the course. This means that students can have regular stopping points along the way and don’t need to do a week’s worth of work in a single sitting.

If you make more videos, make them human and familiar without doing anything that will make the videos unusable in the future.  If you are talking about a newspaper article that was published yesterday, do not say exactly when it was published (as in “this came out yesterday”). Instead, say things like “this is a more recent article”. If you say “yesterday” the video is out of date by tomorrow.  By saying “recent”, you’re good for at least a few semesters. So, don’t even mention the weather! “It’s hot out there today” is a glaring problem when you teach the class over winter session! Plus, videos like this can be used in face-to-face classes. My MLA-format videos are even deployed in upper-level face-to-face classes in case students need a refresher as I don’t want to use precious class time on what they should already know. Lastly, wear the same or a similar shirt in all of the videos. If you are wearing a sweater in a video in a summer class, it’s going to look weird. 

Discussion boards and quizzes should not just be created to have two components: one based on the reading and one based on the video related to the reading. You want the discussions to require making connections amongst the different readings and to get the students to incorporate student-based inquiry into these subjects to show they understand the topic while also strengthening their grasp of the topic. This keeps the students more involved as they need to complete all of the work and can’t just do one or the other. 

Remember to have some fun, too, just like you would in a face-to-face class. Online education can feel like a void and empty place, but you can prevent that by adding in some personality wherever you can.