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Happy New Year!

Color photo of fireworks with text that says "Happy New Year."
“Happy New Year” by Beegee49 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

One of my favorite things about academia is we get extra New Years- every time a semester ends is an opportunity to reflect on how things went, and think about how to improve in the future. (my long winter & summer breaks mean I usually do this at the starts of things too. I like celebrating, don’t @ me).

So how did this very unusual semester of Spring 2020 go?  I set out from the beginning, and reaffirmed when we switched to emergency distance learning, that I didn’t want to lose anyone- we would get through this together.  On this measure, I was not wholly successful- in my early (9:10am!) class, 20 students dropped or never submitted even a single assignment, while  in my 10:20am class there were 13 (incidentally, what a difference that early hour makes- attendance for our 5 in-person sessions before the emergency switch really helped lay the groundwork, and the earlier class was more sparsely attended then, so the difference is less surprising).  Under ordinary circumstances, this would be not great, but given that New York has been and continues to be battered by COVID-19, which has been disproportionately dangerous to essential workers and ethnic and racial minority groups, which make up a large part of the students at my campus, I think we did as well as we could possibly have done.  No student signed up for trying to juggle all of their courses online, possibly having to share devices with family that also needed to work or do school work from home, while facing economic strife, during a global pandemic.  As I repeatedly told my students, my class is not your first priority and that’s okay.  

And that’s one of the lessons I’ll take into next semester.  In the fall, my students will be facing the psychological and economic fallout of the pandemic, and the likelihood of a resurgence is high.  CUNY has yet to make a formal announcement for the fall, but my department has declared all of our classes online for Fall 2020, and  I am really glad about this decision, because it seems like the only right one- my class is not worth anyone dying for.  It’s not worth anyone getting really sick over, whether it’s a student, their family member, or someone they sit near on mass transit.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think my class is important (I do!) or that my students’ education is not important (it really is!), it just means that it’s not worth dying for.  In all of the discussions circulating in higher ed about whether to open, how to open, we need to open!!!, I think this is the big thing missing.  I won’t try to argue that half-assed emergency distance learning is better than non-pandemic teaching.  But NON-PANDEMIC TEACHING IS NOT AN OPTION RIGHT NOW!!!  And it won’t be in the fall, either. So what changes to our classes can we make now to give us the best possible courses next term?

Things that worked extremely well for me this semester were flexible deadlines, students getting to choose their own assignments, modified self-grading and open-book unlimited-time tests.  I’ll never go back to using closed-book or timed tests online- this reduced stress for students (essential during a pandemic, but a good goal during any time) and let them focus on learning, without me having to manage some surveillance technology or gatekeeping to control them.  Our use of self-grading also reduced stress, because students were not as worried about their grade (since they were grading each assignment themselves), and the assignments were much better, because students were more familiar with the requirements of each assignment, since they had to assess themselves.  Not only did students appreciate these things (I got many, many emails thanking me), it was actually much easier to manage administratively.  I got to focus on giving useful feedback, not justifying the grades I assigned (since I didn’t assign them ;o).  Whenever a student would send a worried email that they were going to be late, or needed more time, instead of wasting time demanding and verifying proof of their need, I got to quickly reply that they are the experts in what they need, and that the deadlines are flexible for this reason.  Students who had problems at one or more points in the semester were able to catch up and complete their work- and isn’t that what we want, instead of nailing students on deadlines we impose?  I also got to read really interesting projects, because students got to choose learning activities that were interesting to them, instead of slogging through what I required.  

Of course, there are areas where I want to improve.  I opted to go wholly asynchronous when we switched to distance learning, for practical and equity reasons.  But I ended up missing the personal connection with students and we were never really able to develop a community of learners.  Creating that sense of community is my main area for improvement in the fall.  My campus is allowing us to indicate whether our fall classes will be synchronous or asynchronous, so I’m requesting synchronous (at least students will know what they are signing up for in advance), but I’m going to be a bit sneaky- each student will only be synchronous for 1 hour per week.  I plan on dividing each class into 6 groups (or squads, or pods, or teams?), and I’ll meet with 2 groups during each class time- that way we’re never more than a group of 8 or 9, and we can actually talk with each other.  This should hopefully balance the desire for facetime with limited device/bandwidth access, as well as give students dedicated time (the other 2 class hours) during the week to work on our class work (either individually or with their team).  I’ll also tell each day’s group of two teams that if they can unanimously decide on a better hour to meet, we can move the session.  I’ll encourage groups to develop their own norms and means of communicating, so they can help each other along (instead of having to depend on me).  I’ll offer group versions of some assignment options, and most of our synchronous sessions will be planned/led by one of the groups.  

Because of the emergency switch after the semester started, I offered students the option to blog in Blackboard (our LMS, which I hate) or on the CUNY Academic Commons (on our class site or their own).  Most students opted for Blackboard, and I can’t say I blame them- it was already set up, and their other classes were likely using Blackboard too.  But it’s a lost opportunity- knowing how to use Blackboard is only useful to use Blackboard- it’s not a transferable skill.  Building out a website on the CUNY Academic Commons, however, means students have to figure out WordPress, which is a completely transferable skill that is actually not that hard to master.  Next semester, I’ll require students to make their own sites which will contain all of their work for the semester (they’ll get to choose the sharing level of their site, as students have different preferences about privacy that must be respected).  To support them, however, I’ll spend a chunk of this summer making how-to guides and videos for getting started, using as many different devices as I can find in my family (phone, laptop, tablet, etc), since I know students have different devices and bandwidths available.  This will also ensure that I understand the fullness of what I’m asking them to do- i.e. I think it’s probably not that hard to run a WordPress site on a smartphone, but after this summer, I’ll know exactly how hard it is and how to do it, so I can help students who have trouble.

Finally, I am planning to change my slides.  American Government is constantly changing, so I update them every semester, but these are really designed for use in-class.  Without me guiding the class through them, they’re not that useful.  Recording me going through them is extremely boring (not just for me- for any poor soul forced to listen or watch!)- there is a magic that happens in the classroom with these slides that doesn’t translate to online.  So new slides are in order- I’m trying to think of ways to make them more self-guided and interactive, such as directing students out to data sources and government websites so they can play with them directly, instead of looking at the pieces I pulled in.  

So that’s a lot for just one summer!  And I’ve got a paper and a book to write, as well as some big family projects, so that’s a lot.  On the brightside, we are committed to staying very close to home, so I’ve got some time.  I’ll check back in as the summer progresses, and see how many of these words I’ll have to eat.  

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