Teaching flexibility helps students succeed in online courses
By Geoff Gilliard
Jen Marchbank had a head start when SFU faculty switched to online instruction in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies had already started working with Canvas in the Fall 2019 semester so that her students wouldn’t have to pay for courseware. When physical isolation began, all the reading materials and slides for the two courses she taught in spring 2020 were uploaded to Canvas.
Still, there was a learning curve involved as Marchbank had never before lectured through Canvas. But the biggest challenge she had was marking papers digitally. One of her classes this past semester was a writing-intensive “W” course with 29 students. Whereas normally she’d handwrite her comments on a piece of paper with the student present, last semester she used track changes in Word documents, correcting and explaining every grammar and style error. Marchbank reckons it took her at least twice as long to grade papers that way.
Her challenges, though, were less significant than those of her students.
“I’ve had students who have had the virus, students who are essential workers in women’s shelters, people who are the primary caregivers or the designated shoppers,” says Marchbank. “I’ve had students contact me saying landlords have told me the wifi will be off for three days, another saying my parents need the bandwidth to do their work. Or other ones who say they live with their cousins and have little kids running around.”
Marchbank responded by being as flexible as possible. She decided against holding her online lectures at the scheduled times because students may not have been available. Following guidance from the Centre For Educational Excellence, she broke her usual hour-and-a-half long lectures down into five or six mini lectures that students could watch in 10-minute bites. Assignments were revised so that students could show that they’d achieved at least the minimum requirement of course educational goals. And rather than having students write final exams, Marchbank assigned final essays to reduce the stress.
As a result, of the almost 160 students in Marchbank’s two courses, only one withdrew and one other person elected to take a “P” grade.
Marchbank admits that the wait to learn whether or not classes will be online in the fall is weighing on her, but she’s already planning for that contingency. “If I had to teach online again in the fall, what would I be more prepped with? What could I get done over the summer? My mind’s already there.”
Tea breaks are important
Marchbank, who won a 2019 SFU Excellence in Teaching Award, offers the following tips for her instructor colleagues:
- Reach out for help. This is not for you to do on your own.
- Recognize that we are not devising online courses. These are our courses that we are using online methods to deliver for a short term.
- Don’t worry that it doesn’t look like something that’s had five technicians, two artists and three academics design your course over the period of a year. We are doing what we can with the technology that we have.
- Do not expect that your students are more tech savvy than you. They may have grown up in a digital age, but not all of them have access to technology.
- I know from personal stories that some of our students are living in difficult situations so recognize that they don’t have a perfect environment to work in.
- Be kind. Be flexible. And be kind and flexible to yourself. I’m drinking a lot of tea. I think tea breaks are important.