I Didn’t Sign Up to Teach Online Classes, But Here I Am

Moving courses online means recorded video lectures, virtual discussion threads, and a whole lot of missing face-to-face learning.

The coronavirus outbreak has shifted my teaching online (meaning lots of video lectures), but I miss seeing my students in-person. / Photograph courtesy of Laura Brzyski.

I’ve been a high school and college educator for eight years, and currently teach composition courses at Rutgers Camden. My students, the majority of whom are first-years, spend an entire semester honing their writing, critical thinking, and research skills. No matter the class, I approach course material with a mixture of lectures, small-group activities, and whole-class discussion — learning methods that I’ve found are not only invaluable to student success, but that operate best in person.

But when COVID-19 started infiltrating the area earlier this month, Rutgers’ president Robert Barchi decided all learning would be remote through at least April 3rd. Exactly one week later, he made the final decision to suspend in-person instruction for the remainder of the semester. I, like many of my colleagues, were faced with a daunting question: How are we going to finish the rest of the semester online?

Sure, I’ve taught online classes before, but I knew they were online months before the start of the semester. This time was clearly different. But we teachers are some of the most — if not the most — adaptable people out there, and my first instinct, as it always is in this profession, was to ask my students what they needed.

I sent them a brief, straight-forward, and optional Google Forms survey, asking them multiple-choice questions about how they prefer to virtually learn course material and communicate with me and with one another, plus open-ended questions like “What are your biggest concerns about our course being online?” and “In what ways can I, as your professor, support you these next five weeks?”

Based off their responses, I decided to provide all course material in two ways: recorded video lectures uploaded to YouTube and detailed, text-only slideshows. That way, auditory and visual learners have a fair chance. I’m aware those options might not support students who have limited or no internet access, but I’m trying to modify as best I can by forgoing my late-submission policy and extending all due dates to circumvent issues. (Rutgers is also allowing all students to choose a pass/no-grading option for individual courses, which does help a bit.) In lieu of in-person group activities, my students are using our online discussion forum to engage with material and sift through questions together. And finally, if they need to chat with me, they now have the option to schedule a virtual-office-hour meeting with me via Zoom or Google Hangouts. Of course, they can simply reach out via email.

This, I recognize, is a privilege I have as a professor. Elementary and high school teachers must adhere to coronavirus-adapted directives outlined by superintendents, which include, according to former colleagues of mine, posting lessons by 8 a.m. every morning and extending due dates so that students can complete assignments on their own time. Regardless of what grade you teach, shifting to distance learning is, in itself, inequitable. Not all students have internet access at home (some rely solely on school computers and WiFi), and even if they do, they might now be sharing that bandwidth with parents or siblings who are working from home, too. It’s the very reason why the Philadelphia School District has prohibited teachers from assigning required homework and distributing grades.

With a full week under their belts, my students seem to be adjusting fairly well. Ninety percent of them contributed to our first forum discussion, with multiple conversations sparked in various threads. So far, more than half of them (!) have watched the first video lecture for this week, which I sent out on Saturday evening. (They either think I’m a great prof, or have nothing else better to do. I’m going with the former.) They’ve been keeping an open line of communication with me, just like they have been this entire semester.

But I do know that some students are struggling with this “new normal.” One of my students just returned from the Dominican Republic after burying a family member. She wasn’t able to fly back to the U.S. after her flights kept getting cancelled over and over, and was left scrambling to access WiFi so that she could send a quick apology to all her professors that she might be behind on assignments. (“Please do not fret,” I responded, “times are hard as it is.”) Plus, a number of my students work full-time jobs while being full-time students. On top of worrying over how they’ll keep up with academic deadlines at home, some of them are currently dealing with the added stress of being laid off. I’ve taken multiple Zoom calls already just to talk through their concerns and circumstances. While I don’t have all (or any of) the answers, the best things I can offer my students right now is my support, flexibility, and empathy.

I know that nothing about the current state of the world is normal, and yet, there exists within me this desire to provide some semblance of normalcy for my students and myself. Mostly, I want us all to not feel so alone. No, I’m not getting paid more for this extra labor, but to be honest, I knew long ago that money isn’t why teachers teach. When I record a video lecture, albeit in front of a webcam in my empty office, I am transported to my classroom, sitting among my intellectual and motivated students. When I read their responses to one another on our discussion forum, I remember their small-group conversations, alive with inquiry and curiosity, and feel comforted. While I recognize that we will never have the opportunity to learn face-to-face with one another again this semester — which to me, is the biggest loss — I also believe we can still be co-creators of our learning these next five weeks, even from afar.

Virtual or not, teachers and students alike are adapting the best we can. That, to me, deserves an A+.