When I began teaching just about 30 years ago, the classroom norm was chalk and chalkboard. Not a computer in sight! Over the decades, I have learned to use courseware and various digital applications, augmenting my once wholly analog approach to teaching step-by-step with digital tools. Until recently, however, I had never actually taught entirely “online.” Truthfully, I did not consider myself qualified to do so. Nonetheless, in March 2020, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, I (like educators far and wide) suddenly had to learn to teach online and use digital tools such as VoiceThread and Zoom in less than a week. I had never even heard of either of these tools! Further, I did not know how to plan or execute a curriculum online. Until that fateful month, I had been a face-to-face teacher for my entire career.
To say I was trepidatious about what was happening is a considerable understatement. This was not the step-by-step digital augmentation to which I had become accustomed, but sudden and wholesale pedagogical transformation. Fortunately, with the help of extraordinarily generous and helpful colleagues, I came through. Moreover, as I reflected on the experience in the months afterward, I realized that something else had helped pull me through: intuition.
In mid-March, as my students and I hastily prepared to leave campus amid the pandemic, we literally were about to set off in random and far-flung directions, with some of my students returning home to countries on the other side of the world. Our little classroom communities, I feared, would dissipate into some impersonal digital nebulosity. Thus, before they left, I instinctually felt the need to set up some kind of simple and regular communication with my pupils that would stand in for the short list of updates and reminders with which I routinely start every face-to-face class. I decided to employ what I dubbed the “Sunday Update.” Every Sunday, I told my soon-to-depart students, they would receive an email update from me. And so it was!
In practice, these emails kept students informed of our evolving online pedagogical plan and reminded them of the coming week’s assignments. For instance, one of these updates, sent in late March to one of my classes, starts out, “I hope you’re all well! This is our second ‘Sunday Update.’” It continues, “First, thank you all for your hard work this past week! I especially liked reading the ‘Discussions’ entries.” The update then lists the assignments for the coming week, reminds students of my online office hours, and asks them to meet me on Zoom one day for “a 30 minute [sic] ‘practice’ session.” I had only just recently learned how to use Zoom and wanted to give it a run-through before using it more fully. In all, though, the updates I posted each Sunday for the next month and a half were, as a rule, not unlike this one.
Still, the point of this article is not to analyze the content or purpose of the Sunday Update as a tool for online pedagogy but to highlight the importance of pedagogical intuition for those transitioning from in-person to online instruction, particularly those with little or no training or experience in such pedagogy. Near the end of the spring 2020 semester, realizing that it would behoove me to undergo some formal training in online teaching, I enrolled in the five-part Teaching Online Short Course offered by my institution’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching. One of the five classes I took via Zoom was entitled More Than a Feeling: Creating Community in Your Online Course. In my handwritten notes from this class, I have the following: “Community is vital to student success. Provide a communication schedule for students.” My Sunday Update idea was quite clearly a way of providing my students with “a communication schedule.” More to the point, I had instituted it before I had any formal knowledge of how such a component could help establish community in the digital realm.
Since COVID-19-related school closures thrust me so unceremoniously into the world of online pedagogy, I have completed not only the aforementioned Teaching Online Short Course but also a course my college required in online teaching certification. As a result, I am better prepared now than I was in March to teach online, though still somewhat apprehensive. But I look back on the Sunday Update and realize that my pedagogical intuition served me well during the tumultuous change from in-person to online classes this past spring. I have more knowledge now about how to plan and execute a curriculum online, but I am also confident that my intuition (honed by experience) can help guide me in the right direction even where my knowledge falls short.
John A. Dern, PhD, is a professor of instruction in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University in Philadelphia. A teacher since 1991, he received the 2009 Violet B. Ketels Award for teaching from the Intellectual Heritage Program and the 2017 College of Liberal Arts Teaching/Instructional Faculty Award.
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