Tour and rule
Do not assume that your students know their way into online teaching and learning. That 'they are always online', or that they were already having a stint at online education when Covid-19 changed many things, including the landscape in higher education, does not cut it.
Teaching next semester is like entering into a brand new building. Looking at the plans of the building ahead of entering does not mean that we know precisely how it is to be actually there. Things are not where you would expect. We will have to put up the signs as we walk along finding our way.
Finding our way into a new kind of teaching will mean showing our students into an experience that some of us we will be having to build with the kind of uncertainty and insecurity of someone who is starting in the profession for the first time. The trepidation and the feeling of responsibility may burden our first steps. We will do well in embracing this as an opportunity to recalibrate our teaching practices. It would be healthier to frame this situation as the spring-cleaning that had been postponed indefinitely, and now is of essence.
This experience is making more and more apparent that we were in a comfort zone that was not sustainable. It may feel as if we had been expelled of an old house before the new one is ready. But this radical novelty can be interpreted as a gift. We are the tour guides of a place we are quickly trying to know. Our students are coming to visit soon and we have to get ready somehow. And we will. In the end our tour is quite simple. There are three main things to consider: content, interactions and moderation of both on the part of the teacher/instructor/facilitator. Be honest, tell your students as soon as possible. There will be also tools, and there will be a process to make them work. But the tools are not the message.
One can organise light-touch initial activities, which will require all the tools that you would like your students to familiarize themselves with. Or you may want to introduce one tool at a time over several weeks. Whichever your choice, talking your students through those tools you are planning to use as you use them is a good way for everyone involved to have a sense of what this means for your particular module, or for a particular seminar. That it is not about the tools really, means that the important things are still human contact, getting to share and seek answers for questions together. Tools may help in setting the scenarios you are going to inhabit with your students, tone for the degree of participation and engagement you are expecting, but the tools are only important in a way pen and paper are important to write. No more, no less.
Familiarity and integration will have to evolve over time, and will need continuous support and reflection. The tasks we design and what they mean in terms of learning are still the core of our activity. We will have to talk to our students about the the tools they would require, and in online 'space' we need a bit of extra time to do this and to get oriented. Plan for it. But also plan for the conversations that you should have thanks to the pen and paper that this new world of education has made us rename. In the end it is simple. We just keep writing. The pause we have been forced to make to look at our teaching activity with the new lens of technology, has the power to give us a new setting. Let's look carefully and with joy at it. Curiosity and our will to teach the best we can will show us the way. In our profession we are indeed on a journey. And, like the old explorers, we are going to be the ones that draw the new maps of this new territory.
As we all arrive in the new land of teaching and learning digitally, it is crucial to make time to establish some basic rules of behaviour that you would like your group of students to be mindful about and stick to. You need to decide what is going to be important. I am just making some suggestions that may get you started.
Many of the things that we can do or we shouldn't do can be encompassed by saying that showing respectful behaviour and being kind online is non-negotiable. These values should be expected on all online communication, from e-mails, to group discussions or chat communication.
In practice being kind and respectful would mean at least the following 10 things:
1. Be on time.
2. Avoid interrupting, raise your 'online hand' instead.
3. Avoid writing in all capital letters.
4. Think before you type.
5. Read before you answer.
6. Follow guidelines for submission of work and criteria/rules to do with participation.
7. Keep it formal: watch your punctuation and spelling, use greetings, avoid slang.
8. Use the chat box sensibly: it is a learning tool, so stay on topic and contribute with relevant content.
9. Humour can easily be lost, especially in chats, so leave it out or only for voice interactions, where misunderstandings can be more easily resolved.
10. Avoid generic replies such as "I agree", unless specifically requested. Add a reason at least, otherwise.
It may be worth discussing and writing what rules are important with the help of the students on the first day, so that this is felt as a collective project and as a shared set of principles that everyone is contributing to from the start. You could use discussion groups in Blackboard collaborate or Yammer to do this, and achieve two goals at once: getting the students on board with tools and rules.