I’ve always considered myself a stickler for things such as due dates and required attendance and really didn’t see how the move to online instruction would be any different. When the announcement came that we were moving to online instruction and all face to face classes needed to go virtual, I took the time to set up synchronous class meetings and asynchronous activities. I had the expectation that attendance and work ethic would be consistent with what I saw only weeks before.
For the most part, my expectations were met and students made the shift with relative ease. Even those who expressed discomfort with virtual instruction made appointments to talk it all through on Zoom; I thought that we were all in the clear but I was wrong. About a week ago, I noticed a disturbing pattern with a very small number of students who previously had been on pointe; assignments were missing and those which were submitted were of much poorer quality than before. Particularly bothersome, synchronous meetings were missed which was completely uncharacteristic.
Prior to our move to virtual instruction, every two weeks, I go through my classes and anyone receiving less than a 75% in the class receives an email from me noting my concern for their grade and I offer my support to help them catch up and fill in any blanks. That generally works and students reply that they will pick up the pace but this time there were a couple of things that fell through the cracks which are worth sharing, hopefully to help avoid the same pitfall.
First, I used a grade percentage to differentiate who received an email of support; a little nudge to improve work habits. For students who had very high grades going into the virtual learning environment, this took a bit longer since they had farther to fall to meet my threshold for worry.
Second, while I communicate often through announcements and video recordings in my courses, I made the naive assumption that students were consuming the updates I posted and adjusting accordingly.
Third, due to medium to large class sizes, when we initially met synchronously on Zoom, I took attendance through the waiting room feature but didn’t do two important things throughout: 1. Check to see who left during our meeting and 2. Note anyone who did not have their video on for the meeting.
It took me two weeks to figure out that:
- I need to note missing assignments and make use of the “People” tool to determine last logon. These two data points should have been used in conjunction with a decrease of class grade.
- I should not make assumptions about student ability to consume my emails which were heavy with information, completely and immediately.
- I need to keep an attendance and participation spreadsheet when we meet on Zoom to make notes about true participation and full attendance, earmarked for follow up.
As I made the shift to collect these various data points, I found shocking changes that I would not have caught otherwise. I sent private emails out to students noting my observations regarding a change in behavior and asking how they were faring during this unprecedented time. I learned about the need to pick up extra shifts at work to make up for lost household income, multiple people in a household needing a computer simultaneously; decisions had to be made about who would be able to go online and when. I learned about the fear of becoming homeless and not having food to eat on a regular basis. I heard stories of people crammed into homes as our students had to leave dormitories and family and friends lost their homes due to financial hardship. In short, I learned that all of my safety net attempts to keep my classes up and running as close to what they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic were not enough nor capable of helping some of my students stay on course to successfully complete the course as they had a month ago.
I’ve spent the last week sending personal emails of support that don’t involve course information or their grades. I found myself making plans with some to take a “credit” rather than a letter grade to ease the pressure they are feeling and explaining that this is not a failure on their part. I’ve spent hours posting job openings to my classes and meeting with students to discuss the jobs I found and offering a reference with a short turn around if they should request one.
Times have changed in a short period of time for instructors, our students and society. My expectations, method of communicating, and use of various data sources regarding student behavior also needed to change; I can see that clearly now. As a teacher educator, it is my battle cry that we must differentiate learning for children with diverse learning needs and now I must apply that to my own practice. I am humbled.