• Spencer Bennington

The "Switch" to Online Instruction

Hello everyone and welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog, your online intersection for rhetoric, martial arts studies, and Tae Kwon Do. It’s been a while since I released any new content and I wanted to apologize for that. As you all know, the world is a dark and scary place right now and it can be hard to get anything done. But, that’s no excuse. I strive to keep this blog, in some ways, to set an example for how to embody the indomitable spirit of Tae Kwon Do. So if I’m not posting when life hits the hardest, what’s even the point?


Today I’m going to be talking about how a pandemic like COVID-19 can change our daily lives suddenly and in unexpected ways. As a teacher of college writing and an instructor of martial arts, my business is built around large-group educational spaces. In light of the Coronavirus shut-down, however, most of my work has to be carried out remotely. Today I wanted to share some ideas and strategies for transitioning to teaching online, how these might look a little different for teaching writing versus teaching Tae Kwon Do, and talk for a moment about how this switch might affect mental health or your average expectations of productivity.


Higher Education and the “Switch” to Online


Let’s talk for a minute about the college classroom. My courses are usually capped at 19 students so we enjoy a fairly personal relationship with one another. I know all my students names and we interact on and individual level frequently. This means I know what they are writing about for their projects in my course, I’m actively helping them research their interests each week, and we talk to one another...a lot! In fact, as you saw in my post "Teaching Embodied Rhetorics" my students love to talk and interact and even fight me when the time is right. So, naturally, when I was told by USF that all Florida state colleges would make the switch to online education for two weeks following spring break (until at least April 7th) I was a bit unnerved. For many instructors who may still be relatively new to teaching higher ed, I can see how this news might be downright frightening, especially for grad students focused on trying to finish a prospectus, contingent faculty in the process of applying for jobs, or others still with children or family members to worry about.


Many of these folks might be asking the same question:


How in the world am I going to “switch” my face-to-face (F2F) class to an online section?


The short answer: you can’t.


The longer answer: face-to-face and online classrooms are fundamentally different. Moving a face-to-face classroom toward remote instruction, even for the remainder of the semester, is NOT THE SAME as teaching online.



Why is this so? Well, let’s look at some of the key characteristics of F2F vs online.


F2F classes are synchronous, meaning that the instructor and all the students are experiencing mostly the same parts of it at the same time. For example, if I give a brief lecture and all my students are sitting in the room with me listening.


Online classes are typically designed to be completed asynchronously. This means that any given student can progress through the course materials independent of their other classmates. For example, a student watches a recorded video of a lecture I have given and then uses it to complete an assignment.


The biggest discrepancy between these two modes of learning is the fact that students are much less likely to interact with one another asynchronously. Therefore, anything they learn comes to them from a very top-down model...that is, it’s a result of the instructor. In a F2F classroom, lots of good learning is done when students have to collaborate and think through problems together. Consider the scenario where an instructor asks a question without a clear answer. Each student who responds adds one more component to the answer, something that another student can pick up on, interpret, add to, reject, or augment in some way as they are developing an answer for themselves.


The good news is, remote instruction does not have to be asynchronous. With video conferencing tools like Skype, Zoom, and various institutional learning management systems like Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodel, classes like my Expository Writing seminar can still (fingers crossed!) enjoy some of the intimacy of our discussions of bodily discourse communities despite not sharing a classroom space for the next three weeks.


Of course, technology has its limits and I don’t think that these tools are an easy fix to the problem of teaching during a pandemic. In fact, it would be grossly irresponsible to think that teachers could make these kinds of changes without any major impact to student success. What I’m saying is, you cannot and should not think of video-conferencing as a 1:1 replacement for teaching in a classroom. Why? Because video-conferencing tools are just that, tools, and they fulfill a particular purpose. They are really good at facilitating that kind of real-time Q&A or sessions where students learn from one another, but they may not be the best platform for things like student presentations. Basically, you don’t use a can opener to tie your shoes and you don’t use Skype to proctor a quiz.


So, in a nutshell, I want to make the point that I won’t be “switching to online” and that other instructors shouldn’t either. Instead, I’ll be thinking about the goals of my course and the dynamics of the group I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know for the first half of the semester and considering how I can accomplish those goals for these students without exposing them to additional sources of potential contamination.


One of my goals is to facilitate discussion between my students so, I will be attempting various Zoom meetings where they talk to one another. If this fails, I’ll consider different ways of having a group discussion. For example, if it’s too difficult to get everyone to talk in one digital space, maybe they can just watch a live broadcast of me and respond textually with anonymous commenting through Padlet. Or they could be working in Google Docs and I can supervise their process and respond to questions.


I have other course goals as well, however, that don’t need to be accomplished in a synchronous or dialogical space. For example, after spring break, my students have an essay draft due. Instead of meeting as a class for the first day back, I will instead electronically distribute a feedback file (a comprehensive text document outlining the major issues from the class as a whole) complete with exercises designed to help my students revise their work. They can follow this file and complete the exercises on their own schedule and I don’t need to moderate it—because their work will be reflected in their final drafts. Here is an example of the feedback file I gave them for their first essay.


Just remember: think of the student learning outcomes and the course objectives first. Choose tools, exercises, and strategies that align with those outcomes and objectives, not ones that just seem “neat” or cutting-edge. Importantly, keep it simple. As stressful as this is for you as an instructor, it could be exponentially more so for students navigating a complex mess of travel issues, various classroom expectations, and any other personal concerns. One of the kindest things you can do is make this kind of shift as straight-forward and transparent as possible. For example, I will tell my students why we will be attempting to meet as a class on certain days for certain tasks and not others (so they know that I’m thinking through my decisions and not just acting randomly).


The Digital Dojang: Teaching Martial Arts Online


The same concepts apply for teaching martial arts remotely. Again, schools that are making this switch have already developed F2F relationships with students and rapport with parents so it’s not quite the same environment as purely “online” martial arts instruction. Instead, as instructors, we should be thinking about our goals for our students and how to best help them achieve these.


I know that US Tae Kwon Do in Wesley Chapel has prepared to offer live feeds to their classes at certain times on their website. This is akin to the Zoom meeting for writing classes in that it offers students a real-time experience with other students and instructors. However, this may not help Tae Kwon Do students as much as it might with students of writing. Why? Because so much of the feedback we give as Tae Kwon Do instructors is embodied and so much of the feedback I give as a writing instructor is verbal. Basically, this means that if I see a video feed of student kicking with an improper foot position on a computer monitor, I can no longer physically adjust their posture. Instead, I have to use verbal feedback and commands that some students, especially children, may not fully understand. That said, broadcasting a live class also presents the issue of priority. I imagine, having not done it yet, that most all of my feedback will go toward the students physically present in class. This is not because of some kind of bias, but, instead, because I doubt we will be equipped to see a live video feed from students who are logged in to participate. So, that means that these students are participating remotely but not receiving feedback. That doesn’t necessarily lead to good practice or improvement and can actually encourage students to develop bad habits.


So, for more experiential and embodied learning, perhaps an asynchronous approach is more useful. This could mean recording brief training videos and distributing them via social media as a type of #challenge that encourages students to post their own videos. When the students response videos are posted and shared, it opens up a space for instructors and other students to comment, encourage, and critique.


We will see just how well all this goes in both scenarios and I’m expecting a lot of trial and error. But this is how we learn.


Final Note: Take Care of Yourself


On the one hand, if you go out and live life like nothing is happening, you are endangering yourself and others, not to mention increasing the workload on medical professionals. On the other hand, if you stay at home long enough and completely removed from your normal routine, you may start to feel a type of anxiety, depression, or listlessness that you’re unaccustomed to. How can we protect our physical bodies from the Coronavirus while simultaneously protecting our minds from cabin fever? Here are some tips:


1. Find Some Routine and Stick With It.

This could be as simple as waking up around the same time every day, doing certain household chores during certain parts of the week, or keeping semi-regular meal times. Structure helps us stay on track and maintain a balance in all facets of our life.


2. Exercise Regularly.

This can be tough if you’re like me and you depend on martial arts communities or trainers to motivate you. You might have to create a basic routine of body weight exercises and stretching to do in your own home for a while. Consider it an opportunity to condition yourself in ways you may not normally. But, you must keep moving.


3. Set a Low Bar.

If you have to move to teaching remotely or working in a way that is different from your routine, take some time to adjust. There is a type of ambient anxiety looming right now and it’s easy to let it drain you if you try to accomplish too much. Set small goals every day. Keep track of your progress so you can’t trick yourself into believing you “got nothing done” today.


4. Stimulate Your Mind.

You're stuck at home? Time to pick up a book. If you’re like me, you’ve got a million books that you’ve been “meaning to read” and now you’ve finally got the time. 30 minutes a day is a good target I think. Just like your body, your mind needs to get its blood pumping regularly so you don’t fall into a slump.


5. Socialize.

You may be stuck in the house, but you have so many ways to talk to people. And I do really mean talk. Take some time to call people on the phone who you haven’t heard from in a while. Even just a brief chat can help you feel like you’ve gotten out of your own head for a while.


That’s it for today. As a note, since 4C’s was officially cancelled, I haven’t finished my video presentation yet. That said, it’s nearly done so I’ll be sure to publish it here in the next couple of weeks. Also, I know it’s been a while and I’m due for an update about the Rhetorical Roundhouse network. My goal is to get that up in the next month as well.


Stay safe out there. Thanks, as always, for stopping by.


Kamsahamnida!



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