Guidance from the Director of CARPE March 16, 2020

Dear Colleagues: 

Washington and Lee has always prided itself on the quality of the education it offers: we are a faculty who care deeply about our students, about their learning, and about their futures. Though this transition to distance instruction may not be what any of us were hoping for, compared to the larger challenges facing our world right now, this shift is relatively manageable.

Moving forward, please keep a couple things in mind:

First, CARPE, Academic Services, and ITS are all here for you. We will talk with you, individually or collectively, to help to get your course transitioned. We do ask, of course, that you begin this transition by taking part in as many of this week's Virtual Instruction Academy (VIA) (go.wlu.edu/VIA OR https://managementtools4.wlu.edu/EventManager/pages/page1.aspx?Tab=TabButton1&EventID=1165) as seems appropriate and useful. Begin there. Use this first week to take a shot at getting things going on your own, and then contact us when/if the need for trouble-shooting arises. Academic technologies has already begun to assemble a website that lists a vast array of resources for this shift. I include additional resources below, focusing on the more pedagogical/wholistic side of things.

Second, we encourage departments to use their existing departmental list-serves to share resources and to develop a pool of pressing questions. You all know your fields best. Share your wisdom, your concerns, and your solutions.

Third, we ask that you keep in mind the following points (gleaned from recent discussions in the teaching and learning and academic technologies fields) about how to make this transition, if not entirely painless, eminently educational for both students and ourselves.

1) Foreground to students that we'll get through this together. Let them know that this is how "adulting" works: problems arise; we talk; we collaborate; we improvise; we communicate; we adjust; we try again. The answers are not always at the back of the textbook. Put another way, students need to know that, as bizarre as are the particulars of the circumstances, this kind of problem-solving is something we do all the time. As long as they know that we're all working together as a team, and that they're part of that team, anxiety will lessen and it'll be easier to get this done.

Related, do make an effort to use your students as collaborators in this process. Talk to them as adults, identify challenges that concern you, and ask them for suggestions. This is, of course, just good teaching: when students have a sense of agency in the classroom, they're more engaged and will learn more.

2) Recognize up front that your course will likely change--and that those changes, though less-than-perfect, will still lead to powerful learning. Some content may need to be cut; some assignments may need to be adjusted. In the end, focus on the core concepts and skills that are at the heart of your course. What, finally, do you want to assure students remember next fall? Next year? Five years from now? Generally our courses are most deeply driven not by specific details--algorithms, poems, dates, theories--but by underlying concepts, fundamental understandings of how our fields work. Foreground these concepts to your students and keep them in mind as you plan lectures, discussions, assignments, and exams. Let me know if I can help, as you seek to do this. I love these conversations.

3) Don't sweat the tech. Some of you are tech savvy and have never seen an app you don't love. That's great. We have excellent resources assembled by ITS and Academic Technologies. Run with it. For the rest of us, we should concentrate on using what we need to use to achieve what we need to achieve, no more, no less. Yes, figure out how to use Canvas and/or Zoom. Make some brief videos (see this for advice), but remember that they don't have to be perfect.

Beyond that, though, remember that e-mail is a perfectly appropriate way to having students turn in assignments. Remember that there's nothing wrong with chatting on the phone with students to make sure they understand what we're after and what they need to do. Draw pictures on a sheet of paper, snap a photo of it with your phone, and send it out. We all have our different styles in the classroom, we'll all have our different styles online. Fine. Whatever works. No apologies. 

4) Don't forget, finally, that effective teaching is about good relationships and good communication. Speak plainly to your students about your expectations, about how challenging this situation is, about how you need them to communicate with you. Ask them to drop you a note or e-mail occasionally, just letting you know how they're doing, both with the course and beyond the course. Encourage them to communicate with each other as well, to maintain the support networks they've built on campus even when they're hundreds of miles from each other.

Encourage students to take care of themselves, to exercise, to eat well, to hug parents, siblings and pets, to meditate, to cut back on caffeine, to read a book for pleasure. And do the same for yourself. These are anxious times. We need to let go of the things we can't control, and control the things that will make our lives--and our students' lives--better.

Beyond these "Big Four," here are several pieces of more logistical advice. As with the information above, please note that these ideas will work to varying degrees for different faculty, based upon field, course topic, and teaching persona. That said, they capture the wisdom of a lot of folks thinking about these things very carefully:

  • Make sure students have access to the materials they need. Ask them explicitly, and ask them to answer you explicitly, yes or no. If the answer is "no," then help them find resources, either online or otherwise. If you get stuck, contact me, or John Tombarge, or your department's liaison from the library.
  • Have regular online office hours when you're guaranteed to be available. Stick with them and be generous. But also be sure to take breaks away from the computer to attend to your own family and mental health. I cannot emphasize this last point enough: you need to take time away from your computer. This is crucial to avoiding burnout in the coming weeks.
  • When possible, avoid synchronous activities. Our students are spread out all over the country and world, adjusting to different schedules and family needs and expectations. Flexibility is crucial. If you do develop activities where students are working in teams--and you should, as that will increase socialization, deepen learning, and lessen anxiety--allow extra time (think, days, not hours) for students to exchange ideas and develop coherent projects.
  • Have consistent and simplified due dates and deadlines: "Work is always due by noon on Fridays, EST" (or whatever works for your schedule). Doing this creates clarity and predictability for students during a chaotic time and allows them to balance the demands of all of their classes.
  • Be hyper-transparent about grades, communicating to students both WHAT you're looking for and WHY. If possible, and if you feel comfortable with it, simplify your grading structure. This is about the content and the learning. As an external motivator, grades can detract from that--and amp up anxiety in an already anxiety-ridden time. In the end, "high standards" are more about the level of thinking we're asking for than about the grades.

Below are some additional resources that may come in handy. Remember, though, that you are not expected to become an expert in virtual instruction. Keep it simple. Trust who you are as a professor, and teach to your strengths.

Best,

Paul Hanstedt, Ph.D.
Director of the Center for Academic Resources and Pedagogical Excellence

More general information about the transition to virtual instruction:

Resources for teaching specific kinds of courses (lifted, wholesale, from the "Eleven things" document above):

(Many thanks to my colleagues on the POD Small School list serve for help in producing this document.)