Throwing a Lifeline to Newcomers Teaching Online

Anna Seferian found herself suddenly popular.

Her academic friends who had built their careers in traditional academic environments had just been told that starting the next week, they would have to finish the semester by teaching online.

With 13 years of teaching and administering online, Seferian, who is associate dean of University of Maryland Global Campus School of Business, could offer a wealth of suggestions.

“Oh my God, my dean just told me not to come to school tomorrow, what do I do?” Seferian said those phoning her exclaimed. “That’s when I said to myself, ‘If I were the one told not to come to school tomorrow, what would I need to know?’”

For Douglas Harrison, vice president and dean of the UMGC School of Cybersecurity and Technology, his career focusing on faculty development and teaching and learning support has made him a sought-after consultant.

He has been studying online academic integrity for years. Just this week, a webinar he was hosting with fellow members of the Center for Academic Integrity attracted more than 500 participants.

His main message is that the current forced, mass move online is not truly online education. 

“It is teaching remotely,” he said. “We are simply trying to translate some kind of instructional environment online. I wouldn’t want this mass migration to teaching remotely for the rest of the term to be confused with real online education. If this persists longer, it will evolve into incorporating the principles and practices of what online education really is.”

Added Seferian, “It’s like the difference between ER and long-term health management. The care you get in [the] ER is fast and quick and patches the problem you are having, as opposed to long-term care.” 

Nobody wanted it this way, but the Coronavirus pandemic that is forcing campuses across the nation to close has created a moment in the sun for online education, President Javier Miyares said. Educators who had scoffed at online as inferior to face-to-face learning are now discovering how much online education has advanced.

Today’s learning platforms are much more sophisticated than earlier versions and the pedagogy is much more specialized for online learning now, Miyares said. Online education is ready for the challenge.

As the leader and innovator in online education going back to the 1990s, UMGC has a wealth of experience to offer educators forced to make this transition overnight.

Seferian’s advice to her former colleagues starts with the very basic: Make sure you have the cell phone numbers and emails of your colleagues and students. Build a relationship with your university’s IT staff. If you are an administrator, be aware that you are the frontline support for your faculty on IT questions as well as how to deal with academic disruptions.

“You’re starting from scratch and you’re starting fast,” she said. “You are now way more important as a support for your faculty than you were before. As [an] administrator, be ready to support your faculty the best you [can] and be ready to answer all kinds of questions.”

For professors, the key will be making sure they can use technology to maintain the same connection intellectually and psychologically with their students as they did with face-to-face learning, Harrison said. Professors must remain a presence for their students during this time of massive disruption.

“They need to see your face as well as hear your voice,” he said. “As much as possible, make connections where you can see each other.”

It would be best to hold at least one face-to-face conference with each student, he said. If that’s too many students to be practical, find the ones who are most at risk, and target them for a face-to-face connection.

And professors should review their syllabi, Seferian said.  Are assignments practical under the new conditions? Are there new online resources to recommend to students? Are there other ways to achieve the same academic outcome?

“Write your emails to your students like you would speak,” she said. “If you think you are worried about online instruction, imagine how anxious and worried they are—it’s their grades that are at stake.”

Always opt for more rather than less communication, she said, both with faculty and with students.

“In times of crisis, emotions run high and anxiety soars,” she said. “Faculty may project their feeling onto students, so the more assured and confident your faculty are, the more positive a stance they will have towards this emergency online learning”

One unanticipated benefit of communicating remotely is building community with faculty and students who can see each other in their personal workspace, Harrison said.

“Seeing people in their own homes has been a rich and rewarding glimpse into their lives and to help me understand things about them that I wouldn’t have,” he said.

Working with his own team, he did an exercise where participants showed everyone their workspaces or the view out their window. It helped everyone to imagine where we are all working now. They even developed a chat channel to exchange pictures of  their dogs looking longingly at them.

“I think there are aspects of this that have enriched the connections we have personally and professionally,” Harrison said. “I am not surprised.” 

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