William Christopher Brown, Ph.D.
Perhaps the only good thing about my experience of the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has been improving my online teaching. I teach Technical & Business Writing, First-year Composition, and Corequisite Developmental Writing courses. I have previously been successful with my online teaching because I communicate regularly with my students. Most importantly, I comment thoroughly on the rough drafts and the final drafts. I am a prompt responder to all emails. I also acknowledge the strengths of the discussion forum postings with “likes” and/or explicit comments on their postings. This emphasis on communication keeps students engaged and moving forward throughout the semester.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I had not utilized video conferencing tools like Zoom, WebEx, or Skype in a classroom context; however, after the campus quarantines were put into effect, I have regularly used the video conferencing function built into our learning management system. Both my students and I have been delighted at how seamlessly we have been able to continue our work together.
Making the Transition from Face to Face Classes to Online Delivery
The coronavirus pandemic has forced me, like most instructors, to take my face to face classes entirely online. No disruption occurred in my distance learning classes that began the semester completely online; however, my face to face classes had students who prefer face to face classes over online classes. Some of these newly online students had previously gone out of their way to avoid distance learning.
Informal discussions with students generally reveal their anxieties about online learning as a significant change to their educational expectations. I was confident that formerly on-campus students underestimate how smart and adaptable they actually are.
My approach to teaching is akin to the “flipped” style of teaching, in which students are required to prepare extensively before class. My on-campus students submit all rough and final drafts to the learning management system; this saves paper and keep us organized. For chapter readings, I require students to take their quizzes online and to post to the discussion forums before class starts. Classes thus are open for discussions of revision and editing strategies for their drafts.
My Spring 2020 on-campus students were accustomed to these online components of our face to face classes, well before the coronavirus pandemic quarantine. Their strong preparation for class sessions meant that we could essentially use most of our time together discussing drafts. If we needed to clarify our purpose or examine any details in writing, we always had of plenty of time in our classes for extensive discussion of revision and editing strategies together. With my Technical & Business Writing class, in particular, this extensive time allotted for discussions of drafts was valuable because of the page design demands that technical/business writing classes place on students.
By the time the quarantines were enacted across the country, my students were comfortable uploading or typing their work to the learning management systems and taking care of textbook chapter matters online. This comfort level helped to make successful the transition from the familiar face to face classroom to the new (for some of them) online setting.
A Seamless Transition from Face to Face Classes to Online Learning
Our campus uses Canvas as its learning management system. Prior to the pandemic, I had never noticed the “Conference” function in the menu of options. Our Vice President of Information Technology called this function to our attention during Spring Break (S. Shreves, personal communications, 18 March 2020), and I began exploring the Conference function before we returned. Canvas Conference works like Zoom or WebEx, in that its members can communicate with one another and share materials.
As I experimented on my own with Conference, I began to see its potential to discuss rough drafts, just like we do in class. During the extended Spring Break, through trial and error, I worked out how to use the Conference function as a suitable substitute for the on-campus classroom experience.
Once classes were back in session, my Technical & Business Writing class and I experimented with meeting via Canvas Conference at our usual on-campus class time, and we felt enthusiastic about it. For the rest of the semester, we continued to meet on the same schedule that we had prior to the quarantine.
Most useful for my purposes, Canvas Conference allows us to share our screens with one another. This online sharing capacity means that I can replicate exactly the classroom experience of discussing drafts and illustrating how to revise them, based on conversation with students. Students can see and hear me on video, speaking with them. Most importantly, they can see the edits that we are making together on the shared Word documents.
Communicating further with students about our shared experiment with online learning corroborated my sense that we could successfully make the transition to online learning. I was delighted that the experience reassured them of their ability to do well in an online setting.
Conclusion: Using Technology to Connect with Students
It is all too easy to give in to despair during the coronavirus pandemic. Like many college and university instructors, I am saddened that the casualties of the 2020 coronavirus are worrisomely reminiscent of the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. I share general anxieties about the future of higher education and have specific concerns about future enrollments. For now, our accustomed way to deliver lessons in person has been overturned; however, the potential to reach and connect with students remains strong because of our technological advancements in online learning.
When I think of how adeptly my students have adapted to our shift to online classes, I share Caroline Levander and Peter Decherney’s optimistic view of the potential we still have as instructors. They write, “While teaching is physically remote, we are learning that it can be much more personal than on-campus teaching. Remote teaching requires us to become more aware of the human condition of our students” (Levander & Decherney, 2020, para. 10). Here, Levander and Decherney are referring primarily to the way in which we see the homes our students are quarantined in and gain a glimpse of how they live. I see the potential for adding a personal touch to teaching because we connect through our communication with one another, whether it is in person or online.
Levander, C., & Decherney, P. “Can Remote Teaching Make Us More Human?” InsideHigherEd, 22 April 2020. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/education-time-corona/can-remote-teaching-make-us-more-human
William Christopher Brown earned his doctorate in English from Indiana University Bloomington. He is currently Department Chair of Language Arts, Philosophy, Humanities, and Technical Writing at Midland College in Texas. He has been a member of the Association for Business Communication (ABC) since 2012. He has chaired the MLA Liaison Committee since 2015. He also serves on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the Technology Committee, the CCCC Subcommittee of the Marketing & Membership Committee, and the Proceedings Editorial Review Board.
Recommended Citation: William Christopher Brown. (2020). Communicate and Connect: Improving Online Teaching during the Coronavirus Pandemic. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.1.