You Don’t Need To Watch Your Students

A lot of us are teaching online for the fall. Not as many of us as should be teaching online in the fall, of course, but a lot of us (and as I’ve mentioned before, if you’re not, plan to teach online anyway, because it’s a definite possibility). And I know I’ve said it before as well, but I want to remind you to be kind to your students. Trust them. Do not spy on them. Do not treat them like they are definitely doing something wrong.

Course planning in 2020
(image via StockSnap)

Many instructors are still trying to figure out how to simulate the classroom experience with online instruction; this is a bit quixotic, because the simple answer is “you really can’t.” We will do better when we remember that online and face-to-face are inherently different experiences, and we spend our energy better simply trying to make them the best of what they are, rather than trying to make one into the other. But there’s another shade of this discussion that’s more troubling: how will we watch our students, to make sure they’re paying attention and that they’re not cheating?

Again, the simple answer is: you don’t. The somewhat more complex answer is: good assignment and curriculum design.

The wrong answer is requiring students to keep their cameras on at all time and grading them on the same. The other wrong answer is to invest in test proctoring software and other surveillance solutions. Testing as we’ve been doing it in standardized scenarios, with high stakes, scantrons, and surveillance by authority figures, is counterproductive to the enterprise of education, and this is a great opportunity to quit it cold turkey, if we’re willing to take that opportunity.

I’m not saying we should do away with testing entirely. Assessment matters, and testing is a tool that we have available for that. Tests can be a learning environment as well as an assessment tool, if they are designed well. When we quiz ourselves, we help cement our learning as usable, recall-able material. I use quizzes, especially in my online courses, as a tool to reinforce readings and other forms of content.

But there’s a difference between a productive quiz and a punitive test. A productive quiz is low-stakes and allows students to quickly identify what they missed, why they missed it, and how to correct it. My reading quizzes have at least three attempts allowed, and are open-book. They’re there to highlight what I want students to take away from the reading, not to punish them for not doing it. A punitive test is one with high stakes and little opportunity for redemption, one that starts with the assumption that students will cheat and therefore must be watched like prisoners.

In addition to testing, we also have to adjust our assumptions about what “paying attention” means. There are a lot of ways to pay attention. As a student, I was the one drawing fanciful things in the margins. I was paying attention. But I was keeping my hands busy and redirecting the side chatter in my brain with those sketches, as well as using the sketches as a way to index my notes for later recollection, since the sketches were often easier to quickly find in my notebook than specific words.

Likewise, a student may find having all their classmates’ faces in front of them distracting in a Zoom session. They may prefer to just listen to the teacher’s voice while looking down at their notes. Or, a student may find that staring at a screen at prescribed hours is difficult; we process screen information differently than in-person or print information, often in a less linear way. Recorded sessions allow this student to pause, take a break to stretch and refocus, and return to the content.

Welcome to the new classroom
Image via StockSnap

So what makes for good online course design?

  1. Break up content into small, clear steps. Order these steps in a logical way, so students can move from one to another. Sometimes in a classroom, as a tool, we withhold the end result for a big, memorable reveal. That doesn’t work so well online; students should know why they’re doing what they’re doing and what order they should do it in. Likewise, it’s much better to watch five or six 10-minute videos than it is to watch one big hour-long video. It makes it easier to return to content if necessary, and it makes focus easier, too.
  2. Design assessments that are reinforcement rather than testing or sorting. This means embracing open-book assessment, which can be a very effective learning space. This means ditching the time limits (or using very generous time limits) and the surveillance. Instead of multiple choice quizzes (although, as I’ve mentioned, those are sometimes very useful if done low-stakes), consider a short reflective paragraph.
  3. Streamline the course. We all have our pet lesson plans, of course. We all have that example we’ve used since 2010 (or earlier). But this is a good time to get radical and return to the course goals and ask yourself, about every item you include as you upload it, “What is this thing’s purpose? Do I really need it? How will the student actually interact with this thing?” If you are teaching a relatively standardized course, strip it down to just what’s needed according to the standard requirements: if it says 4-5 assignments, do four, not five.
  4. Do not require students to show their faces or record their voices online! It is absolutely not necessary for a student to have their camera on while you are lecturing. It is absolutely not necessary for you to see into a student’s home while you are teaching, and certainly not while they’re taking a test. Students may have any number of reasons (tech, psychology, family situations, culture, whatever) that they are uncomfortable on camera or recording themselves. For instance, if you assign a video, be sure to emphasize that there are other options besides being in front of a camera: students can remix other videos, make slide show videos, etc.
  5. Use the technology you already understand. It’s tempting to use a lot of new tools right now. Limit yourself to maybe one new toy. If you know your school’s LMS well, use it well; this is not the time to try something entirely new. If you know Google’s collaboration tools well, use those. Limit the number of tools you’re using and lean mostly on the mainstream ones where you can, because students are having to learn a lot of new tools too, and you want them to focus on the content of your course more than mastering new tools.
  6. Trust students. I can’t stress this enough. Trust students. They’ll rise to the level you show you expect of them. If you write policies that imply you expect them to cheat and are just playing a game of cat and mouse with them, well, you’ll be having to play a lot of cat and mouse, because you just made that the expectation. If you write policies that show you trust them, then you’ll find they trust you back.

There’s a lot of useful information about online teaching out there. A lot of resources. Go find them. And go forth trusting your students and streamlining your curriculum and you’ll be fine.

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