Open Thread Wednesday: Online Class and Virtual Attendance Challenges

Like many of you, I’m in a moment of rapid transition, with spring semester grades barely posted and summer classes already underway. For students who are motivated by their graduation pace, funding, or other needs, summer classes are a great way to move forward: when I was an undergraduate I regularly embraced the format. As a faculty member I have more mixed feelings, particularly with the rising popularity of online summer classes.

This summer I’m revisiting a difficult format that I’ve only taught once before: the online-only, six-week accelerated version of a course typically taught over a sixteen week semester. I addressed the challenges of converting a course to this format in a post last summer — essentially, lots of difficult decisions have to be made as to what content to leave in and what to remove in the interest of streamlining the experience while staying true to the goals and learning outcomes of the course. The results is an intensive course: I lay out a recommended schedule for students with an activity or reading for every day of the typical workweek, with weekly deadlines and discussions to give the students connections and feedback from their peers.

Students in an online class have a reasonable expectation that the class can be taken from anywhere with an internet connection: similarly, the format is helpful to us professors planning to travel for research and conferences during the summer term, as we can teach from anywhere. However, this semester saw a surge of student queries that I’m not used to: many expressed plans to travel for one or two weeks without access to internet, and asked for advance access to the modules as a way to skip those weeks of course participation.

I’ve always stuck firmly to my policy of rigid deadlines, as I noted in my previous post:

Be clear and rigid on deadlines. In abbreviated courses, a student who falls behind on an assignment early has nearly no time to catch up: there’s often very little institutional leeway in the submission of grades following the rapid end of the class. Barring emergencies, a clear firm policy is in the best interests of everyone involved in an accelerated course. For me, this means no late work is accepted outside of emergencies, so that as students move on to the next module I can move forward with them.

For me, this means the expectation of internet access at least a couple times of week is a reasonable requirement for a student to be considered an active participant in an online class: without those policies, the challenge of large enrollment classes is intensified, and the students in question lose any connection to the rest of their cohort. Incorporating these expectations clearly in the syllabus is a good way to set the expectations immediately. Virtual classes already present intense challenges for engagement and connection — losing the synchronous components of class progression would be at the cost of many learning outcomes.