The Tao of Online Learning

(originally published at LinkedIn on April 30, 2020)

As has been the case for my colleagues around the world, I have had to move my classes online in the middle of the term. For us here in Florida, public schools never came back from Spring Break. Sadly, interscholastic sports also stopped so my first season as a high school tennis coach was stopped short (but that is an issue for another day).

However, for myself and my students, this sudden change has been no big deal. I have been getting them ready all along.

Since I had been teaching online (and taking a few courses for personal enrichment) at a few colleges and universities, this was nothing new to me. In my face-to-face classes, I also built in online media, virtual group activities, and class discussion boards. Being able to shift mundane things like passing out documents and returning grades into the online environment, reclaimed precious minutes of class periods for deeper discussions and additional small group and individual work.

Coming out of semi-retirement to accept this post at a local high school did not change my approach. I used technology as much as I could. Since I was teaching both American Literature and International Studies (being dual certified is literally a two-edged sword), I needed as much organization and structure as I could get so I could use the five minutes between periods to switch my brain from Jack London to Brexit.

To make my office hours more efficient, I had students use our in-class laptops (or their ubiquitous smartphones) to look up information, draft papers, make slides for speeches, and submit work straight into our online gradebook. This made it much easier and quicker for me to receive work and assign scores and gave students an open-book view of their own progress. We had a good thing going.

Then the world went into lockdown. So what? Business as usual continued, with a few modifications. Be like water …

For my part, teaching remotely was no shock. In fact, I had my global studies students following the Coronavirus story since January. I had hinted to them and predicted to campus staff that going online was on the horizon. Having trained hundreds of college and university faculty how to teach online, and done a lot of it myself, I needed to go into that other mode. Here are some things I learned over the years that I immediately implemented:

1. Maintain my schedule. Up at 0600. Make some tea and toast. Check the news. Be in my study by 0800. It is far too tempting to let things pile up, think of getting back to it later, and all the other procrastination excuses I have heard since 2000. Plus, by keeping a regular work and sleep schedule, I don’t get tired. (Between you and me, online teachers tend to work MORE hours because they can, always checking the email one more time …).

2. Establish a daily routine. Just because I don’t have seven periods anymore doesn’t mean that I can’t invent them. I use this to rotate my work.

First, check my school email. Any directives from the school district or campus admin will be here. This is also where I can respond directly to students and parents who have questions. Go get fresh coffee, relax my eyes from the screen, stretch my legs.

Second, check the online, self-paced (commercial off the shelf) English course that my students are using to finish up the term. I am more like tech support in this role. There is a separate email function in here and I will have to individually reset or bypass assignments. I can also run weekly reports for progress through the course. I even answer content questions because some of my students want to hear me explain it. Reheat my coffee and maybe grab a chocolate covered doughnut to keep my blood sugar up.

Third, check the learning management system. This is where my social studies class is doing weekly activities. They have a discussion board each week where they build a wiki library of research articles. I check for progress and spot check their sources. A grilled ham and cheese sandwich will be enough for lunch. Plenty of time to watch a sitcom off the DVR.

Fourth, check the online gradebook. The social studies students upload their major papers directly via a link. I manually enter the homework and quizzes. If I see a blue link, I know it’s a paper I need to read. So, I read it. A Diet Dr Pepper and a couple of Advil might be my afternoon snack.

Now I can do “my work.” I like to write my own starter content for each week, so I must find videos, make graphics, and compose pithy text with prominently placed glossary words. Also, I work on setting up reports I need to do and curating materials.

Finally, I make a return sweep through steps 1-4, checking for any new messages that have come across. Look at that! It’s 3:30.

3. Have a life. With no spouse or kids here, I make do with digging out a flower bed, refilling the bird feeders, clearing some brush from the fence, or some other non-screen activity. It’s nice to get outside, feel some sun, wave and holler at the neighbors, be a person rather than a hostage.

I am amazed at how many combinations of meals I can make with what is already in the freezer and pantry. The lessons I learned from my mother’s Depression era imprinting still serve me well. I already had plenty of toilet paper on a shelf in the laundry room well before the panic set in.

After dinner is eaten and the dishes loaded into that wonderful machine, I can catch up on the books I meant to read or the movies I meant to watch. I am even watching some World Series reruns while waiting for baseball’s return.

This isn’t so bad after all…

About drronthomasjr

Dr. Ron Thomas, Jr. heads Thomas Consulting Group, a consortium of professionals in leadership, crisis management, and media relations.
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