Skip to main content

Remote Teaching: An Instructor's Perspective

By Garrett Iván Colón 

The rapid pivot to online instruction that occurred during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainties across the educational system. Perhaps nowhere were these uncertainties greater than in writing classrooms, where personal feedback and collaboration are crucial. While digital technologies like word processors are not new to most writing classrooms, the sudden adjustment to having all class activities mediated by technology came as a major shock for students and teachers alike.

The online shift, luckily, has not been without its silver linings. For teachers, it has invited new ways of thinking about writing as a process. The experience of administering an online course makes it clear that the writing process can greatly vary based on the writer’s material surroundings. For instance, in the online realm, collaboration, feedback, and drafting can take very different forms than they do in physical classrooms. Thus, when a physical learning environment is suddenly removed from the equation, instructors must wortk quickly to offer resources to their students, adjust the structure of their course, and create an updated syllabus reflecting those adjustments.

"...instructors are wise to approach such sudden shifts [to online instruction] as opportunities for future improvement."

Needless to say, instructors are wise to approach such sudden shifts as opportunities for future improvement. Reflecting on what did and did not work after an online course concludes, for example, can help ensure future courses run more smoothly. Instructors can also work with one another (and their students) to make online learning a meaningful educational experience. While online instruction can never fully replicate the subtleties of face-to-face instruction, it is a valuable tool for ensuring that courses remain accessible regardless of whatever external forces come into play

Below, I describe a few key aspects of writing instruction that may unexpectedly pose difficulties for writing instructors making the shift to online. These suggestions come from my experiences as a composition instructor during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Purdue to adopt online instruction in a matter of mere weeks.

Workload and expectations

An abrupt change to the primary mode of instruction is never something that students will have asked for or will likely be prepared for. However, it is not unreasonable to make major changes under such circumstances.  Moving online is likely to entail rethinking the designs of your courses, units, and assignments. When removing or reorienting specific tasks and requirements, try to keep your course outcomes and your students in mind. Also keep in mind that adapting to a sudden change can, in some instances, be work in and of itself.

"...adapting to a sudden change can, in some instances, be work in and of itself."

Some of my fellow instructors successfully adapted to the shift to online learning by consolidating learning outcomes that would otherwise have been spread across separate units and assignments. For example, one instructor's remediation project, which asked students to redesign a previously written research report for a new audience—for instance, in the form of a research poster—required some rethinking after the shift to online instruction. Because students were suddenly limited in their access to on-campus resources and the technologies needed to complete this project, the instructor was forced to consider alternatives that still met the needs of course outcomes. In the end, the instructor used a free online poster-making app for the assignment. However, this required reorganizing the schedule to make time for lessons on how to use the app. Crucially, a few previously planned lessons needed to be dropped from the course.

In any sudden, unexpected move online, this sort of change should be reflected in a revised syllabus. The new syllabus should be clear about changes in course expectations, highlighting which precise outcomes and objectives are being prioritized and why. The work of revising the syllabus does not need to be performed on one's own. Working with other instructors to gather perspectives and to discuss best practices for blending course goals in a manageableway can lighten your workload significantly.

Peer review

In-person instruction offers certain opportunities that online classes simply cannot replicate. For instance, the physical writing classroom gives students a chance to collaborate by offering direct, face-to-face peer feedback. Post-review discussions that clarify comments help many students become familiar with the revision process (and the reader-respondent relationship more broadly).

Moving online may pose serious challenges for peer review, particularly when using collaborative/cloud-based writing software (e.g., Google Docs and Word Online). Just as individual instructors have their own varied levels of understanding when it comes to these technologies, students may or may not be versed in using them, as well. Without access to (or a working knowledge of) dedicated peer review software, it can be difficult for students to navigate these interfaces alone. Be prepared to respond to students' questions, and share your answers with the rest of the class when doing so makes sense. Additionally, providing students with tutorial content can help impart a shared understanding of the chosen technology. Tutorials are often available directly from the developer, but you can also provide them yourself using the screencast software included with most free videoconferencing software (e.g., Zoom). Finally, you may want to provide students with options to provide spoken audio feedback in order to mimic the conversational nature of an ordinary post-review discussion.

Journaling/free writing

Many instructors embrace the opportunity for students to engage infree writing moments or journaling. The shared classroom space  encourages students to interact and share ideas with others after they finish writing. Moreover, the instructor's physical preference makes it easy to reinforce the notion that these minor assignments are stepping stones toward larger projects and goals.

When students are no longer surrounded by peers who are also writing and exchanging ideas thereafter, writing and responding by way of discussion boards can suffice. However, the writing environment on these platforms is different than the environment in a classroom. It is asynchronous (i.e., students are usually writing at different times), so they are unlikely to get feedback immediately after they finish. It is also more passive insofar as students will not encounter others' writing unless they deliberately log back in and look at it.

Making online learning environments collaborative and engaging does not mean making them perfect replicas of face-to-face classrooms. However, it does require some creative thinking. Instructors should invite students to think actively about time management and encourage them to work and write together in a way that feels shared. Coordinating small recurring writing groups that work together on a shared document can help students feel less overwhelmed by the volume of responses that can accrue on course discussion boards. These writing groups also ensure that the ideas that emerge from students' journaling will be seen and responded to.

"Making online learning environments collaborative and engaging does not mean making them perfect replicas of face-to-face classrooms."

Engagement, accountability, and collaboration

When a writing course moves online and becomes more dependent on asynchronous tasks and objectives, students may be hard-pressed to hold themselves accountable. Thus, it becomes important for students to be aware of best practices for working with others from a distance.

This is where writing groups and group work can help. Some peer groups can collaborate via shared documents, such as those that can easily be created with Google Docs or Word Online. Others may opt to communicate using a group chat app or other software. No matter the approach you use for your course, being transparent with students about the move online as a collective learning experience is an important step toward ensuring students stay on track, particularly in the case of group-based tasks and assignments. It is also important that instructors strive for accessibility in the technologies and resources used in their online courses. This ensures that students are less likely to be discouraged by the need to participate and engage with one another across different interfaces. Finally, you do not necessarily need to me the sole source of information for your students. Encouraging students to share their knowledge about how to navigate digital environments with each other is a kind-minded step in the direction of accountability, collaboration, and engagement.

Final thoughts

During a global pandemic, it is hard for instructors to know how each individual student's life has been impacted. A student may have had friends, family members, or loved ones affected despite giving no outward indication of this. As such, communicating with students regularly is crucial to ensuring their engagement. Yet even when they communicate regularly with students, there is a lot that instructors still can’t be completely sure of. Circumstances can change quickly and unexpectedly. Resources that were once taken for granted can vanish.

For these reasons, any teaching work performed in a time of crisis should be undertaken with a spirit of humility and courage. Instructors should not let their pride or their attachment to established convention prevent them from changing their courses in ways that benefit their students. They should also be brave enough to try unfamiliar assignment and teaching strategies when old ones cease to be useful. No two courses can be adapted for remote instruction in precisely the same way. However, every instructor stands to benefit by adopting an attitude that embraces change, treats students as thinking, feeling human beings, and envisions the classroom as the laboratory that is and has always been.

"...any teaching work performed in a time of crisis should be undertaken with a spirit of humility and courage."