CILA Weekly Letters – Spring 2020

In Spring 2020, CILA Director Mary Titus started sending out a weekly letter to faculty and academic staff on an issue of concern in online teaching.

Summer 2020

Clarity and Teaching – June 8

Dear colleagues:

The CILA/LITS teaching session this week is on Wednesday from 11:00-12:00. June sessions will provide a short introduction to the most fundamental and widely used capabilities of a college supported platform. There will be recommended activities for supported hands-on practice. This week the session will focus on Moodle and Google Classroom. The link to join appears at the end of this message.

The word for this week’s letter is CLARITY.  Here’s the prompt from the survey:  ”I heard from students that it was really difficult to be on top of things when all the important information wasn’t in one place.”

This fall our students will have a mix of online and in-person learning. Let’s not bewilder them unnecessarily.  Embrace clarity, and its close companion simplicity, as you plan your syllabus.  Here are some tips from colleagues:

–if you are not yet using Moodle or Google Classroom, start now. These provide a “centralized location for files, instructions, the schedule, and video lectures.”  They are familiar platforms for our students, and supported by the college.

–revisit your learning outcomes. “The most important thing was to rethink my syllabus and start with the fundamental goals that I needed to help my students achieve.” “I’ve tried to keep my online instruction stripped down to addressing the learning outcomes as simply and efficiently as possible.  I think students have appreciated this clarity when so much else is overwhelming and confusing right now.”

–break the whole into parts. Divide your course into units; this helps students “retain a sense of structure.” Break assignments into steps, carefully describe each step.  Include regular “To Do” lists in your syllabus.  As one of you wrote, “They appreciated how minutely detailed my instructions were for assignments, so there was no confusion.”

–be predictable. Set up class patterns: regular daily or weekly activities, small rituals. To the survey question, “What did your students most appreciate?” one of your colleagues responded:  “A very predictable course schedule.” Extend this to your Moodle course – repeat structures, styles, and layout week to week so students know where to find things.

Wednesday Session

11:00-12:00, 6/10

Topic: Using Moodle or Google Classroom for Clarity: Basic Strategies for Organizing your Course Material

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 959 0429 4757

Password: 922667

Spring 2020

Burnout? Reflection as Remedy – April 29

This is my fourth weekly email on an issue of concern in online/remote teaching.  If there is a topic you would like me to investigate, please let me know. I want to remind everyone that we have an active discussion forum on remote teaching here at St Olaf; it is linked under resources on the Academic Continuity page hosted by IT. If you do not want to read this email now, know that it will be added as a discussion topic on this forum.

Just this Monday, Inside Higher Ed published an article with the contagious title, “Beating Pandemic Burnout.”  It has gone viral, moving rapidly through the teaching & learning networks (Apologies, a horrible, yet irresistible metaphor). I recommend it to you, especially if, like me, you have noted an uptick in the use of the word “burnout” among your friends, students, and colleagues.

In her article, Rebecca Pope-Ruarke, director of the teaching and learning center at Georgia Institute of Technology, acknowledges that she sees “signs of burnout everywhere” in higher education. “Precarity, uncertainty, grief and feeling overwhelmed abound.”  She offers her readers “four reflective pillars” to help, each providing “a way to reflect on your well-being, consider ways to understand and address your reactions to the added stress, and experiment with curiosity and hope in these unprecedented times.”

You will have to read Pope-Ruark’s essay on your own to see if her recommendations can awaken your curiosity, let alone your hope.  In this weekly CILA letter, I am simply combining her first reflective pillar: “focusing on purpose” with a recommendation of my own: “undertaking a reflective practice.” What does this all mean?

The great educator, John Dewey, once stated: “We do not learn from experience.  We learn from reflecting on experience.” His words underlie the enterprise of experiential education: campus study, civic engagement, internships, volunteer work. We must couple experience with deliberate, well-directed reflection–a reflective practice–to extract meaning, whether that meaning be cultural or personal. As Joy Amulya at the M.I.T Center for Reflective Community Practice writes, “doing swallows up learning.  Even staying aware of what we are doing does not itself create learning.  Learning is a purposeful activity.”

Well right now you and I, our students, and our community are all having an EXPERIENCE. We are experiencing emergency distance teaching during a global pandemic. And we may be experiencing some burnout as well, particularly when we consider the likelihood that our classes may remain all or partially online as we move forward.  How can “undertaking a reflective practice” help?  As we continue rising to each day’s challenges, we can think purposefully about what we are doing. When our classes suddenly moved online, many of us (me, for sure) reacted with anxious energy: How do I redesign my course? What happens to class discussion? What the heck is Zoom?  Now that we are actually providing emergency distance learning, and the end of the semester is in view, we can move from reactive to purposeful.

I encourage you to create some questions to help you reflect on your experience this semester: you might use the what, how, why framework of adult learning theory. What content did you teach after your class moved online? What proved successful? How did students process material or demonstrate learning? Videos? Essays? Group projects?  And, why did you teach that way?  This last is the most difficult to explain. Often, it is more than desired learning outcomes; it’s the relationship you seek with your students and the deep commitments that underlie teaching as your vocation. I know that online teaching is not what you signed up for. No matter how much you innovate, it rarely replicates the energy and exchange of a physical classroom community.  Yet, energy is still there. Ask yourself, in this experience of emergency distance learning did you still have moments of meaningful connection?  Did you feel your underlying teaching purpose stir and awaken?

Reflecting on our experience this semester may not eliminate feelings of burnout. However, it can help us regain a sense of purpose and prepare us if we have to continue remote teaching. Learning from this spring, we will be more ready, more relaxed, more purposeful no matter what kind of classroom we find ourselves in this fall.

That’s the end of my letter for this week. I want to express my gratitude to Karin Trail-Johnson from Macalester, who led a CILA lunch last fall on reflective practice, and to our own Alyssa Melby who just posted a blog on the importance of reflection. I will end with a wonderful challenge from Alyssa: “Academic civic engagement (ACE) absolutely can happen virtually and at a distance…Want to imagine possibilities? Get in touch with Alyssa Melby at!”

Let’s imagine possibilities!

Wishing us all the very best as our incredible spring term 2020 nears its end.

Coworking and Community – April 23

This is my third weekly email on an issue of concern in online/remote teaching.  If there is a topic you would like me to investigate, please let me know. I want to remind everyone that we have an active discussion forum on remote teaching here at St Olaf; it is linked under resources on the Academic Continuity page hosted by IT. If you do not want to read this email now, know that it will be added as a discussion topic on this forum.

Listening to both students and faculty this week, I heard the same two concerns: people report increased difficulty focusing and feel they are falling behind. Me too. Evidence? This weekly letter is a day late.

Working in a community with a shared purpose motivates us. Students in the library hear the tap of computer keys while they read and, pausing at the end of a chapter, look around at their peers working away, and turn back again to their own task.  Co-working improves focus and, for many, it is simply comforting.  Scholarship on co-working suggests that it improves mental health, increases productivity, and strengthens feelings of community. Here’s a relevant quote from The Harvard Business Review: “Too much autonomy can actually cripple productivity because people lack routines. Coworkers reported that having a community to work in helps them create structures and discipline that motivates them. Thus, paradoxically, some limited form of structure enables an optimal degree of control for independent workers.”

This week I recommended to my students that they set up regular coworking dates with classmates and friends by scheduling a Google Meet for an hour or more in which they work independently, pausing occasionally to chat, ask a question, or share a smile–creating caring and mutually accountable communal spaces.  Several said they have tried this and found it very helpful.  At my students’ request, I am helping them create more coworking groups.

On a teaching/learning site I read regularly, I discovered that faculty are also coworking with their students.  Rebecca Campbell, a professor of Educational Psychology at Northern Arizona State offers coworking events she calls  Virtual Homework Sprints. Her invitation to her students to cowork with her is delightful. I encourage you as well to consider coworking with your colleagues.

Carefully designed moodle forums can also contribute to feelings of community. Important here is size. Rather than asking students to respond to a large forum, where group size creates feelings of anonymity and detachment, set up small forums with just three or four participants. Provide these small groups with clear topics and guidelines for engaged interaction.  If you use forums and are dissatisfied with student interaction, I recommend this advice from an experienced forum practitioner at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Many of the essays I read on teaching and learning are of the helpful “nuts and bolts” variety,  but occasionally I come across one that speaks to the heart of the teaching and academic community.  In my reading on coworking, I found this essay sustaining:  “Authentic Teaching and Connected Learning in the Age of COVID-19”. I recommend it to you.  In the essay, Harriet Schwartz emphasizes the importance of maintaining human connection with our students: “Along with teaching the content of our courses, we as faculty can be a solid presence in our students’ lives. We can offer continuity amid chaos, solid ground in the midst of disruption, care in a time of fear, and connection despite social distancing.”  These words brought to my mind the story one of my students shared with me yesterday about her daily struggles.  Her family house is for sale, and so at least once a day, after hiding her personal belongings, she must load up her cat and head out in her car looking for a shady spot (it is hot in Tennessee!) where she tries to do her homework on her phone. The cat is often not happy.

Schwartz’s phrase “be a solid presence” makes me think as well of those of us who are teaching from homes with small children.  How far can a solid presence be spread before it is spread too thin?  I regularly read posts in an enormous Facebook group, Pandemic Pedagogy (29,847 members and counting).  It has curated conversations on topics like “Work Life Balance” and “Assignment Ideas.” In the former is an invitation to a more focused group, “Pedagogy of the Pandemic: Teachers Balancing Parenthood”–some of you on double duty might find a supportive community here.  Those of us without this demanding extra responsibility can remember to extend our support to all members of our community.  We are all in this together.

Equity and Inclusion – April 15

Dear colleagues: This is my second weekly email on an issue of concern in online/remote teaching.  If there is a topic you would like me to investigate, please let me know. I want to remind everyone that we have an active discussion forum on remote teaching here at St Olaf; it is linked under resources on the Academic Continuity page hosted by IT.  If you do not want to read this email now, know that it will be added as a discussion topic on this forum.

When I first started moving my classes online, my thoughts were all about content and requirements. What is core to my class and what can I let go?  How am I going to manage discussion, a primary part of class participation?  But in the past two weeks, I have become increasingly aware that equity must be a central concern—and it is very complicated.

We need to begin by acknowledging a basic fact: the pandemic heightens existing inequities.  A recent New York Times article highlighted the impact of economic differences on students ability to access and succeed in an emergency distance classroom.  On campus, with computers everywhere, meals provided, and library carrels offering quiet study space, students live in an environment designed to promote equality.  For the many who come to college with mental health challenges or learning disabilities, the college offers an array of support services: counseling, tutors, speaking and writing spaces.  But, when our students leave campus and shelter in the places they have available, their resources become very different. As the NYT author bluntly stated about students dispersed from Haverford, another liberal arts college, “as each logged in, not everyone’s new reality looked the same.”

With the admittedly limited evidence of my own classes, I can attest that my students who came to St Olaf with financial difficulties appear to be struggling the most right now. Many share computers with other family members, or have no quiet, private space for study; they are taking on part time jobs; they are deeply disheartened and worry they will not be able to afford college in the fall.

As you deliver content and adapt assignments, keep in mind how different the student’s learning experiences have become. Going online means screen viewing increases exponentially. For some students this is exhausting. Writing often replaces speaking; extended listening without breaks replaces varied activities in a physical classroom; class and campus community become sporadic virtual gatherings and hours of solitary screen time.

The teaching & learning center literature that I read offers some suggestions for mitigating barriers our students may now be confronting, and thereby reducing the inequities these barriers create. Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Provide more than one way to complete an assignment.  Rather than asking all of your students to write a big essay or repeated forum posts, why not offer choices: recorded verbal responses? visual analyses (I like graphic organizers–there are many models and guidelines for these on the web)?; annotated bibliographies rather than long research essays?.
  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  There are two parts to this.

The first is simple human connection. Stay connected with your students: send short, encouraging notes regularly. Reach out to students who have fallen out of sight.  Hold regular online office hours; make a facebook page for your class that is not academic (my AmCon students post pictures of family pets); consider giving your students your phone number–you can stipulate “texts only.”

The second part of communication is EXTREME CLARITY. Revise a moodle syllabus to outline each step a student needs to take to complete an assignment successfully. I have added two detailed sections under each day of my classes: TO DO and DEADLINES.  Right now, students appreciate, and often just plain need, clear and specific guidance in order to retain focus with so much going on in their daily lives.

  1. Please don’t assume unimpeded access to technology.  It helps if your class is asynchronous.  If you feel you must meet at a specific time, also post a video of your lecture on your syllabus. People get sick; computer batteries give out; siblings squabble–you get it. Making deadlines more flexible is not only kind, but will give your students the flexibility they need to produce their best work.  Flexible formats and times are crucial for assessment activities. It is inequitable to dismiss or grade down a student because of technology challenges beyond their control.

I have been glad to get feedback from the wonderful people in Academic Support here at St. Olaf. They are closely in touch with many of our students who rely on their support, and they hear it all: what’s working and what is proving really tough for our distance learners.

Here are a few more tips from our own Center for Advising and Academic Support:

–don’t assume students now have unlimited free time. Many are caring for younger siblings; cooking meals; and even taking on part-time jobs to help with family finances;

–some students have all asynchronous classes, and they feel isolated. Connect. Perhaps schedule a few short, optional, class gatherings. Or, if you can manage it, meet individually with your students, by phone or Google Meet;

–let your students know their standing in your class–especially if you only posted a few grades before campus closed;

–break up long lectures into 15-20 minute sessions.  A lecture is not an action film.

–reconsider requiring frequent forum participation where responses risk becoming mechanical, rote tasks. Vary activities as much as possible.

I hope something in this letter proves useful to you.  This is a difficult time for each and every one of us. I encourage us all to think of our students with extra care and compassion.

Remote Exams and Other Issues – April 8

Dear colleagues: If you are like me, you have a stiff neck and tired eyes from hours spent hunched over a keyboard staring at a screen. This is hard work in so many ways.  I have decided to send out a short email once a week on an issue of concern in online teaching.   As director of our teaching and learning center, I follow several pedagogy focused discussion groups and read often about challenges and innovations in remote/online teaching.  If there is a topic you would like me to investigate, please let me know. I want to remind everyone that we have an active discussion forum on remote teaching here at St Olaf; it is linked under resources on the Academic Continuity page hosted by IT. If you do not want to read this email now, know that it will be added as a discussion topic on this forum.

A couple people have contacted me with questions about students working remotely cheating on exams.  From what I have read, if you have concerns about cheating, your first step is to reconsider your assessment strategies in your class.  Looking at the desired learning outcomes of your course and creating other ways than exams to assess if your students have achieved them is crucial.  For example, ask a question that requires individual critical thinking rather than a specific answer that can be found on the internet.  For help doing this, I  recommend two resources.  The first is a short outstanding document, “Tips for Exams and Alternative Assessments,” from Rutgers University. You will see at the bottom of their page other recommended sites that offer alternatives to traditional exams.  The second excellent resource is by Kelsey Thompson, Assistant Director of Assessment, here at St Olaf.  Her document “Assessing Remote Learning Tips and Resources”  is on the college’s Academic Continuity page mentioned above (just scroll down the first page of resources).  On pages 10-12, Kelsey addresses concerns about cheating on online examinations, and other related issues, and provides links to a wealth of relevant scholarship from the field of teaching and learning.  I recommend reading all of Kelsey’s advice on assessing remote learning if, like me, you anticipate rethinking parts of your current course as these challenging weeks continue.

Both Kelsey and the authors of the Rutgers site point to concerns about equity that accompany online teaching:  Serious ethical concerns arise if our students are not able to access their exams equally at this time.  This alone is one compelling reason to rethink traditional examinations.  I became aware of an equity issue in one of my courses a few days ago, when I recalled that several of my students with financial constraints had not purchased the next book we were reading together: they had planned on using the copy on library reserve or sharing a copy with a reading partner. It would be very difficult for them to get a copy now, with libraries closed and Amazon delaying delivery of books to facilitate shipping items considered more crucial. I am lucky–when I contacted our wonderful college library staff, they found a way to provide my students with access to a digital version of the text.

I plan to write in the next week or so about equity and inclusion issues that arise in this new world we have all entered–the world of remote teaching. As I said above, please let me know if I can look into resources that would help you with your teaching. And do investigate all the good information on our Academic Continuity site.

Warm regards to all, Mary

Moving Your Course Online – March 11 (general letter to faculty)

We are not alone here at St Olaf in our sudden need to consider how we could deliver our courses remotely in the face of COVID-19.  All across the US, colleges and universities are making plans, drawing on technology, and rethinking course content and delivery. My inbox is full of messages from academic teaching and learning centers (TLC) sharing advice about teaching continuity.  Here, for example, are a few words from Stanford University’s center about “offering a student-centered learning experience in a remote or online learning environment.”   “Teaching during times of potential disruption requires creative and flexible thinking about how instructors can support students in achieving essential core course learning objectives . . . . While the process will no doubt feel unfamiliar and at times possibly frustrating, try as much as possible to be patient. There will always be hiccups, but times of disruption are, by their nature, disruptive, and everyone expects that. Be willing to switch tactics if something isn’t working. Above all, stay focused on making sure the students are comfortable, and keep a close eye on the course learning goals–while you might not be able to teach something exactly the way you imagined, as long as you’re still meeting the learning goals of the course, you’re doing fine.”

These are wise words. I would emphasize two points: first that we have to adapt our content and modes of assessment as well as our delivery of our courses.  Step back and think about your desired learning outcomes in the broadest terms, keep them in mind and be willing to set secondary goals aside. Secondly, keep your students at the center of your thoughts. We want our students to have a meaningful learning experience despite the disruption.  Consider ways you can draw on writing, reflection, and self-assessment to enrich their learning; try if possible to relate the social, economic, or global implications of the COVID-19 outbreak to your content; be supportive, flexible, and kind.

The Connecticut College Center for Teaching and Learning (home of the president of the small colleges division of TLC’s national organization) has created an excellent resource for thinking through a sudden shift to remote teaching: “11 Things to Consider When Moving Your Course Online.”

Note at the close that they offer suggestions for adapting some of the most challenging classes, those with labs or in the performing arts.  Many more excellent resources are available at the Academic Continuity site created by St Olaf’s Instructional Technology.

Next week, CILA will offer two workshop opportunities to introduce technology that supports remote teaching.  The first will be in the form of a regular CILA lunch, on Tuesday, March 17 from 11:45-1:15.  The invitation and rsvp for this workshop has already been sent out on campus email. This workshop will be recorded and will be generally available as soon as possible.  A second workshop, primarily replicating the first, will be offered during community time on March 19.

CILA, the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts, supports teaching and learning at St Olaf.  If you have questions or concerns about your classroom as we move through this challenging time, I encourage you to contact me at