The Spotlight on First-Year Composition Series is a collection of interviews with some of our best and most experienced teachers in the English Department. Topics in this series include best grading practices, classroom management, and teaching strategies. In this first installment of this semester’s short revival of the series, Sally Harris discusses teaching online and offers advice in creating the best online courses (FYC and upper-level) for students.
Sally C. Harris, Distinguished Lecturer, Department of English
Sally teaches workplace writing and technical writing online; she teaches British literature, drama, and detective fiction in person and plans to develop her literature classes for online delivery. Since 2019, Sally has worked with the Office of Information Technology (OIT), Teaching and Learning Innovation (TLI), and Online Learning and Academic Programs (OLAP) to learn more about best practices for implementing online certificate and degree programs and techniques for more effectively engaging students in online classes. Additionally, she worked as the Faculty Lead and Liaison in programs to support faculty as they shifted to online teaching during the pandemic. Sally continues to work with units and faculty across campus to learn more about online teaching and teaching in general. In addition to her work with online teaching, she studies Victorian ghost and detective stories and serves as the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies in the English Department.
You have extensive experience teaching online—even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic— could you share some insight into how you got started teaching online, the training you underwent, and how your methods have evolved to your present courses?
In 2005 or 2006, I learned about flipped classrooms, which reflected what I—and most of those I knew teaching English—were trying to do at the time. I had also begun teaching business writing about a year or two earlier, and it occurred to me that most of what I wanted to do in the classroom was help the students work through their audience and contextual analyses and their writing. However, half of what I was did in class was lecture about how to analyze and adapt their messages.
At some point, I don’t exactly remember how, I learned about hybrid classes, and this seemed like a perfect platform for the business writing classes I was teaching: for one class period’s worth of material each week, the students could work online, learning the material, taking quizzes, and completing worksheets; for the second class period, we would meet in person to complete exercises that gave them a chance to practice what they’d learned.
In the fall of 2006, I pitched the idea to the Associate Head, then Professor David Goslee, and in the spring of 2007, I was teaching business writing as a hybrid course. I hadn’t expected it to go through so quickly and wasn’t as prepared or trained as I would have liked to have been. After that semester, I sought help from OIT, and got tips for making the online portion of the class more engaging.
Thankfully, in 2009, I received a Faculty First Grant from OIT! I was able to get some Adobe software to create interactive online lectures with embedded quizzes that required students to get the answers correct before moving on. That summer, OIT trained me on the software and in instructional design. What I learned was invaluable, and the students came to the in-person classes more prepared for the activities.
The instructional designers and LMS support team (first for Blackboard and then for Canvas) at OIT were instrumental in the development of my online classes. In 2015, I piloted the business writing course as an asynchronous, fully online course, using Zoom to meet with students individually to go over exercises and drafts and to answer questions—basically what I had used the in-person time for before. The students responded well to the flexibility although it meant less structured time for me and a lot more time working with individuals since we didn’t have a group setting to cover the questions that repeatedly came up.
Since then, I’ve continued to work with OIT and the recently formed unit Online Learning and Academic Programs (OLAP), integrating new and old technology to engage students with the material, with me, and with each other. In 2019, I was looking for ways to encourage dialogue among students, and I’ve begun using the Zoom Chat function, which is like GroupMe or Slack, to encourage students to ask and answer questions of each other, as well as the instructors. This seems to be working since they are accustomed to texting, but since they might not have Zoom notifications set like they have GroupMe or text notifications set, it takes some encouragement at the beginning of the semester. I’ve also learned better approaches to asynchronous discussions and group work in the online classes, which appears to have helped students become more engaged during an especially difficult two years.
What are some of the biggest challenges/rewards of teaching online and what are some things to consider for teachers wanting to go this route? Are there any suggestions you have in designing and teaching successful online courses?
When I started teaching online, my biggest challenges were changing my ideas of what engagement and student participation looked like and letting go of the notion that my presence and synchronous interactions with students were essential to their learning the material. I enjoy the Zoom meetings with students, and, typically, students who meet to ask questions are eager to do well, so they do. However, there are some students who are particularly capable of using the lectures and my written feedback on their work to evaluate and improve their writing without ever meeting one-on-one to go over a draft and who learn from the content and exercises as they are set up without ever needing to meet with me or ask questions. Their engagement is clear in their improvement and contributions to required discussions.
One of the most important aspects of teaching that I consider when teaching online—and I’ve heard this from many others, too—is learning outcomes. What I do in in-person classes doesn’t always transition well to online classes, so I need to determine what my goals for the in-person exercise were and then find a new way to achieve that in an online class.
In terms of teaching and designing a successful online class, the one element that I’ve seen in successful online instructors across the board is enthusiasm, both for the material and for teaching. Different classes and instructors will use technology and techniques that work best for them. I know someone in Haslam who has students watching his synchronous online lectures for fun—he’s that energetic and engaging. For the subject I teach and because of my inability to monitor a running chat WHILE lecturing WHILE using a green screen like a weather reporter, this approach won’t work for me. Of course, just being enthusiastic doesn’t mean teachers will develop great online classes, but it does mean they’ll learn about the best ways to share the information they care about and keep adapting their teaching until they find the best ways to help the students learn the material.
In your experience, how does the student learning differ from online to in-person? Are there any considerations that new teachers should be aware of and how can they work to make an online course that is flexible while still successful in meeting the needs of students?
One of the main differences, that I see, between online and in-person learning for students is the need for a greater level of time management skills in online learning. While I haven’t researched this, it seems to me that meeting with an instructor in-person provides a level of accountability that online deadlines and even synchronous online meetings don’t match. Some students thrive in the online setting since they can adapt the work to their weekly schedules and manage their time well. Others, though, forget about the work without the knowledge that they’ll have to attend class in the physical presence of the instructor. The awareness of the in-person meeting looming over them (not to put too negative a spin on it) acts as a sort of reminder that isn’t there with the more anonymous logon to Zoom. Of course, weak time management skills trouble students in inperson classes, too, but I’ve found that online classes make those problems even more challenging.
I have found that consistent deadlines and reminding students of those deadlines is important. I have deadlines once a week because that works for me and the content in my classes. From what I’ve heard and learned, consistent deadlines—same day or days each week or every other week or each month—make it easier for students to develop a schedule for themselves. At first, I resisted sending weekly reminders about what is due and when because it felt a bit too much like hand-holding. However, in an online panel presentation, another panelist mentioned that he sent weekly reminders and admitted it was a bit of hand-holding, but he argued that if the goal is to get students to submit their work on time, the reminders achieved that goal. I also thought of all the automated reminders on my calendar and apps, as well as the reminder emails I get before meetings. This led to me creating automated reminder announcements, which the students have said they appreciate.
What do you recommend as resources for those wanting more information about teaching online/improving their online teaching practices? Do you have some favorite sources that you can suggest?
The most accessible resources, and the ones that I use constantly, are units that are part of UTK. OIT has been incredibly helpful for any questions, troubleshooting, or requests of Canvas. If I want to know whether some activity or action can be done in Canvas, OIT helps me create it in Canvas or find a workaround. They are also non-judgmental when it turns out the problem I’m troubleshooting is really a user error, which happens more than I’d like to admit. I’ve also been able to get help with other tools such as PowerPoint recording, Pantopto, and even Adobe products.
When OLAP was created, some of the instructional designers from OIT moved to the new unit and developed some great training modules and certificates. I’ve also used the designers at OLAP as consultants, bouncing ideas off of them and asking for feedback on what I’ve created. I continue to learn new approaches from their instructional designers, as well as from faculty who present in the workshops.
While Teaching and Learning Innovation (TLI) is for all instruction, not just online, the resources in that unit have helped me develop skills for online teaching. They’ve helped me rethink some of the assessments in my classes, and they host workshops that offer me the chance to connect with other faculty who are interested in learning outcomes and teaching techniques.
This leads to another helpful resource—other faculty. Faculty know how something works or doesn’t in the virtual classroom and can provide wonderful insights into how they found workarounds or created new approaches to achieve learning outcomes. I’ve learned a ton talking with faculty in English over the past couple of years about what’s worked and what hasn’t. I’ve also learned from faculty outside of English, picking up tips from those in Biology, Chemistry, and Math among other disciplines.
I’m constantly learning more about teaching in general, students, and myself in the process of learning more about online teaching.