Calm and Compassionate Online Teaching: Q&A with Shelley Rodrigo

Rochelle (Shelley) Rodrigo has been teaching online for more than 20 years. She has also developed and administered an online writing program and supported instructors as an instructional technologist. Shelley is the interim director of the writing program; associate professor in the rhetoric, composition, and the teaching of English (RCTE); and associate writing specialist (continuing status) in the department of English at the University of Arizona. She researches how “newer” technologies better facilitate communicative interactions, specifically teaching and learning.

This Q&A was adapted from a workshop for transitioning composition instruction online due to COVID-19 during Spring 2020. It was led by Shelley Rodrigo and hosted by Norton. The full recording of that workshop can be accessed here.

What are your thoughts on synchronous versus asynchronous meetings?

Shelley Rodrigo: Can I talk you out of synchronous meetings? I know a lot of people are very wedded to reimagining their face-to-face instructional methods: they’re amazing in-class teachers, they’re amazing lecturers, they’re great discussion facilitators, they’re really crafty at getting classroom activities. All of those you can do asynchronously.

If you’re a really good lecturer, record it, and then have your students engage with it. If you’re a really good discussion facilitator, figure out how to do that in the discussion board, or if you haven’t played with VoiceThread, check out VoiceThread. There’s Google Docs. If you’re someone who is really crafty with activities, you’re just limited by your imagination and your know-how of different technologies that exist to help you do what you want to do. That’s when you go find your resident geek, like me, who will help you. Go and say, “I do this activity and I love this activity. How do I reimagine it online?” Go talk to your folks who’ve been doing this for a while, and they’ll help you.

With synchronous meetings, I’m going to remind you: not everyone has access, and even if they have access, it doesn’t mean their connectivity hardware or software is up to the game. Their time responsibilities are not their own, or even in the same time zone. And once you realize that you can’t guarantee all of your students will be there, my question then becomes, “Well then, can you shift to asynchronous anyways?”

If you’re doing asynchronous teaching, do you recommend recording lectures and sharing them that way?

I don’t lecture, but there are people who are amazing lecturers, and I’m just envious of that skill. My major thing to remind you is that no one likes to watch a long video. So if you do lectures, keep them very short—think five, no more than ten, minutes. If you expect students to read, view, or listen to anything, you must have some activity that gets them engaging with the material and that holds them accountable with points for that activity. If there’s nothing that holds them accountable for engaging with whatever it is, they won’t do it because no one has time for that. If you talk a lot, and then you don’t hold them responsible for that content, they’re not going to watch or listen to it. My last tidbit: If you can post it in a format that allows them to play it faster (and then show them how to do that), they’ll appreciate it.

What are some tips for getting students to work together while they are online?

It’s tough in the same way that it’s tough in the classroom. Getting students to interact with one another—they need guidance on doing that. One thing is the replacement of hallway and before-class chatter: that’s hard, and that’s critical, especially right now with the social distancing, folks are going to want that. Think about if your campus has some social media applications, or if you could do something like have a Facebook group, use Slack, Twitter hashtags, and other things like that. Those sometimes replace the more casual chatting, and that’s important.

The best thing you can do in terms of the course assignments is give them guidance, and even specific instruction on how to respond to one another. By that I mean: what type of content? For example, you’ll see in a lot of the assignment sequences on the site, a lot of the reply prompts say things like “When you reply, ask for questions.” Because it’s not just replying, or else people will only say “That looks good!” It’s prompting students to reply and ask for questions, connect to their own experience, etc. You’re helping them provide more useful information, which will then make people more willing to read one another’s comments, and maybe reply to one another’s comments.

Do you think that deadlines should still align to when face-to-face classes were scheduled?

Not at all. This becomes an opportunity where you get to make it work better for you. Especially since we’re talking about asynchronous work here, I think we have to realize that for most of our students, their schedules are not the same either. A lot of them are in different time zones. A lot of their work schedules have changed because of everything that’s going on. A lot of them have caregiving responsibilities, whether it’s parents, children, siblings. So they’re not on the same schedule, and you’re not on the same schedule.

What does a compassionate late-work policy look like?

My late-work policy for over a decade now is that I accept anything late, except drafts and peer reviews. The reason I don’t accept those late is because students are dependent upon them—the draft has to be there for someone to peer review, and someone has to do the peer review for someone to be able to revise later.

You’re going to have students who keep up and do the vast majority of the work. And you’re going to lose a lot of students because they can’t keep up for a variety of reasons. And please don’t judge them. Most of it has nothing to do with their intelligence or connection to the content of the work, or even their desire to do it. There’s just a lot of things that keep them from doing this. And what I have found—in this case because we’re at an eight-week mark—probably once a student falls more than a week or a week and a half behind, it’s highly unlikely they’re going to get caught up. The class just goes that quickly. However—although most of them don’t do it—they’re always extremely thankful for the opportunity to try to catch up. And right now that’s part of the empathy we need to give them.

And then, what about the one student who tries to do all the work at the end of the semester? Yes, it happens. And they rarely do it successfully. Because they’re trying to cram weeks’ worth of work into a day or two, and it’s just not successful. You are very quickly and very easily going to see that the content is not there.

So, back to penalizing late work—basically what’s happening now is that you used to count attendance, and you didn’t count participation. That goes away online—online it’s all about participation and what work they do. It’s less about attendance. And so, especially with everything that’s going on, you want to try to give them the work, but be kind to yourself. So what I usually do is try to batch grade very quickly after a deadline. And then I tell them, if you submit after the deadline, you’re waiting on me to do that work.

I am just going to remind you: you’re going to lose students, so your workload is already going to lessen. So with the ones who remain, try to be compassionate and let them submit work late.

How would you adapt these strategies—if at all—for an Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) composition course?

The most important thing for those courses is the multiple deadlines: make it small, small pieces, and ask students to work regularly. Everything else stands.

If you’re transitioning, you’re going to have to cut some stuff, break it up into chunks, and don’t forget you’re going to have to teach the technology. But you might want to have one deadline per day—that may freak out students, but here’s the thing: a student may not make all that, but if we’re accepting late work, what we’re doing with a deadline per day or with three deadlines a week is that we’re just keeping everyone consistently working on it. And, I think for any student population, that is the most helpful strategy.

How do you recommend conducting online peer review of essays?

I think the trick for peer review is details, but part of it is also functionality. I think the easiest methods for you all to handle peer review right now are one of two ways:

  • In a discussion board, have a student upload a draft, have the other student download the draft, and then use commenting features in Microsoft Word.

  • Have students post in Google Docs and do the commenting like we did in the webinar activity.

Peer review pedagogy also means giving students detailed suggestions on how to comment on one another’s work. Think observable and measurable: What types of content do you want them commenting on? How many comments do you want to see? You can eyeball this very quickly.