English professor succeeds online by embracing flexibility

- April 21, 2021

Kathy Cawsey believes in giving students lots of choices. (Hannah Wei photo/Unsplash)
Kathy Cawsey believes in giving students lots of choices. (Hannah Wei photo/Unsplash)

Adapting to online technology has never been a problem for English professor Kathy Cawsey. She was teaching online classes with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) long before the COVID pandemic hit.

What has made teaching in the pandemic era so challenging, she says, is the fact that there is no longer a choice between in-person and online courses.

“What I realized as that first term during COVID went on, is that every student I had taught online before the pandemic was self-selecting,” says Cawsey, shown left. “They chose to take an online course. Also, they were usually taking only one online course at a time. The advice we were given in teaching those classes was based on these two factors. But a lot of that advice doesn’t work for people who don’t want to take online courses, who don’t naturally learn or organize their time that way, or who have to take five online courses at once.”

Cawsey says that students aren’t the only ones who can feel uncomfortable in an online environment. There can be aspects that professors find unpalatable, too. The key, she says, is making the necessary adjustments — creating options that make it work for students and instructors alike.

“As an extrovert, I couldn’t imagine teaching for a whole semester without seeing a student,” she says. “Though we were supposed to go asynchronous, I offered voluntary synchronous tutorials. Students could get participation points for these.

Unlocking hidden value

Cawsey says that while the synchronous tutorials were originally created for her desire for social interaction, they had value to many of her students, too.

“The traditional, asynchronous methods of participation were still there. Students could post discussions on the class boards if they wanted, and the students who preferred synchronous participation could get their points in tutorials.”

This winter, Cawsey went a step further and made her class delivery synchronous, so that students who wanted a traditional, live experience had that option. However, the lectures were recorded for students who prefer asynchronous delivery.

Cawsey also took steps to keep her classes grounded and organized. “The other thing I started doing was posting weekly to-do lists and linking to relevant Brightspace files to help students manage the chaos,” she said. “It can be hard to keep track of everything in Brightspace across five courses, so having the lists helped keep things together."

Fostering success

Cawsey believes in giving students lots of choices. Because everyone likes to learn and manage their workloads in different ways, giving students options can make life less stressful while fostering success.

“For instance, I used to assign five weekly mini-essays in the in-person classes,” she says. “It would be ten minutes of writing at the end of the class. I would give them two quotations they could choose to write about. Students found this much less stressful than one big midterm.

“However, when we switched to online classes, many of them seemed to find it more stressful because of the way the quiz would time out at the end. They could see the computer clock ticking down. So I gave them the choice of either doing that quiz or submitting their own writing assignment on their own time. In this option, they could choose their own quotations and write about them.”

Cawsey says that she has been so impressed with the results of having multiple options that she plans to adopt this strategy into her in-person classes when the pandemic is over. “While there’s some benefit to forcing people outside of their comfort zone, most of the time, allowing the students to cater to their own learning styles is really important,” she says. “And it doesn’t take too much time on my part to give these options.

“Some students like to do a multitude of smaller assignments, while others see that as busy-work and prefer to have all their marks depend on one or two big assignments at the end of the class. And this semester I gave them the choice. Offering an array of options and allowing them to construct their own learning experience is a really valuable way to go.”

Cawsey likes to provide technological options, too. For instance, while students can engage in synchronous video discussions, she also provides a chatroom forum: “I kept that as one of my options for participation, because while it allows for synchronous discussions, it avoids some of the problems with video chat, such as bandwidth use and privacy concerns."

A caring touch

While her classes are going very well, Cawsey says there are still challenges. Time management, she says, has been difficult in the pandemic. “It’s really hard for the students who have ADHD,” she says, “and for those who need some sort of structure and motivation, and who have problems with time management. For example, some students who think they can handle an asynchronous working style would really benefit from a steady, synchronous schedule so they don’t fall behind on the lectures.”

Cawsey says that professors face challenges online, too. “In an in-person class, it’s noticeable when students aren’t attending lectures. When you’re online, you don’t have the same sense of contact. Not only is absence less visible online, but you don’t have the same sense of how they’re doing in the class. You don’t have the same sense of what you should be repeating or focusing on.”

Cawsey says the overall feedback from her students has been mixed. “Generally I would say their experience this year has been negative. They are missing their friends, they are finding it hard to work with no contact. But there are some students who like it better: those who are self-motivated and who can make time for their schoolwork while holding a job.

“In terms of my classes, I’ve had reasonably good feedback because I’m constantly emailing them asking how they’re keeping up, asking if I can do anything to help, asking if I’m going too quickly or too slowly. They seem to really need that constant contact from the prof.”

Cawsey says this contact is crucial for success, and interestingly, it isn’t really about time or work management. “While a student may email you with a question about the class, the real question is, do you know that I exist, and are you there?” she explains. “And once you make that mental shift — that these emails are not really about the trivia they are asking about, but are about confirming that they’re real people and letting them know that you’re there for them — then I find the email load becomes much easier to handle.”

Cawsey is happy to share her accrued wisdom with students and faculty alike. Her advice for students? “Be organized. Plot out your week and what you need to do. If your prof isn’t clear about what is needed, ask. Plan ahead so things don’t come up out of the blue. The second thing is, your profs are people so don’t expect an email response right away, but email them, ask them questions. If you don’t understand, ask. And ask early.”


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