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Teaching Online in Extraordinary Times

Lee Skallerup Bessette, Georgetown University 

This is, to put it mildly, not business-as-usual, not normal. These are not “ideal learning conditions” for anyone, faculty, staff, or students. These actions that we are undertaking, to wholesale move entire campuses’ worth of courses from in-person to distance learning, is unprecedented. We are all under tremendous stress and pressure to try and make what seemed like it would be impossible, not just possible, but effective. 

And so before any advice on technology or techniques or strategies, remember the human beings on the other side of the screen, on the other side of the phone or help desk email address, on the other side of the emails you are receiving from you institution, your students, your colleagues. We are all in this together, and we are all doing the best we can. Be there, be present, be patient, be kind, be generous to and with your students, especially, but also your colleagues. If this is to be any sort of success, then it will be because of our shared humanity and community in these difficult times. 

Stick with the basics and what you know, technology-wise, but let your students know how you will be communicating with them, as well as the best ways they can communicate with you. Listen to them and make space for them to share their concerns and anxieties with you and with each other. Think about ways to ensure that the community you have built in the class so far over the semester can continue in online spaces. Or, how can you create a space that allows community between the students to form?

Ask the students for ideas and suggestions.  

An online course ideally takes six months to a year to design, build, and implement. These are not online classes, these are courses that we are rapidly adapting for distance learning. It feels (and is) chaotic and overwhelming. I hope there are people on your campus who are available to help, but if not, reach out to your network, to your community for advice, resources, and help. I have been impressed by the generosity and spirit of my colleagues in their efforts to help not only the faculty at their own institution, but their under-resourced colleagues teaching and working anywhere. 

Having said all of that, you are probably still looking for guidance. Trust students. Work with your colleagues, your IT staff, your faculty developers, your librarians, your instructional designers. Reach out on your professional listservs. Use the tools that your institution supports, ask the students what else would help and what they need, and be open and flexible. 

If we work together, we will get through these extraordinary times. 

Lee Skallerup Bessette, PhD, is a Learning Design Specialist at the Center for New Designs in Teaching and Scholarship (CNDLS) at Georgetown University. You can find more of her writing at or follow her on Twitter @readywriting.

Call for Responses, March Pedagogy Issue

These are, indeed, extraordinary times. As hospitals, governments and retailers across the world deal with the effects of COVID-19, the educational sector is preparing to move classes online without the training or digital infrastructure usually put in place for the virtual classroom. 

In March, the Modernist Review will publish its special pedagogy issue. Pedagogical discussion in the modernist community often tends towards the troublesome: in light of the current situation, we would like to invite responses to this above article related to teaching and moving events online. We are looking for informal pieces of about 500 words regarding experiences, tips, issues, innovations, or reflections.

As Bessette asks, how are you continuing and adapting your communities in online spaces? DM us on Twitter @modernistudies or email us at!


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