Teaching Online in Fall 2020

I am teaching English 3150 “Advanced Expository Writing” in the fall. I have taught it several times before, but never in a completely online asynchronous situation. When students enrolled in it, it was listed as face-to-face. It is still three months before classes start, but I wanted to contact the students to make sure that they knew what was in store, so I sent the following email to the class:

Dear English 3150 Students:

You recently got an email informing you that the course you signed up for has been switched to an online format. We had to do this because of decisions made by the Chancellor’s Office and Cal Poly Pomona to protect students, faculty, and staff from Covid-19. It is disappointing, but is probably a wise decision.

I want to tell you a bit about how English 3150 will be designed. During the summer, all faculty will be taking an online course about best practices for teaching online, so this may change a little as I learn new techniques, but here are my plans at the moment.

The course will be designed around the theme “How Life Has Changed.” I have Covid-19 in mind, but the theme could go beyond that. I will produce podcasts and videos on the course content and provide feedback on the submitted projects. We will also have weekly Zoom meetings.

Throughout the course, you will work together in small writing groups. Your group will be able to form their own discussion places on Blackboard and elsewhere to give each other feedback, advice, and encouragement. You will get to know your group very well.

In the first part of the course we will work on style with exercises, experiments, and other activities designed to stretch your stylistic repertoire. This will result in a personal narrative about your own experiences of change in the world and in your life.

In the second part of the course we will focus on rhetorical strategies, argumentation and persuasion. We will explore different organizational patterns and ways of persuading audiences. In this part of the course you will write an op-ed arguing for a particular change or course of action in how we do things. You might be writing about employment, racial disparity, medical issues, social practices, protests, supply chains, scarcity, art, literature, technology, politics etc., anything that is interesting to you.

In the final part of the course you will begin a research project that will look like investigative journalism. You will choose an issue and go on a research expedition to take a deep dive and follow links and connections to discover the truth about the matter. You will do this through online library databases and other online resources.

I have several blog sites that I maintain. I plan to convert one of them into a sort of online magazine. In the final weeks of the course, your group will decide which pieces–the narrative, the op-ed, or the investigative piece, one from each writer–should go up on the public website. At this point you will be functioning as editors, choosing and revising pieces for a new audience.

That’s the plan so far. I look forward to working with you in the fall.

Synchronous or Asynchronous?

I learned a lot in the past three months about teaching online. The first question is whether the course should be synchronous, with the students meeting online with the professor through Zoom or another platform at the designated class times, or asynchronous, with online lectures and online work to be done according to the student’s schedule. In the spring, I kept my graduate seminar in teaching writing synchronous through Zoom and Slack meetings every Tuesday evening, as originally scheduled. This worked well. It was a small class with engaged, well-prepared students. They all finished the work.

My Genre Fiction course became asynchronous. I created podcasts, and at the end a video using Kaltura, a video capture and hosting app. I had blogs and discussion boards. I felt I was losing track of some students so I started doing a weekly voluntary Zoom meeting that attracted pretty much the same seven students every week. A number of students were not participating in the discussion boards, so I created alternative extra credit assignments. I ignored due dates. By the end, I lost only two students. One other student got a D. The rest passed and there were many A’s because of the extra credit and the relaxed due dates.

The upshot? A synchronous course provides structure and can build community. However, student work and family schedules under lockdown or semi-lockdown can vary widely. An asynchronous course provides much more flexibility. My informal surveys of students were inconclusive. Some students prefer synchronous, some asynchronous. What was clear was that they preferred face-to-face meetings.

I am going to go asychronous with voluntary weekly Zoom meetings. In the spring, these turned into group office hour sessions that were as helpful for me as for the students.

Discussion Boards?

The other thing I learned was that students hate discussion boards. In a face-to-face class, there are always five to seven students who are eager to participate, while the majority of the students prefer to sit back and listen to smart people talk. Even in a face-to-face course, I usually have an online discussion board of some kind, but it is usually low stakes. However, the discussion board in the newly online Genre Fiction course was high stakes because it was replacing the class meetings. It became a big part of the grade. I had multiple discussion questions for each week. Many students listened to the podcasts, read my notes, but did not post to the discussion boards. I felt that a major component of my teaching was simply not working.

Story Response Sheets

However, I found that students liked another aspect of the course, something I called the “Story Response Sheet” or SRS. This sheet asks questions about themes, characters, exposition devices, plot, point of view, style, and other aspects of story craft. Then it asks for a rating on the “Read-O-Meter” from 1 (Totally Dreadful) to 10 (Totally Awesome) and a paragraph about why they gave the story that rating. They happily turned these in and reported that filling them out caused them to think about aspects of the stories they would not normally think about.


In fall 2020 I intend to continue to use a discussion board, but I will make it mostly about personal responses–things they noticed, things they liked, things they didn’t like, things that surprised them, etc. I will use something like the SRS assignment for more substantive questions. Those will be submitted to me and will not be available to other students.

Fall 2020 will be an adventure for the students and for me. All faculty will take an online course in teaching online starting in June, so I will have more ideas by the end of the summer. I will report on those too.