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Breaking up the Buffet: Writing Teaching Online Tidbits

By: Catrina Mitchum & Shelley Rodrigo

In March 2020 the vast majority of educators, many of whom had never taken a class online, let alone taught one, were required to “transition” their courses to a “remote” format. Needless to say, this was a traumatic time for many teachers. As two administrators with over 30 years of online teaching experience between the two of us, we were instantly busy supporting over 200 faculty teaching thousands of students in our Writing Program and our parent Department of English. That work aside, we also wanted to be sure to share our expertise (ie., our tips, tricks, and words-of-wisdom) with our larger education community; thus, the TOTs were baked!

The Teaching Online Tidbits (TOTs) were our contribution to all of the resource sharing that happened last spring. We knew that folks were circulating a buffet of books and other resources to support online learning. We also knew that people were already overwhelmed and long lists of complex and detailed resources that included too many options that went into too much detail. For many it was a table overflowing with rich and exotic foods when folks were too stressed to eat and just wanted a little bit of comfort.

We knew we wanted the TOTs to focus on two things:

  1. make the resources we were sharing very focused, “bite size,” and

  2. provide examples of what we are talking about.

More than once readers mentioned that having just about a page’s worth of content was just the Goldilocks amount of information in any given moment. We also tried to break up the information by only publishing one TOT a day, sharing it via Facebook and Twitter. We published seven days a week for the first month or so and then scaled back to only weekdays.

We would never claim the TOTs in their entirety are a resource that someone could read and then be ready to teach online. For example, we both agree that careful curricular design and alignment** is crucial for a successful online course. Instead, the TOTs are resources for getting ideas and/or being reminded about something specific you should carefully consider.

Although we do not proclaim this is a structured resource for teaching online course design and delivery; we will share some suggestions to guide your consumption of the TOTs. If you are new to online instruction and are still selecting texts and technologies, consider masticating the TOTs focused on accessibility:

We also like our roundup about designing discussion board prompts:

Finally, as literacy educators, we think it’s important that you think about how you ask students to read and take notes in digital environments:

We stopped baking the TOTs in early May. However, we’ve found ourselves continuously referring back to and/or recycling them as we support more teachers preparing for fall and continue to write a book about teaching literacy in online/digital environments. We are thrilled that so many people found the TOTs so useful they either reached out and said something, forwarded them on to their colleagues, and, like the American Association of Applied Linguistics Graduate Student Council Social Media Sub-committee, asked us if it was ok to share the TOTs with other groups. Since we used bit.ly as the URL shortener, we have some sense of how many click throughs (1,842 as of 8/4/20).

About Us

Catrina Mitchum is the Interim Associate Director of Online Writing at the University of Arizona. She’s been involved in various aspects of online education for over a decade. She researches online retention and the impact of various aspects of teaching online has on student success.

Shelley Rodrigo is the Senior Director of the Writing Program at the University of Arizona. Shelley’s been designing, teaching, and administering online courses/programs for over 20 years. She researches how “newer” technologies better facilitate communicative interactions, specifically teaching and learning.

**Curricular Design & Alignment

When we say curricular alignment, we mean that your course learning objectives need to be aligned with your module/unit objectives, as well as your assessments, instructional materials, and learning activities. By alignment, we specifically mean that these should be aligned in both content (you are teaching and assessing the same information or skills) as well as level of complexity (e.g., Bloom’s Taxonomy). Let’s pretend we teach math, your curriculum would be out of alignment if:

  1. If you were teaching decimals and assessing on fractions (we know they are related, but they are not the same); or

  2. If you were only providing practice equations to learn fractions and then asked students to solve a scenario based word-problem in the assessment.

We’d also argue that your curriculum would be unethical if you only provided instructional materials and then assessed students; in other words, we’d argue you also need to provide students low-stakes learning activities where they can make mistakes during the learning process without being penalized. Curricular alignment is heavily emphasized in asynchronous courses because having a well designed curriculum both helps with course organization (which is critical in digital environments) as well as, if shared with the students, provides learners with the reasoning for why they are doing what is asked of them. There are a variety of instructional design models that help guide teachers in developing aligned curriculum; we're big fans of Backwards Design as articulated by Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design.


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