TL;DR: Have Empathy for your Students.

COVID (and remote learning) has exacerbated economic and social barriers to learning. We have a moral imperative to build as much flexibility into our courses as possible.

Empathy for Students: A Listicle

I wrote this list of things to do or not do for the fall in part for myself, as I embark on teaching CS1 for the first time. Some things are general to all courses and topics, but I’m mostly thinking about teaching CS.

2020 is a year of suffering for everyone.

I see faculty peers suffering. I see students suffering. I see medical professionals suffering.

We all develop compassion fatigue. It’s hard work to empathize. So I wrote this cheat-sheet, while I have some emotional bandwidth. I have the privilege to think about this, so please copy off of me, and if I’m wrong, please tell me what I missed.

1. Reduce Inequity (Mark Guzdial)

In the spirit of copying off of others with good thoughts, you should really check out Mark Guzdial’s thoughts (CACM Article):

“3 Proposals to Change How We Teach Computing In Order to Reduce Inequality”.

His three proposals (each links to blog posts) are:

  1. Use research-based methods that advantage the least prepared students
  2. Make the highest grades achievable by all students
  3. Call a truce on prosecuting plagiarism on programming assignments

I fully agree with his proposals, and I’m not going to go over that content here, I merely wish to ensure there is well-researched content before I go adding my own, uncited anecdotes and opinions.

2. Believe Students when their Internet Doesn’t Work.

The quality of your access correlates VERY STRONGLY with the wealth of your neighborhood, and therefore your family. In my more-synchronous class this past Spring, I frequently had internet access issues – living in the same apartment I rented as a “poor”-ish graduate student. My students had worse.

We ran a lot of those sections voice-only with Google Docs as backup notes for discussion.

As a follow-up to this: plan for failure. Assume they won’t be able to get to Moodle/Canvas/etc. on a deadline. Assume they’re not lying.

What’s your backup-plan?

3. Prefer Auto-Graded or Self-Graded Activities

Because I made my larger Spring course auto-graded (simplifying a bit of some assignments), I was able to say “Yes” to every request for an extension before grades closed.

In my opinion, this positive (saying “Yes” to extensions) vastly outweighs the negatives.

4. Don’t Brag About Your Zoom Background.

I know not all students can afford computers that support real-time image processing of their camera feed, because my MacBook Air (2017) could not.

A ~2-year old ~$900 laptop couldn’t handle it. That’s still a good laptop for students.

5. Don’t Require Synchronous Video from Students.

No access to Zoom background editing means that students with the least means must let strangers view into their homes when you demand their video be on.

If you, as a faculty member, wouldn’t do it, why would you ask a student to do it?

Be open to working around your student’s constraints and be mindful of what you ask them to do.

6. Don’t Assume Students Have Your Workspace (A/C)

You are a professor and you are significantly more likely than your students to (1) own a house or a nice apartment, and (2) have central air.

As a graduate student, my apartment could not comfortably support air conditioning because of the old wiring and this didn’t matter until 2020.

Since March, I could not go to the library. Or to work. Or to a public restaurant. My partner and I were trapped in our overheated apartment with no chance to cool down and recover.

Access to cool spaces for most people has disappeared. This will affect the beginning of the Fall Semester. You know what makes heat worse? Running Zoom for hours on end (See #4,5)

7. Don’t Assume Students Have Your Workspace (SqFt)

You know what helps people work? Quiet.

Do you know where quiet comes from? Space.

Do you know where space comes from? Money.

Your rich students already have their own apartments paid by their parents if they weren’t welcome back to campus.

Meanwhile, one of my former students is doing a remote internship from her kitchen table. She will do all of Fall 2020 in full view of her family, without a private, quiet space to participate in coursework.

Don’t make it any harder for her to earn her grades than her peers.

8. Be flexible on deadlines.

Your students will be caregivers AND bread-winners, too.

Whether they are parenting or educating their siblings, or their relatives are sick, or their paycheck is necessary to pay the bills, the quiz you want to be due on Friday at 5pm is a MASSIVE problem for someone, through no fault of their own.

Be flexible on deadlines.

9. Don’t Force Your Students To Engage With COVID Examples.

There’s some cool stuff out there about how we can more efficiently use COVID testing resources to test more people if we do logarithmic grouping of samples, like binary search. Thanks, ACM TechNews.

I’ve gone back and forth on this, but part of the reason I can think that’s cool is because I have not yet lost any loved ones to COVID.

Can you or your students say the same? This is a traumatic time. Respect that.

I’m planning to mark videos or examples that reference COVID, and make sure students know they’re optional. They can come back, if they like, in their own time.

10. Build Social Connections with and between your students!

One of the reasons I’m willing to get a 12th Slack instance for the Fall is because I will have ~60 students who have probably not interacted meaningfully with anyone their age for months.

Students starting College now will struggle to make friends and connections in a way that (probably?) nobody fully understands.

Email & Piazza don’t build social bonds. Without social bonds, your students will be more stressed out (at least!).

One of my regrets about using only Email & Piazza for my large class last Spring was that I had no informal means of communication with students. To ask “How are you doing?” I needed to write an email. To get a response, they had to write an email to an authority figure.

With Slack, I can post “Today I feel…” and have those who feel comfortable react with Emoji.

If you do nothing else, be honest.

Admit that everyone is stressed out and this sucks.

Nobody wants to learn remotely. Nobody wants to have their lives threatened by a disease we still don’t have control over.

Things are really hard, and isolation, financial stress, sickness, loss of loved ones, and whatever else has been happening in peoples’ lives is REALLY HARD.

You’re students know this. Tell them you know it, too. And make your course policies reflect it.