English Professor Beata Potocki Breaks Down Best Practices for Distance Learning Success

English Professor Beata Potocki Breaks Down Best Practices for Distance Learning Success

English Professor Beata Potocki Breaks Down Best Practices for Distance Learning Success

After teaching online courses for over 15 years, Beata Potocki, Ph.D., knows some of the best strategies for successful distance learning. The John Jay Adjunct Assistant Professor of English and Faculty Fellow in Online Pedagogies, Teaching and Learning Center has now converted her regular in-person classes to distance-learning classes, while also continuing her regularly scheduled online classes.

“It’s actually harder to convert a class because you have to be resourceful and think of ways to adapt what you’ve already planned. I have one class that focuses on murder, seen on the stage and screen. The challenge was that we read plays in the class and have group performances. I had to reconfigure all of that for an online format,” says Potocki. “My solution was to give students the option to either do a dramatic reading of the play, modernizing the text and recording themselves on video, or do a group performance remotely through Zoom. Then I made the deadline a little later, giving the students time to adjust to the new digital concept.” Considering that Potocki specializes in online pedagogies, we asked her questions that would help both faculty and students succeed in our new distance-learning model.

When creating a curriculum for a new distance-learning course, what’s your process? How do you feel about having an asynchronous or synchronized structure?
For both, I start with the learning objectives and what I want students to get out of the class. The objectives are the same. What I would say is different is how I create assignments for those objectives to be reached.

For my online classes I use an asynchronous style. In my online classes, I normally start out by asking the students to introduce themselves and tell us a little bit about themselves. By doing this I get a sense of what their lives look like. Over time I’ve noticed that a lot of students who sign up for online classes, generally speaking, have very complicated schedules and lives. They’re working and taking care of families. In my mind it would be unfair to demand those students to be in one place at a particular time, and they’re taking online classes for a reason, the flexibility. When you have 28 students it’s hard to find one time that works for everyone. Just imagine trying to set up a meeting for 28 people, it never works perfectly.

For my converted class this semester, once it became a distance-learning class, I set up only one synched session. Almost the whole class showed up for that session. I believe that’s because the class was designed to meet at that time, and they all wanted to ask questions and hear feedback in real time. For my original online class, I didn’t require that session at all, and they got together in small digital study groups on their own accord.

“For online classes, the big challenge is how students can interact with one another. The Blackboard discussion feature provides that forum.” —Beata Potocki

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges for a distance-learning class?
For online classes, the big challenge is how students can interact with one another. I think that the Blackboard discussion feature can provide that forum. The students like it because it’s almost like being in a regular social media chat room, but for asynchronous learning. Some professors are using the free version of Slack for the same purpose. They prefer it because it’s better designed for having a back and forth discussion. The comments flow quicker in Slack because messages pop up on a feed and students can respond immediately.

Have you participated in Zoom video conferencing? If so, what was that experience like for you? What are some takeaways that you could offer other faculty members and students?
I haven’t really used Zoom for classes. I’ve used it for professional meetings and webinars. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is the video conferencing tool within Blackboard, and that’s what I like to use in class. It’s similar to Zoom. When it comes to online videos for a class, it’s been my experience that you can’t just show up on a video screen and treat it like a regular in-person class. A video-learning format will naturally make many students shier and more cautious about speaking up, just because of the technology. For an optimal video-learning experience, students need to have a sense of what’s coming. Give them information about the video session beforehand so that they can prepare questions for discussion. Having their questions handy makes them less anxious. It’s one less thing to worry about when fumbling around for the right button to press or link to click on. Also, a lot of our video sessions are being recorded. When students become aware of this fact it instantly changes the nature of the conversation. They can become more guarded.

“A video-learning format will naturally make many students shier and more cautious about speaking up, just because of the technology.” —Beata Potocki

In a video class, I have to call on individual students more often than I normally would in an in-person class. Sometimes the students who are more technologically savvy, or who feel more comfortable speaking on video, can dominate the class. It can make the experience feel like a private conversation between the professor and those few students that are inclined to speak up. You’ve got to call on other students to prevent this from happening. You’ve got to find ways to make the experience more inclusive for everyone attending the video session. I like to send out a survey form that asks students directly how they’d like to use a live video session. I ask them what method of interaction they think would be the most productive.

One of Potocki's Blackboard screens

One of Potocki’s weekly folders
Potocki’s Blackboard weekly folders

“On Blackboard I set up separate folders for each week. It’s like a mini web page for that week’s work.” —Beata Potocki

How do you prefer to set up your course work?
On Blackboard I set up separate folders for each week. It’s like a mini web page for that week’s work—reading materials, discussion boards, assignments, and quizzes. When you’re teaching online, it’s important to have a regular routine. I have students turn in their work on a weekly basis, always on the same day of the week. The same goes for the consistency with the discussion boards. I try to have them start the discussion on Wednesday and reply to comments by Friday. It helps students read more of each other’s work, and they don’t cram everything in on the last day. Students should know that time management is the key to distance-learning success. Doing all of their work in one sitting is not the best idea. I have them check in at least twice a week.

“Let students know that you’re present and you’re hearing what they’re saying. You’re a voice of facilitation, guidance, and clarification.” —Beata Potocki

For faculty members, what would you say are the three essential elements that go into a successful distance-learning experience?

Instructor Communication: Students need to know how to communicate with you and with each other. They need to know where the class announcements are being posted and how to contact everyone. We’re all being inundated with emails and work, but it’s imperative to check in at least twice a week with your students.

Instructor Presence: When you’re requiring that students post on discussion boards, show them that you’re there. Selectively and strategically post on different students' comments. Let students know that you’re present and you’re hearing what they’re saying. You’re a voice of facilitation, guidance, and clarification, but you don’t want to dominate the discussion.  

Student-to-Student Interaction: Make sure that the students in your class are truly talking to each other. Collaboration is key for online learning, but it can be hard to foster. Discussion boards and small groups are good spaces where they can talk about their ideas. I know some faculty members who effectively use a journal-partner technique where pairs of students regularly comment on the other partner’s writing. It increases accountability by having just two people in the partnership, and they can engage in peer editing before turning in a final draft of a paper.

What advice would you offer to a professor engaging in online teaching for the first time? How about for a student?
We all have to remember that we’re dealing with a lot. For students, I would say, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed—online classes tend to be a lot more work initially—but just hang in there and ask for help when you need it. For faculty, I would say, streamline whatever assignments you can, and don’t make students learn too many types of technology. Go back to your goals, what were you hoping the students would accomplish when the semester was over? Realize that it will take students longer to do all the assignments online and condense what you can without jeopardizing the goals. The important thing is that students produce good work and learn, even in this challenging situation.

“I get a lot of requests for recommendation letters from my online students. It tells me something is working. They recognize that I know them and I know their work.” —Beata Potocki

What’s your favorite online-teaching story?
When you’re teaching online, sometimes you don’t know what your students look like, but they know what you look like. Last year, I was standing in line hoping to see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I got in the line really late, and as I thought, I’m not going to make it in, I noticed a young woman looking at me and smiling. She said, “Are you professor Potocki?” This young woman was an excellent student who had a family tragedy while taking my class. She pulled through and did really well considering her circumstances. I was really proud of her and so happy to meet her in person that day. Online classes are intimate in a different way than in-person classes. You create a different kind of learning community. I get a lot of requests for recommendation letters from my online students. It tells me something is working. They recognize that I know them and I know their work. Seeing this student was a nice validation. We talked for 30 minutes—but neither of us got in to see A.O.C.