Remote Learning with Mark Shea: Clear Communication and Recognizing the Situation

Mark Shea is a senior lecturer in the English department and the ESOL coordinator. He is an expert in second language acquisition and pedagogy, language assessment and teacher education. He spoke with Sasha Nyary on April 2, 2020.

On continuing classes in a new environment 

I’m teaching two classes this semester. Academic Discourse and Multilingual Speakers is an academic writing course. The Global English class looks at English as the lingua franca around the world. The two classes are a little different, so the ways I’ve adjusted them are different.

When I realized that we were going to be disrupted, my goal for both classes was to rely as much as I could on technology we were already familiar with. A lot of my students are international and I knew there would be such a range of time zones and internet connectivity. So  I wasn’t going to try to do anything synchronously, except maybe office hours.

Both of my classes have a revision writing project assignment. That involves some interaction with me. We can do that by comments on a shared document or by a video conference. If they finish that revision assignment, then they’ve completed the course. There will also be discussions, readings and writing that they can engage with. 

Mark Shea illustration by Marina Li

On the student response

It’s still early since classes started back up and a number of students are starting to check in on discussion forums. There’s a lot more independent reading. A lot of my students had a long way to travel. They had very circuitous routes. When they arrived at their destination they had to go into quarantine. Sometimes the connectivity, the technology wasn’t really there. I’m getting a lot of students checking in this week and saying, “I just got home,” or, “I just managed to get a hotspot.” And plenty of students who didn't have long trips home are encountering similar difficulties.

So I need to make deadlines and the types of interactions as flexible as possible. One nice thing about Moodle is that I can see basic statistics of what’s been logged into and what people have looked at. So I’ve been keeping an eye on them there. Maybe one student, because of where they are, the technology they have, and their own emotional needs, needs to have a live check-in every two days. That’s a great way for them to stay engaged and stay focused. For other students, they work on that paper and then they pop back in and I give them feedback. That’s going to be what they can do and what they have, what best suits their situation and the way they want to work.

Mark Shea interview class pic

On his top three remote-teaching goals

Before spring break, both of my classes were just excellent classes. They were doing really good work. So first, I want to provide instructional materials, activities and feedback that respects the work that they have already put into the semester and allows them to be as rigorous and committed to their work as they want to be — that recognizes the situations and positions that they are finding themselves in.

The second thing I’m doing is drawing on pre-existing principles, such as accessibility and universal design, which is a way of thinking about teaching and learning in an equitable way. The idea is to provide material and instruction so that it allows them to participate to the best of their ability based on their situation, their technology, their motivation and their emotional reserves.

The third is the way that I communicate. I’m looking at the frequency of my communication and figuring out ways to communicate that make it seem easy and natural for them to communicate back with me.

I’m trying to find the most humane way to deal with the situation. All of us — students, faculty, staff — have to revise our expectations about what is possible in the amount of time and capacity for work that we have.