Stories from the Online Teaching Trenches

Deborah Cai

Deborah Cai, Senior Associate Dean and Professor at the Lew Klein School of Media and Communications, shared this message with us. The original version was sent to the chairs and senior staff at Klein, but we thought it was so compelling that we asked her if we could use it for this blog post. Thanks to Deb for allowing us to share, and thanks to all those at Temple like her who are so thoughtful about the current situation.


I have spoken with a number of students over the past several days to see how they are doing. All of the students – from highly motivated to average – talked about being overwhelmed with the transition to online learning, to living with family members (who also need to use the computer and internet). Several students have had family members or friends either hospitalized or die from the virus. One student is home with her family of four; she is the only one who still has a job. Another just made it back to his home in another state from Philly just a few days ago—his parents had been traveling and he didn’t really have anywhere to go or a way to get there. Another said she can only get internet in a park down the street from her house (I sent her the link about Comcast offering free internet to low income students). And most of the students have five classes to manage—not just one or two. I’m sure you are hearing similar stories from your own students.


When I looked at my gradebook over the weekend, it seemed 13 students (out of 60) had not been turning in assignments. I wrote to those students. Over the next three days I heard from (or met with during virtual office hours) all of those students, every one of them grateful for someone checking on their welfare and every one of them talking about how difficult the transition has been. Some are getting back on their feet, others are figuring out which courses they should drop because they can’t keep up. But every one of the students talked about their struggle of having fallen way behind across their courses.


I want to share with you some of their concerns, which I hope you will pass on to your faculty:

  1. In the transition to online learning, some faculty have replaced substantive content with busywork assignments. The students expressed frustration because the increase in assignments has made time management even more difficult, especially when this increase in assignments is happening across three or four courses.
  2. Further, students said they feel like they are not learning anything from these busywork tasks. Several students said they are now doing more work, but they are learning less in some of their courses. One student commented that, out of five courses, he is only still learning substantive material in two. He did say those other three were classes mostly outside of their major—but not completely.
  3. The students really appreciated when faculty members have been flexible about when assignments are due, allowing for late submissions, and focusing more on whether the work gets done than meeting a hard deadline. Some of the students are scrambling to now catch up after a rough couple of weeks moving to online courses. They are especially appreciative when faculty extend deadlines without penalty and when their instructors have worked with them to find ways to help them catch up.
  4. Several students said that some faculty members are very slow to respond to emails, at a time when hearing from their instructors is more meaningful than ever. In a time of uncertainty and isolation, they asked if faculty could be urged to be responsive on email.
  5. Like most of you, I’m holding virtual office hours for my students. At first, two students came. Then three. And this week seven. Just to chat. Just happy to connect. Several have lamented losing the energy and motivation and encouragement they get from being in a classroom setting, hearing lectures by professors passionate about their subject, interacting with faculty and students regularly in the hall.

As we all know, right now is a tough time for many of our students. A focus on learning and on social support is more important than hours of work or deadlines right now.


Please be active in checking on whether each student is still active in their classes. While there are many students who have been active in virtual class engagement, there are also many students that have gone missing in action all together. The University has encouraged us to reach out to those students to make sure they are safe and not at risk. If you do not hear back from specific students after several attempts, please inform your chair and/or dean right away who those students are. Temple has a process in place for reaching out to them, and we would want to employ that process right away.


I want to add that, with all of the supposition that online learning will take over in the future because of the current transition to online due to the virus, talking to students paints a very different picture. The students I’ve been talking to said they are energized by the classroom, by being on campus, by being around others who are excited and motivated to learn and to teach. They can hardly wait to get back.


[Editor’s Note: If you have students missing in action, even after you have tried reaching out, or you are aware of students who are facing an immediate crisis, please contact the CARE Team. Instructors in need of assistance teaching online can schedule a consultation appointment with a member of the CAT team.]


Send us your Stories from the Online Teaching Trenches. We would love to hear about your experiences. Stories can be sent to

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