Reflections on Teaching Online

Little things help.

It's been a long, tiring year of training to teach well online and updating about the creative writing classes with explanations and stories. With classes continuing online for Spring 2021, though, I've found it helpful to look back on the posts to help improve the lessons going forward. Here are a few thoughts about the last year and this series about teaching online.

General Thoughts about Teaching Online

The technical term for what I have done over the past year is Emergency Distance Teaching. My class is not designed for online learning, and it is only because of the coronavirus pandemic that I have had to adapt. The institution I work at chose to keep classes for our department online over the full year of 2020 because they wanted to minimise any risks of outbreaks and students had responded favourably to experiences during the first term of the year. It is unclear how long this will continue, but it certainly isn't ending soon.

Over the first term, it truly was an emergency situation. In the first place, our start date was postponed by two weeks because of the new outbreaks within South Korea at that time. The official announcement of starting online came only about a week before classes officially started. Of course, there was speculation about both of these beforehand, so in a way we were mentally prepared for the possibility. This helped, but didn't make it easy.

Experience in being an expat in South Korea actually prepared me in some useful ways for this. We talk about "balli balli" culture here, where anything can change in a moment and is expected to get done immediately. ("Balli" essentially means "quick", "fast" or "hurry up".) In my first few years of teaching, any rumour of change would send me into deep planning to make the most polished lessons I could before I had to teach even the first one. Of course this was an impossible task, so over time I have  learned to let go of this perfection and trust my own skills and my students. Thankfully, in this position, I have had time to understand what my students truly need and practice adapting to those needs fluidly in the in-person classroom. Once I knew that the technology offered ways to teach in the way I know my students enjoy, my lesson plans were easy to adapt. 

Speaking of technology, from living abroad, I'm well used to video calls and have even joined a few online learning sessions for various topics. So last year, even though I was only able to download the software less than a week before the first lesson, my prior experience led to a smoother transition than expected.

In the end, I've actually enjoyed teaching online. There are some great perks, like taking a quick nap to re-energise and help my eyes, or cooking a healthier lunch each day at home. It has also saved on certain aspects of class preparation, like printing worksheets or assignments. In fact, it has helped to streamline all grading to be electronic, whereas in previous years I did a mix of online and paper, and this took careful organisation to complete and record accurately.

Missing Content

Some readers may have noticed that the classes end at "day twenty-seven". There are usually thirty classes each term, through teaching twice a week for fifteen weeks. When holidays happen on a class day, we do a different activity at a different time to make up for this lost class time. For my students, drafting time became a formalised activity to satisfy this requirement. They worked through a worksheet to understand the draft tasks fully, plan out their idea and get down a rough draft. This was done through our online portal so I was able to check submissions and keep up to date with how each student was doing. It didn't seem too exciting to include this in my reviews, but in case anyone was wondering about that, now you know.

Leaving some writing time within the class is important for students for apply their new knowledge and help them actively participate in the course, even through out-of-class assignments. I always enjoy doing this in person, as I can individually assist and encourage students in the moment, while also giving space for them to see that it's okay to just sit and think sometimes. It is a pity that this activity for class becomes more isolated as they sit alone in their rooms or face unresponsive partners in breakout rooms, but I have made even more effort in classes to work on group stories in reaction to this.

Taking a Break

As the first term of online teaching progressed, it became difficult to manage so much screen time from teaching, grading and writing. It was important to find some balance in general, and that meant taking time off from writing about how the classes were going.

It's important to take care of ourselves and realise when or how stress reveals itself. Before it gets to any extreme level, small things can encourage us and make the work we have to get done a little nicer. One simple way to do this, for me, was swapping my regular mouse for this pretty strawberry shaped one in the picture, which I got while in university and surprisingly kept to even bring across the world. It's quite amazing how just a small touch can brighten your day and keep you entertained. Going into the next term, I hope to incorporate more hobbies that I've already half started to appreciate small pieces of beauty and relaxation more.

Walking was also helpful during the long, lonely days stuck in one space. A while back, I took to walking in the forest area of the mountain behind my house, so I began to appreciate my regular routes even more. However, due to an issue in my hip, I was forbidden by my physiotherapist to walk through uneven paths. Now, taking a daily walk has become less exciting as it's just along the regular city road. As I approach classes next week, though, I'll have to make it a priority again. It may be helpful to mix this up with other activities, but that is still limited with higher levels of social distancing in South Korea.

Change of Style

Once I got back into writing my experience, I found that my memory wasn't too reliable. Combining reviews with conducting current classes got a little confusing, but it did lead to thinking up a good solution: writing fictional stories based off the events. 

This not only gave creative freedom in not having to stick to the exact facts of the classes, but it also helped get back to how I wanted to write on this site. As I mentioned when explaining my break originally, for a time it was difficult to see a point to writing here, but switching the style of this series helped connect back to the purpose of the site altogether.

Since part of the purpose of posting is to experiment and practice writing, that had to come into the stories for this series in some way. It was important to me to change the focus of the review so that it was not centred on my own experience. In order to do this, and make the stories more focused and interesting, I decided to try out different POV and tense for each lesson review. In the past, I played with POV during the Wedding Stories series in 2016, but combining this with tense made it different and for some stories this combination lead to very different forms of writing.

Part of the reason for purposely selecting a different POV for each story was to find a way to connect the students together and to the readers. To do this, I used subtle relationship details and reactions to between the students within the first few stories. It would have been fun to push this further with a multi-character storyline that would weave through each post, but as the ideas progressed, it didn't make sense to push too hard to keep this going. Instead, I allowed a little freedom in form and this produced letter writing for the publishing class and picture stories for the presentation classes.

With only so three basic options in tense, it felt a little limiting at times to use this as a point of experimentation. It was nice to try mixing up the POV through use of different tense, though. One interesting thing was to try writing in the future tense. It made sense when talking about how the students were planning for their final presentation to go with the future aspect of their perspective and this led to a bit of an instructional form. This fits well with 2nd person point of view usually, but I enjoyed using it for the third person plural instead. 


While I had hoped to make the teaching review series more of a live event, in the end it actually helped my class development to spread it out over the full year. I couldn't have known that I would still be teaching online even now, so it seemed like a bit of a failure when I took a pause initially. However, as I got back into the updates, it helped to reconsider activities and adapt within the two different terms. It was also exciting to revamp the way of sharing my experience to reflect the purpose of this site more.

I've learned through this review and through teaching online that I cannot do everything all at once, but that is okay. In fact, it can make things better when we prioritise and allow for breaks. As I write the first draft of a new novel, again I'm learning this lesson. Because of the positive experience of learning not to be too hard on myself from the last break I took, I'm able to appreciate better what my mind and body need in order to produce better work.

I still want to have every idea finished yesterday. But so often I see how I couldn't have written a certain story or certain scene in the way it had to be done without the experience I had during the time I fought this frustration over time. The same with teaching; I learn how to do better as I see how some things do not work and keep open to learning from current experiences. Life isn't about having all the knowledge already or having it together. I'm not even sure it's about the journey, but perhaps that's a thought for a future post. For now, I'll get to know my new students, do better again at guiding them through the course and enjoy the stories they come up with along the way.