Karen Barron is a senior lecturer with the English department at Washburn University who has been teaching classes on campus since 2005.
A published author in her own right, Barron passes on her skills to her many students in creative writing classes that allow participants to learn how to become accomplished writers themselves.
Among the classes that Barron teaches at Washburn are EN 101 First Year Writing, EN 103 Academic Reading & Research, EN 209 Beginning Fiction Writing and EN 300 Advanced College Writing. This spring semester she taught an online Advanced College Writing course along with EN 103 that had to be switched to online after spring break. Learning to cope with the changing circumstances this spring made Barron rethink her teaching strategies.
“This semester was challenging,” said Barron. “I am used to teaching half online and half in person. When COVID-19 hit, I wasn’t worried at all about my online classes. I was slightly concerned about my in-person classes. It’s very easy to translate online, it wasn’t a big concern to me. We had that week to prepare and my EN 103 class was mostly freshmen, where I had to switch to remote.”
Switching a class from in-person to online only is a big transition for most but was made more difficult due to access issues for her students and their relative inexperience with the online class format.
“Making sure that everyone had the technology was tricky,” said Barron. “They weren’t sure where to look online for information or help; it was a lot trickier than I thought it would be. We meet by Zoom once a week to talk through things, which ended up working out better than expected. It was still surprising to me that it was as difficult as it was.”
More troubles were encountered the more time passed after spring break. These challenges had to be navigated by both Barron and her students. However, not all problems were associated with the coronavirus outbreak.
“The toughest challenges involved communicating with my students in a way that they understood what I was expecting of them,” said Barron. “I usually do hybrid courses, but they were not as familiar with discussion posts. What I found worked best with my face-to-face courses was Zooming with them, and I did that as a class. But, I also zoomed with individual students. The main challenge was that they weren’t used to having a delayed response. It’s not the same as being right there where you can ask a question, timing and communication were big challenges.”
For some students, a normal fear of writing presented a bigger challenge.
“Honestly, the most challenging part was tackling my own fears and insecurities regarding my writing abilities,” said Jean Hazelwood, a senior in accounting and management, who was taking Barron’s EN300 course. “As far as projects or assignments, the transcription project was the most challenging for me. I really enjoyed it and feel like I would have missed out on a great learning opportunity if we had not tackled that particular project.”
The drastic changes that occurred in class structure did provide good learning opportunities, even for longtime faculty members such as Barron.
“I think one of the most surprising things I learned was the power of video,” said Barron. “I thought to myself, I’ll try it. I got a lot of good responses about it. My online class said that they really appreciated that. I sort of had to make myself do it every Saturday. At first I would redo it and redo it, but then I just rolled with it. They weren’t complicated at all and more personal contact was good.”
In the end, students gained important skills by completing the course.
“The written word is a powerful tool and can be used, not only to communicate instructions to others, but to also pitch ideas and generate enthusiasm,” said Jean. “The skills I learned in this class will easily apply to any course I will take in the future. One tool I will take with me is how to annotate bibliographies.”
Barron is optimistic that face-to-face classes will resume in the fall but, like all other faculty members, will be prepared to offer her classes in an online format if necessary. Developing a podcast is one idea that she is prepared to implement even if classes return normally.
Writer Bio: Matthew L. Self, [email protected], earned his Bachelor of Arts in English and returns to Washburn for a major in political science.