Principle-Driven Decisions and the Move Online

I haven’t made a word cloud of this site.  But I suspect that, if I did, the word “principle” would come up a great deal.  So, in some ways, the title of this post is nothing new.  Just the circumstances.

But, yikes, are the circumstances new!  I’ve been asked—along with many, many other teachers across the country—to move my classes (and, of course, my entire writing program) online in short order.  To give a sense of my own timeline, I was asked to prepare some contingency plans for the program on March 5.  On March 11, it was announced that UMaine would be moving online following Spring Break, which began on March 13 and ran through March 22.  It was later extended by two days, to March 24.

So, in a little less than three weeks, we had to get a program that had zero online course offerings entirely online.


“Reading” by corpamshek is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Now, I always suspected that, in such quickly-changing circumstances, when a lot of decisions need to be made in a short span of time, working through principles would really be put to the test.  Not just the principles I’ve been able to articulate, but the values that I tacitly hold dear.

Surprisingly, though, I’ve found that, rather than testing my principles, my principles have been helpful in thinking through the challenges that this current situation presents.

Let’s take, for instance, one administrative value that is central to my work—working from the ground up, and thinking through the demands of the local situation when making administrative decisions.  You can read more about that on my WPA Principles page.

When the shift online happened, there was a lot of information out there about how to make the shift.  A staggering amount of information, in fact.  Thinking through my “ground up” principle helped me cut through some of the noise and start to think about the teachers in my program: what they knew, their pedagogical training, the kinds of technology they were familiar with.

Thinking about that helped me hone in on what we did best as a program.  It also helped me think about what parts of ‘what we do best’ would be most difficult to move online, and how I can help teachers think through that.

In the end, it seemed that one of the things we do best is having a high level of peer interactions among students in our classes.  It’s something that is really helpful to students’ thinking about the texts we assign them, as well as what ideas they are working through in their writing.  But it’s also probably the hardest thing to make happen online.  So, with that as my starting point, I looked through best practices for online teaching, statements put out by various organizations in our field, and the tips and tricks circulating on social media / listservs / online communities for ways to make that happen with the technology available to our teachers through UMaine.

Obviously, this situation is a rapidly-developing one (still!), and we haven’t even returned to classes yet, so it remains to be seen how my principles continue to be useful as we move into the remainder of the semester.  It’s something I’ll be keeping an eye on, for sure.


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