What if the way Covid-19 forces us to teach is actually better?

Well, I survived – barely – my first full semester of teaching online;* and I’ve jumped into my second. Will it be the last? My colleagues certainly hope so, with “I can’t wait to get back in the classroom” beginning to be the most distinctive vocalization of Homo professorius. And you don’t have to look far to find media articles condemning online teaching: it’s lazy, it’s short-changing students, it’s unfair, it reduces learning to watching YouTube.

What if all that is wrong?

Now, to be clear, I’m not here to argue that overall, the online university experience is better than the in-person one. I’m not even going to argue that all of our teaching is better online: despite heroic efforts by many, I don’t think we’ve managed to make “lab” or “field” courses that replicate what we can do face-to-face.  But a lot of what we do isn’t that, and for a lot of what we do, I’m increasingly finding ways in which online delivery might be better – if not for all students, at least for many, and maybe for most.

Yes, I know, that’s a bit of a hot take. Hear me out.

In the fall, I replaced my entire face-to-face lecture with asynchronous** online video. We did have a once-a-week synchronous meeting, but it was short and I didn’t use any of it to present new material – instead, it was for student presentations and for me to check in with how my students were doing. Over the semester, that removed about 30 hours of Steve-in-a-classroom-with-a-bunch-of-students, and replaced it with a library of recorded material. Written that way, it sounds a bit dire – but here are some of the things I think we gained.

  • Students no longer need to worry (much) about conflicts in course scheduling. Every year I have students who are unable to take my course because another one meets at the same time. This year, asynchrony let two students take my course and another one in the same time slot – and let them excel. (Yes, some minor compromises were needed for the minor synchronous components of each course.)
  • Students don’t have to miss and make up content if they’re sick, if they have child-care or elder-care obligations, if they have work hours, or whatever else might normally get in the way.
  • Students can work on their schedules as easily as on ours. Night owls or morning people can both satisfy their preferences. Students can arrange block schedules (a full day spent on one course, then a different course the next), or can rotate subjects every hour, whichever holds their focus better.
  • Students can self-pace, not only from day to day but even in a single lecture-replacement video. They can pause; they can rewind; they can speed up through familiar material and slow down for new material.
  • They have access to captions. If a word is mumbled, or hard to spell, or unfamiliar, there it is in text to supplement the audio. This does require that the instructor makes some reasonable effort to edit the auto-captioning, and I can tell you, that’s no small task! (This is not, I hasten to say, full accessibility for the deaf or hard of hearing.)
  • For a change, introverts get a turn. Our usual face-to-face teaching strongly favours students who are comfortable sitting with and speaking in front of large groups of their peers. Those who don’t thrive in those settings were left out – but in online asynchronous, they aren’t (they may even have the upper hand).
  • Students are asked to be self-directed time managers, removed from the extrinsic scheduling imposed by the synchronous classroom. Does that sound like a disadvantage? Well, in the short term it may well present a difficulty, but self-directed time management might be one of the most valuable things we could be teaching.
  • Instructors can bring in guest speakers from anywhere in the world; and they can share content or choose to co-instruct, even across universities, to take advantage of complementary expertise.
  • Instructors can give access, if they choose, to anyone anywhere in the world.

There are shortcomings in the model too, of course. Most of them can be mitigated. Asynchronous material doesn’t give students a sense of community; but group projects, small-group discussions, and workshops can restore it (students, I’ve discovered, are superb at navigating the technology needed for these). Students can’t ask questions in real time; but answers when available can be posted alongside the content that spurred the questions. But this doesn’t make our online teaching inferior. Remember, too, that there are shortcomings in the face-to-face model – it’s just that we’re so accustomed to those that we don’t notice them. No mode of teaching is perfect for all students at all times.***

You might, now, suspect that I think all teaching can, or should, become MOOCs (“massive open online courses”.  I do not. MOOCs may have a niche, but they haven’t achieved what their proponents thought they would, and they won’t replace small-scale teaching.**** There’s value in students knowing their instructor, in students knowing each other, in an instructor knowing the students (and the other courses in their degree programs), and in teaching that engages by involving local context.

“But”, I can hear some of you shouting, “students hate online teaching and they hate asynchronous learning!”  Well, some do. Some hate face-to-face synchronous teaching too. And the mere fact that we’ve moved online rapidly, in the middle of a pandemic, introduces a lot of stress that isn’t necessarily associated with the teaching mode as much as its novelty and its unpleasant context. Finally: as is always the case, we hear from the few who loudly don’t like Thing X, while we don’t hear from the others who adapt and prosper, taking advantage of what Thing X has to offer. For what it’s worth (and it’s not worth a lot, to be sure), I’ve just seen my course evaluations for the fall semester – and they’re by a good margin the best I’ve had in my entire career.  (I would prefer not to consider the possibility that I just suck when you’re interacting with me in person.)

When this all started, as we moved online in a panic as the pandemic swept the globe, I thought the important question was “when will this be over so we can get back to teaching the normal way?”  But I was wrong. That’s an important question in the public-health sense, but it’s misguided at best in a teaching sense. Instead, the important question is “what has Covid made us do that we should keep, because it’s actually better?” And the answer, I suspect, is a lot of it.

© Stephen Heard  January 18, 2021

Image: E-learning GUI © Sandra Schoen, released to public domain, via Pixabay.com;

*^Entomology, and half of Plants & People. If you’re curious, this is what my Entomology course looks like; and these are some of the little jokes I inserted to keep myself entertained.

**^If you’re not up on the lingo: a “synchronous” online course has all the students assemble in a Zoom call or similar to have material presented to them in real time. An “asynchronous” online course has material pre-recorded for students to watch whenever they choose. Many courses combine asynchronous and synchronous components. Actually, they always have, as textbook readings, worksheets, assignments, and the like are all asynchronous.

***^By the way, you might have noticed that asynchronous learning – whether online or not – is a major component of “flipping the classroom” (of course, it isn’t all of it).  “Flipping the classroom” is a highly recommended pedagogical model, at the same time as “online asynchronous teaching” gets reviled as lazy. People are strange, aren’t they?

****^I really, really, really want to say “artisanal teaching”.



20 thoughts on “What if the way Covid-19 forces us to teach is actually better?

  1. Philip Moriarty

    “Instead, the important question is “what has Covid made us do that we should keep, because it’s actually better?” And the answer, I suspect, is a lot of it.”

    Absolutely, totally, completely agree. Thank you so much for writing this important post, Stephen.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Marco Mello

    Amazing post, thank you for sharing your ideas. I totally agree with you. Higher education as a whole needs to be a in-person experience, especially because of horizontal and vertical networking. Nevertheless, after the pandemic is over, some courses could go full online or at least hybrid. Of course labs and field practices need to keep many in-person activities, but even they can benefit from adopting some online content. Older academics always had a lot of prejudice against online teaching, but the current crisis showed us that it’s time to evolve to new formats. Online teaching has many social and learning benefits.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Donald ZEPP

    An excellent and thought-provoking appraisal, Thank you.

    I, as a student back in the dark ages of a half-century ago hated the “community” bits, and wished to be left alone to learn what I needed. Similarly, while teaching Araneology at Cornell, I hated the “community” bits, and wished to be left alone to teach what I needed to.

    While for this retiree this is all hypothetical–or, at best nostalgic–I reflexively shudder at the idea of presenting lab material as you must and . I commend your open-mindedness and your commitment.

    Do carry on!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Manu Saunders

    Great post, 100% agree. Our university was already well-established in the online teaching space before COVID (I think this is more common in Australia, especially regional unis, compared to North America?) and we teach dual mode normally, i.e. both on-campus and online cohorts in the one unit offering. So for me, another major benefit I felt from this year was that equity in learning experience essentially increased – all students were having the same experience, rather than one group perhaps having a perceived ‘better’ experience being on campus.
    I also think that online tools now make the ‘community’ aspect a lot more diverse and accessible, and students don’t need to be physically together to have it – even before last year a lot of our student cohorts were already well established with their own snapchat and facebook etc groups, and COVID may have strengthened those communities.
    So yes, I completely agree that this experience has the potential to change teaching for the better and I think we can already make immediate positive changes. There will be some degrees that of course cannot be delivered without any in-person contact/field experience (eg ecology), but there are lots of creative ways to do this without 100% in-person teaching for the whole degree.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. N

    As one of the aforementioned students (and not as an effort to sway my grades for this term) may I just sincerely confirm for other readers that your classes were a small mercy in the midst of pandemic learning. From the horror stories I have heard of other student experiences, this was a dream, despite being a lot of work to get used to doing outside of a regular schedule. The engaging teaching style and use of a wide range of internet content made classwork fun at times, which definitely helped with lesson retention. The set up of the content made the class material extremely easy to access and provided us with a huge variety of resources to learn from, while a multitude of assignment types made it easy for us to excel in our strengths and have our skills challenged. Even though I deeply missed working in the lab, being forced to work on our own – albeit with TA help – probably resulted in more marketable skills, and I am more proud of my insect collection than anything else I have completed so far in my degree. As bad a situation as all of this has been, I heartily applaud the extra lengths you went to that helped keep up our spirits. And even if no one mentioned it, maybe we enjoy listening to Weird Al and getting Rickrolled, especially if that helps to distract us from the world outside.


  6. Bethann Garramon Merkle

    Steve, I’m 100% on board with your take. I’ve been teaching for 15+ years, and it’s all been in-person until the last year. Some of my work for the last several years has involved faculty/instructor development and mentorship, even. And (haha, woops, I know starting sentences with “and” is anathema for you), until last year, I would have *never* advocated for online instruction. I now know that my preference for f2f was entirely the result of it being my only experience with teaching, facilitation, etc. After a year of forced online teaching, I am acutely aware that my strategies for developing community in the classroom do not automatically translate to the online environment (which I have maintained as a synchronous space so far). And, I miss that community-building and communal aspect terribly. But, I think it is achievable — I just haven’t fully leveled up enough to accomplish it. (What fun to think there’s *always* something to learn and improve upon.) Even so, I’m working with an instructional designer right now to transform a capstone undergrad scicomm course into an asynchronous online course. I couldn’t be more excited. I know there’s a lot I will learn, and by making it fully asynchronous, we can make it accessible to a lot more people. Which is all a meandering way of saying that my online teaching experiences in the past year have reinforced that there is a lot of promise in online components and online courses. While I’ve run a nearly-flipped classroom since I started teaching in academia, I’ve still learned important, next-level things from teaching online in 2020. All of that can only stand to benefit my students in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Friday links: regression to the mean vs. the Dunning-Kruger effect, #overlyhonestsyllabus, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  8. Jeff Houlahn

    Hi Steve, I’ll add to the chorus – I agree with everything you said. In fact, as I worked down your list of advantages I was ticking every box. One other thing – and this may be idiosyncratic – because I didn’t need the time this term to prepare for and give my lectures (admittedly I committed more time to teaching last summer than I would have normally) I was more available for one-on-one meetings with the students. Not just the amount of time – but when I was available. When I’m teaching in-class I’m fairly protective of my evenings and weekends but this past term – because I wasn’t on the same defined schedule – I was much more flexible about when I would meet with students. Although, it’s an enormous help that my kids are all grown and gone.
    As a side note – and I’m not sure this is terribly significant – but my class average was 6-8% higher than it traditionally is. I teach the 1st year Intro Bio and that course class average hovers around 61-65% every year for the last 18 years – this year it was closer to 70%. That’s not likely only due to on-line versus in-class – I gave more and shorter mid-terms and I’m not sure the 140 students that were in the class are a random sample of the ~200 that would have been in the class without the pandemic but it does suggest that on-line teaching wasn’t an unmitigated disaster for this course.
    Something I found interesting about this thread is how different it was from a similar thread over on Jeremy’s blog. It seems like starting on a positive note left the door open for more positive comments. And I want to emhasize that I think both takes on ‘pandemic’ teaching are legit – it just really struck me how different the tone of responses in this thread was from the tone of responses on Jeremy’s blog while discussing the same issues.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Jeff. Yes, I’m curious too why Jeremy’s experience, and the comments on his post, are so different. Of course, online courses will work better or worse for some students, for some profs, at some institutions, and so on – just as traditional F2F courses do (we just don’t think that’s worth blogging about). So maybe it’s just a sorting phenomenon, and Dynamic Ecology and Scientist Sees Squirrel are just going to end up as little self-reinforcing thought bubbles 🙂 OK, that’s maybe a little dramatic!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. kenworthy4

    In the UK, we have the Open University. It has progressed from the early days of late night television lectures and video tapes to purely on-line content. Each student is assigned a course tutor for each module and there is supporting written material for each course and even home experiment kits for scientific courses. So for that – apart from the summer schools (one week intensive lectures and practical work) – Covid hasn’t really changed anything. I got my degree (hons) that way and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

    Liked by 2 people

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