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”.