Online teaching and self-fulfilling prophecy

My university is in the throes of figuring out what Fall 2021 looks like for teaching – while working under the enormous handicap of not knowing what Fall 2021 will look like for anything else: student demand, vaccination uptake, variant persistence, not-yet-relaxed Public Health limits on classroom capacities, you name it. This has of course brought with it another round of existential-angst-ridden debate over whether another semester of partly-to-mostly-online teaching will be a way out of our conundrum or the end of higher education as we know it.

It’s easy to be tempted into “end of higher education as we know it”. Students are understandably eager for a more in-person-social university experience, and it takes some nuance to realize that that isn’t necessarily the same thing as having all their classes in face-to-face classrooms. And a year into all this, the news media continue to love writing shallowly researched stories about how online instruction is horrible, while rarely if ever acknowledging ways in which it’s actually very good. (Yes, to be sure, it’s possible to teach abysmally online – just as it’s possible to teach abysmally in person.)

On a related note, last week I re-watched* the very first online lecture I recorded, a year ago, just as the pandemic forced us all home. It wasn’t great: bad lighting, mediocre sound, and a soupçon of shell shock. But the very first thing I said in it might have been the most important thing I said all semester: “Welcome – this is our first online statistics lecture. It will be all right.”

And it was, mostly.

Here is something I’ve come to believe: if you decide that online teaching has to suck, and then you do it, it will indeed suck. In contrast, if you decide that online teaching can be good, and take advantage of ways to do things differently, it will be good. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy either way. Actually, it’s not just self-fulfilling: it’s self-reinforcing. If you decide that online teaching has to suck, and as a result it does, you’ll have evidence that you were right!

I think we see this dynamic playing out a lot. Repeatedly, I’ve seen claims that online teaching can be good countered with “Well, maybe in some ways, but X isn’t possible”.  Quite often, X is something that I’ve been doing online, that works quite well, and that my students are in fact expert at doing. You can, therefore, imagine my puzzlement (tinged with, if I’m honest, a little condescending amusement). The right question for an instructor to ask, of course, isn’t “Is X possible online?”.  The right question is “Is X important? And if it is, how can we do it online?”  Now, I’m not a complete Pollyanna: all things aren’t possible online**. That’s a trivial realization.  All things aren’t possible in a face-to-face classroom, either.

It probably shouldn’t surprise any of us that there’s a high variance in student experiences of online teaching (as, of course, there is for face-to-face teaching. I can’t help wondering how much of that variance stems from the self-fulfilling prophecy: that some instructors have simply decided it’s going to suck, and unsurprisingly, are then producing teaching that kind of does. It’s hard, when you’ve already written off an approach, to use it to its full potential or to conceal your attitude about it from your students. Perhaps other instructors, who have decided that online teaching needn’t suck, are producing teaching at the other end of the continuum.***

Or, of course, I could be wrong, and this really is the end of higher education as we know it. I’m sure you’ll let me know in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard  March 16, 2021

Image: Graffiti © Dave Gingrich via flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0


*^On the instructor side, a real plus of recorded lectures appears to be that when you can’t figure out what on earth that third point on slide 7 was about, you can watch your old lecture to find out.

**^I’d be tempted to offer my tropical ecology field course as an example of an X that can’t be done online.  Except this: I have colleagues who have done tropical ecology field courses online.  Were they the same as “real” tropical ecology field courses? No. Were they pretty good, and a whole lot more accessible? Yes.

***^Much to my surprise, my online Entomology course this fall had the strongest student opinion surveys it’s ever had. Now, SOS scores are problematic in many ways, but one thing they probably can do is measure relative student satisfaction with the same course from the same instructor. This is at least evidence that my online Entomology course didn’t completely suck.  N=1, great start!

5 thoughts on “Online teaching and self-fulfilling prophecy

  1. Juan Antonio CARRETERO

    In regards to your first paragraph (i.e., universities can’t figure out what to do in the fall). I think it is not an issue of they can’t figure out what to do but rather they are incapable of making decisions and drag things for ages. When federal and provincial bodies are saying that most people will be vaccinated by July 1st (this is the latest news from our province), we should plan accordingly. That is, these are the bodies that dictate health regulation and we should follow them.

    As for the actual contents of your piece, I very much agree with you. Based on the small sample (my own faculty), I can very much corroborate your conclusion. Those who said from the beginning it would be a disaster, it has, indeed, continued to be less than ideal according to their reports. However, for those of us who were hopeful, we have managed to do rather well and plan on continuing to use some of the elements we learnt during these ‘special times’ and make these permanent improvements.

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  2. Marco Mello

    Thank you very much for sharing your experiences with us! This is particularly important in the strange times we live in. In addition to all the burden of surviving the pandemic, keeping your mind healthy despite the news, and adapting all our academic activities (teaching included), we have to face a lot of in-house prejudice against remote or hybrid teaching. Seriously, I’ve always know about the biased view that most professors have against remote teaching. But I thought that, during a pandemic, more people would open their minds a little bit. Sadly, even remote teaching has been politicized here in Brazil, and now being pro or against it is mixed up with political preferences.

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  3. Pingback: What jigsaw puzzles could have taught me about writing – if I’d listened | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  4. Kinder.Kaleidoscope

    Even as an elementary educator, I’ve found that teachers who insist online doesn’t work for kids are the ones who can’t make it work. These students are so capable and when we make the effort, they can learn. Maybe not all young kids, but many. The narrative that students aren’t learning virtually is wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

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