Why I’m teaching online again

Our semester starts this week, and I’m once again (co)teaching an online course. This is very much swimming against the current, at least at my university, so why am I doing it? I don’t pretend that my answers here are jaw-droppingly original, but I think they’re important to what university education ought to look like, not just now but years or decades on. So I’ll explain.

First: my university, like many, is busily pushing hard to re-establish “normal” – or at least, what our senior administrators imagine that students (and prospective students) think is “normal”. This despite the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic continues unabated. While my university still has a mask mandate (thank goodness), we’ve lost our vaccination mandate*, and our administration is pushing hard for nearly every course to be offered face-to-face.

This fall I’m (co)teaching one course, “Plants and People”. (This course would have been called “Economic Botany”, back in those halcyon days when students would take a course with the word “botany” in its title.) We sought the special, higher-administration approval we were told was required to teach the course online**. We explained that the course, which was first offered in fall 2020, had been designed from the start as an online course, and that we didn’t intend to redesign it for face-to-face offering that would reduce its value. Somewhat to my surprise, we were approved without any apparent fight. The course will be entirely online, with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous elements.

So why choose to teach online? Because the format has some real advantages, and because some students (not all, of course, but a non-trivial number) have made it clear to me that they want online options. A few of the advantages we see to our online format, in no particular order:

  • More robust to disruption from illness. This is probably the first thing everyone thinks of, as the Covid-19 pandemic cheerfully accepts our society’s kind efforts to keep it going as long as possible. A student (or an instructor!) who’s infected and isolating can continue, subject of course to their physical ability), without falling behind as they would if they had to skip many days of in-person attendance. But of course this isn’t just a Covid thing. An online course remains accessible if you’re in a leg cast, experiencing medication side effects, you name it.
  • More equitable in access to students with particular health vulnerability (again, not just Covid). Some students, at any university and at any given time, will be immunosuppressed from chemotherapy, or for some other reason. Some will have other significant health issues that make it unwise for them to huddle in a crowded lecture hall with coughing classmates. Of course, it won’t always be the students themselves: some will have at-risk newborns, or live with elderly relatives. There are a variety of ways we can and should accommodate these folks; online course offerings are a relatively easy start.
  • More flexible in terms of content. Our course has relatively little straight-up “lecture” content. Because we’re online, we can offer small bites of lecture, intermingled with information offered in other formats: our students can move from watching a lecture to reading a blog post, then to a David Attenborough video, then to a podcast, and then back again. (Yes, this can happen face-to-face too, but it’s much more awkward). And our course leans heavily on guest presenters with expertise far beyond our own. The online format makes it easy for us to draw not just from our local community – I can bring in an expert 5,000 km away as easily as one from the office next to mine.
  • More flexible in terms of student approach. The asynchronous parts of the course, in particular, allow for students to participate who might otherwise have course conflicts. They can be moved around at will by students who need to accommodate other deadlines, work, child-care or family medical commitments, or even those who prefer different study hours (night owls are a real thing, even if I’m very much not one myself). They let a student intersperse work from many courses, to stay fresh; or to work “block-style” with intense focus on a single course at a time. They let a student re-watch content, watch it at half speed or double speed, pause and restart; and do this from anywhere they are. The notion that all students need a lecture delivered at the same time, in the same room, at the same speed, perhaps should seem a little strange to us now, shouldn’t it?
  • More flexible in terms of student access. A face-to-face course, obviously, is available to those who can be physically present in the assigned teaching room. There’s no such constraint for an online course. In past offerings, we’ve welcomed students from our sister campus 90 minutes away, or those who were living in another city or another province for any of a million reasons.
  • More respectful of introverts. Our normal ways of teaching face-to-face strongly favour extraverts: rooms crowded with people, points awarded for speaking out in front of them, and more. Once it seemed normal, or perhaps just unavoidable, that those who don’t thrive in such settings were left out. With online courses (especially with asynchronous content), we can come to where such students are.

That will do for now, but if you have your own favourite upside to online courses, please drop them in the Replies. (There’s a little more in this post, which I wrote as a reflection on my first full term of Covid-enforced online teaching.)

Now, this isn’t an argument that all courses should always be online. The hype over MOOCs a decade ago didn’t lead to a reinvention of university education, and face-to-face instruction has its advantages too. (Shocker, right? Different modes of instruction each have advantages and disadvantages, and none is the universal right answer. It’s almost like humans are complicated and teaching is hard…) But I think there’s a powerful argument that some courses should remain online, even after the Covid-19 pandemic ends***. The pandemic wrought many changes on society. Some were bad, and we should be eager to move past them. Others were changes we could and should have made before. Providing online learning options, I’m pretty sure, is firmly in the latter box.

© Stephen Heard  Sept 6, 2022

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

*^And our mask mandate comes with the usual assortment of truly stupid exceptions: for example, if there are fewer than 10 people in a room, and they’re 2 metres apart, they must mask if they’re standing up but needn’t if they’re sitting down. The cluelessness about biology and physics it takes to think this makes sense, two years into how science understands Covid-19, is truly astonishing. But, to be fair, many universities and nearly all K-12 schools (in North America at least) have even weaker protections. It’s really sad that the average is so low that we’re above it.

**^It’s not clear whether this rule can actually be enforced. As at most universities, faculty members here have considerable academic freedom in how we teach our courses. The administration certainly couldn’t force me to use a blackboard rather than Powerpoint, or Powerpoint rather than Prezi, or a lecture format rather than a flipped classroom. Why they think they can dictate face-to-face vs. online delivery is an interesting question, and I’m pretty disappointed that my union apparently isn’t asking it.

***^It will end. All pandemics do. It’s painful to see how hard society is working to postpone its end just as long as we possibly can. Get vaccinated if you aren’t; get boosted if you are; wear a mask indoors and in crowded spaces; work for better air quality. And, when you have a chance, vote appropriately so that governments that haven’t encouraged these things can be replaced with ones that actually care about people. Oh, wait, did I say that out loud?



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