It was a strange spring semester across North American college campuses. Professors who once vowed they’d take up sheep herding rather than teach an online class suddenly found themselves lecturing to a video camera and setting up virtual discussion groups. Several colleagues have been surprised by the ease of transitioning to a distance-learning environment. There have been glitches, and more needs to be done to serve communities still on the fringes of the digital revolution, but for the most part, the academy can take pride in its response to teaching in the age of COVID-19.
Some professors new to distance learning have had such positive experiences that they are interested in teaching an online course already in the course catalog -- perhaps even a continuing-education offering. And even those professors for whom Zoom is truly a four-letter word must prepare to gird their loins, as theirs may be among the institutions that have decided it’s unsafe to reopen to residential students in the fall.
No matter which camp you’re in, novices need to know that not all online experiences are the same. As heroic as efforts have been this spring, a month of online teaching is not equivalent to what you’ll experience over 13 weeks. Before the campus shutdown, your course was already in motion. You’d gotten to know your students, imparted your expectations and developed mutual dynamics. When COVID hit, you also shared with students a sense of determination to make the best of an extraordinary situation.
In this essay, I’ll focus on how you need to rethink online education as no longer an emergency exception but what may be the norm for you in the coming months. (Experienced online instructors can start skimming now. My remarks are aimed at those who have yet to teach a semester-long virtual learning course.)
Recommendations for the Fall
Some of you will say that you can and should recreate online the experience students would have in a live classroom. That’s not impossible, but experience makes me skeptical of such a claim. It is best to think of an online course as a different way of teaching. Not better, not worse -- just different.
For one thing, rapport is harder to build. It occurs in some of the same ways it happened this spring -- breakout discussion groups, virtual office hours, tutorial sessions and so forth -- but it doesn’t happen as fast as it does live. Nor will all students react with the same sense of urgency or practice the same study habits in an online course.
Despite what overzealous futurists assert, as a recent Brookings Institute study indicates, online education is not for everyone. I find that older students frequently outshine younger ones, and for reasons not necessarily related to intellectual capacity. They are simply more disciplined and do not view the course as something they can dip in and out of whenever they feel so inclined.
Here are my key recommendations for how to think about online education this coming semester.
Establish hard and fast expectations. The last time I did an online course, I made a video of requirements and evaluative metrics. Students had to sign (digitally) a statement that they viewed it and agreed to the terms. (That didn’t stop several from complaining that the writing requirements for my history course were too rigorous. But they had no leg upon which to stand, given that it was both a stated and posted standard.)
Professors have different approaches, but I’d caution against all of the following: extensions, retests, reopening threads or allowing laggards to make up work. If part of your grade involves participation, do not be suckered by those who claim shyness; if anything, I find that shy students are more voluble online. Make sure you establish the position that now means now insofar as assignments and participation (including labs) are concerned.
Leniency was the watchword last spring, but in my view it’s bad practice for any semester-long course. Once you open the door to exceptions, it is hard to close it. Unless a student procures a medical excuse or a dean’s directive, stick to your published standards. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, online education often has a negative effect on future student GPAs and retention. We do students no favors when we look the other way at poor time management skills just because the course is online.
Think asynchronously. Logistics can be challenging. Synchronous teaching can still occur, but don’t assume or overdo it. In many cases, online courses attract students that are more heterogeneous in demographics and circumstances. More adult learners, parents balancing academics and childcare, and those with tight job schedules often participate, as well as the occasional student from afar who is not enrolled in your institution. Students may be spread across time zones, especially if you have international students.
One of my best online students researched inside a Costa Rican rainforest and hiked into a town with internet service once a week to do his work. And as some of you have probably already discovered, some home-based students are forced to share computers, and night owls do their best work in the wee hours of the morning. In other words, unless your student body is hermetically sealed, asynchronous classes are best in most situations.
Get technical. The spring of 2020 involved a distinct coming together of campus domains: everyone used the same software and course-support platform, and IT professionals were given marching orders to make instructional assistance a top priority. Semester-long courses also have IT support, but don’t expect priority treatment once other university offices come back up to speed -- responses will be more akin to pre-COVID levels. If you are considering a continuing-ed course, you should check which software and platforms are used, as they’re often different from what the rest of the institution uses.
Nobody wants another thing to do, but if you’re relatively new to online teaching, schedule a session with your IT department that is dedicated to a deeper understanding of how your course platform works and how you can fix common things that go wrong (out-of-sync audio, improperly sized images, broken links, etc.). Do this ASAP, so you can test-drive the platform well in advance.
Reimagine your role. Have you been posting 50-plus-minute lectures? The standard for a single video lecture is actually around 10 to 15 minutes! You can post more than one per week, but videos need to be short or they won’t be viewed. Like it or not, many students will turn to their smartphones, so it’s best to keep lectures succinct and place supporting materials in separate files on the course website.
In most cases, successful online instructors act as coaches, not experts in charge. Lectures should convey absolutely essential concepts, and the bulk of the course should be experiential tasks ranging from discussion questions to hands-on exercises that direct students to application and self-discovery. (Yes, this is often less content-oriented.) Even better, allow students to learn from each other.
As a coach, be involved in classroom discussions but not overinvolved. Log in to bulletin board threads early and often, and practice the art of redirection. Pose new questions, task students with helping each other unravel conundrums and solicit ways to reconceptualize problems. Students will sometimes post things that are flat-out wrong, but hold the “reveal” as long as you can. Think of yourself as a compiler, summarizer and final arbiter.
Set dates when comments will close. I seldom leave a thread open longer than a week and a half lest the bulletin board become unnavigable. After the cutoff, students can still read what has been said, but there is little point to new comments when the rest of the class has moved on. If an individual’s participation grade suffers from falling behind, so be it. Isn’t that also the case in a live classroom?
My apologies to those who already practice much of what I’ve just said, especially veterans of flipped classrooms. And to those new to online teaching, please don’t let my remarks dim your enthusiasm. After all, even the most experienced hands were once where you are now. Remote learning is often exciting and rewarding. It also shares at least one trait with classroom instruction: the first time through a course has rough patches, the second time addresses those and the third time is the charm.