A Renewed Focus on the Practice of Teaching

The abrupt transition to online teaching during the pandemic may fundamentally change how faculty members approach education, write Shigeru Miyagawa and Meghan Perdue.

November 11, 2020
 
 
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What happens when, with hardly any warning, you have to halt your class in the middle of the semester and you are told to switch from the familiar face-to-face teaching to the alien screen-to-screen format? Like thousands of institutions around the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made this abrupt transition to online teaching in the midst of the pandemic, thrusting all 1,251 of its spring 2020 courses online in late March.

To try to understand what the faculty went through, we interviewed more than 30 faculty members and also sifted through a survey conducted at the end of the spring semester by the Office of Institutional Research. What struck us is that this uncontrolled experiment, as a scientist might put it, may lead to a fundamental change in the way we approach education. From the myriad of points that came up, one in particular stood out: unexpectedly, many people voiced a heightened interest in the practice of teaching.

The Institutional Research survey, to which over 830 faculty members responded, and the interviews we conducted revealed a picture of instructors engaging creatively and energetically not only to teach online, but also to do so with a fresh attitude toward teaching. One instructor said that before the pandemic, his department had monthly faculty meetings that were not always well attended, but once they began teaching online, the majority of the faculty regularly participated in a weekly meeting. The conversation at those weekly meetings inevitably turned to teaching -- from how to use a tablet to draw equations to how best to use Zoom breakout rooms. The discussions were engaging and animated, and they reinforced the broader sense of responsibility that the faculty have to students and the importance of interacting with them.

When asked why they had such a key interest in teaching once they shifted to online instruction, the most common answer the interviewees gave was revealing. In the words of one college instructor, in a face-to-face classroom, we know -- at least we think we know -- how to teach because we were taught that way as students. With the switch to online teaching, the faculty members had no prior experience to fall back on, so they had to think through even the most basic steps in ways they had never had to do before. “We have spent decades collecting best practices for teaching, [but] this is an entirely new method of teaching for most of us, and we have very little understanding of what works and what doesn’t work.”

Transitioning the courses from in person to online was a lot of work, compounded by the stress of the pandemic and being confined to the house. Despite that added workload and stress, many instructors found the work rewarding and challenging in a way they didn’t anticipate. “It’s forced me to be more creative,” noted one instructor, while another said, “My teaching is always changing. This will accelerate it and push it in new directions.” One person remarked that “this semester was easily the most rewarding teaching experience I ever had. The challenges we faced required innovation, nimble thinking and a willingness to try things that might fail.”

The sudden change allowed for a re-evaluation of the teaching practices that were previously unquestioned. Said one instructor, “Having to change the course so dramatically did give me more focus on what was meaningful and important. For instance, a midterm exam and formal lectures became much less important, whereas student mentoring … and finding ways to support group interaction were more important.”

Across the campus, faculty members expressed significant interest in making classes more interactive -- in spending more class time working in groups, solving problems and discussing issues and less time lecturing. Some were surprised to learn that teaching online worked fine, or even better for particular topics, with one instructor noting, “I discovered that a particular component of a course I was teaching worked so effectively that I would continue to offer it in an online format in the future, even when we’re back to 100 percent on-campus teaching.”

Other instructors were excited about the opportunities that teaching online could bring, such as allowing for guest lecturers to join the class from anywhere, or even collaborating with professors teaching similar courses at other institutions to create mixed group assignments and give students an opportunity to work with colleagues from around the world. Others embraced the chance to make the assessments more personal. An anthropology professor had her students interview family members and friends for their final project, while another professor had students build air sensors and study the indoor air quality in their home environment. Said one, “I grew a lot as a teacher by being forced to think outside the box; pedagogically, it was an exciting time.”

One issue that many faculty members grappled with was what to do with assessments. Some said that they struggled with trying to create tests that students could not easily cheat on or worried about how to proctor exams online. A question that many asked themselves was, why are we testing students in this way? One instructor concluded that it’s because we have been doing it the same way for 50 years.

It was something of a surprise that so many of those interviewed raised concerns about assessment. MIT decided that grading would be pass/no record for the spring, so there was no pressure to assess students along a rigorous gradient as we do in a normal semester. Many found that the reduced pressure on grading was liberating and allowed them to focus more on teaching and learning.

A number of instructors reported reducing or eliminating quizzes and exams, and instead creating more group projects and oral assessments for measuring learning outcomes. The instructors developed more opportunities to check in with their students in one-on-one meetings and found that was productive both for building community and for gauging the students’ learning. “There was a lot more interaction than we ever anticipated,” remarked one, while another noted, “Students who were ordinarily shy seemed to come out of their shell.”

While many instructors found positive elements to transitioning to online teaching, they confronted many challenges as well. Some noted that it was more draining to teach online, or that they didn’t find it as fulfilling as teaching in person. One bluntly remarked, “This is not the kind of teaching I want to do.” The frustration with online teaching was particularly pronounced in hands-on or lab-based courses, which had to shift focus away from learning technical skills to experiment design and analysis. As one faculty member lamented, “This semester was terrible, and I’m mourning the lost learning outcomes. The nature of my hands-on class just doesn’t work remotely.”

The pandemic has upended one basic assumption after another that we used to hold without much thought. Education is no exception. What the heightened interest in teaching may be showing us is that all this time, we have been too willing to take teaching for granted, failing to exercise the kind of curiosity we do in the normal course of doing research. Although we take pride in our teaching, it didn’t even occur to us to think through all the complex issues that make teaching effective.

As an instructor remarked, “In the long run, it’s been absolutely great for our teaching.” This simple realization may be one of the most valuable educational lessons of the pandemic.

Bio

Shigeru Miyagawa is senior associate dean for open learning and professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Meghan Perdue is digital learning fellow at MIT. The research cited in this essay was in part supported by a grant from the Michelson 20MM Foundation.

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