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While we are all anxious to get back to teaching and working on campus, it is unlikely that we will go back completely to the pre-pandemic ways given the enormous disruption we are living through. We interviewed more than 30 faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about teaching and working during the pandemic, and these interviews gave hints of what we might expect will remain once we begin teaching face-to-face again.
While adoption of technology naturally played an important role, we found even more striking a fundamental shift in the faculty's attitude toward students and teaching. We believe this will -- and should -- have a deep and lasting impact beyond the pandemic.
Educating the Whole Student
A task force charged with planning MIT’s future in education has expressed “the hope that MIT will provide a more holistic education, with yet more focus on nurturing our students in intellect and spirit.” Knowing your students beyond just their academic interests changes the way you teach. In remote teaching, we have often found ourselves in the students’ own living quarters, have seen and heard the challenges they are coping with. Many students do not have a quiet space for studying, forcing faculty members to vie with their family and even pets for their attention. Others have had trouble accessing suitable Wi-Fi. The struggles that the instructors have seen unfolding before them have allowed them to understand their students in ways that are not readily possible in an in-person class.
Instructors have had glimpses into students’ lives in other ways as well. Knowing the stress that students are under during the pandemic, many faculty members have set aside time before, after, and even in the middle of their classes for students to informally interact with them and each other. They’ve been surprised by how many students have taken advantage of these free-form sessions -- and equally surprised that the discussions have had an intensity not seen in in-person meetings.
These experiences have opened the instructors’ eyes to the strains that life has imposed on the students, including inequalities, which, in remote learning, have become amplified. This keen awareness of the “whole” student will carry over to post-pandemic teaching. It will serve as a way to educate students more holistically, and with empathy.
Keeping Students’ Attention
If students are going to learn, they need to pay attention. In a classroom, we take for granted that students pay attention -- or that at least they are supposed to. But in online class, as an instructor lamented, “Attention is a scarce resource.” To combat the scarcity of attention, instructors have experimented with ways to keep students focused on the lesson, and this awareness that one has to be creative in keeping students engaged, instead of taking it for granted, will still influence teaching practices after the pandemic is over.
Faculty members have experimented with different technology to engage with their students in the online space. As a replacement for the chalkboard, some have turned to tablets to draw and animate their lectures in real time. Some have created green screens so they can embed themselves into different settings, giving the impression of being on stage with the slides splashed in the background. In this way, students can focus their attention on one image that renders the faculty and the slides together. Many faculty members have reported to us that they will continue to make recordings of their lectures available to students as a resource, even when they are teaching on campus again.
One faculty member built what is called a Lightboard in his office for online teaching. Lightboard, which is often used in creating MOOCs, is a simple technology in which a large pane of glass is placed between the camera and the instructor. The instructor writes on the glass while lecturing, and the image through the camera is reversed, giving a mirror image, like the old Daguerreotype photography. As a result, the student can see the instructor looking at them at the same time that they can see the writing on the glass. He was thrilled with the result, and received many positive reviews from the students. When asked what he will do post-pandemic, he said that he, in fact, was “scared of going back to using the board.”
If an award were to be given for the most raves from instructors across disciplines, it is the chat feature in video conferencing platforms. One instructor said that when he first started to use Zoom, he saw a stream of student postings on the chat addressed not only to him but also to each other. He was puzzled by what appeared to be a distraction, but then saw that the students were engaging with the lesson and encouraging others to ask and answer questions.
In a large lecture class, students liked the fact that their questions were promptly answered on the chat by a teaching assistant, which helped to keep their attention on the lesson. Many other faculty members told us that the chat allowed students who weren’t comfortable speaking up in class an opportunity to participate in the discussion. They are thinking of how they can recreate the chat experience when they return to in-person teaching.
Creating Convenience and Inclusiveness
Being online allows us to transcend the restrictions that the physical nature of an in-person class impose. Some of these benefits will probably carry over to the post-pandemic era.
Some faculty want to keep teaching at least some courses online for the sheer convenience. Many appreciated the reduction in time spent commuting each day, noting that they were able to devote that time to their families or hobbies.
Others are interested in the possibilities that online teaching could add, observing that they can attend conferences that they would otherwise have missed or potentially participate remotely from distant research or study sites. Online office visits have also worked well for many instructors, especially 10-minute, one-on-one sessions with students. Many faculty members reported that they would continue online office visits going forward, as they were much better attended than the in-person meetings before the pandemic.
Ever since the internet took over our lives, the local and the global have been steadily merging, and this trend has hit a crescendo in the pandemic. Instructors have invited speakers from institutions around the world to join their online classes -- often scholars whose work the students have read, offering the chance to engage with them directly. This approach also helps to bring variation; instead of hearing just one instructor, students are exposed to multiple points of view. In one case, a class had 32 outside speakers, each joining for around 20 minutes.
Other instructors have used the opportunity to engage communities they ordinarily wouldn’t have access to, such as one faculty member who had her students do a joint project with a middle-school class. And the merging of the local-global has not been limited to teaching. Reading groups and research presentations, an essential component of research, found participants from across the globe. The benefits are so clear that it’s hard to imagine that we will want to reverse the merging of the local-global for teaching and research after the pandemic.
Ultimately, the experience of the last year, while certainly a disruption, has transformed the way faculty members interact with students and the community they work in. This attitude shift will carry over to the post-pandemic era. Faculty are now more aware of the “whole student,” acknowledging their lives outside the classroom. Also, they have a heightened awareness of the need to create teaching practices that keep the students engaged and to use technology tools that enhance their teaching, from recorded video lectures to real-time chats. Finally, by teaching online, faculty can introduce their students to a larger world of scholars beyond their own campus, thereby substantially broadening their learning opportunities.
In short, there’s no going back, and college teaching will simply never be the same.