Not ‘Glorified Skype’

Faculty members say they’re working harder than ever to meet students’ needs through remote instruction, even if critics of the model don’t know it.

August 27, 2020
 
Solomon Rolston
Rose Casey

The spring semester and its full-throttle move to remote instruction proved brutal for many if not most faculty members. The summer offered little relief, as professors used the time to transition their fall courses to a fully online format or, more time-consumingly, to multiple formats for a range of reopening scenarios.

In light of these ongoing demands, faculty members say they’re working harder than ever to be effective instructors. Many have taken online teaching courses, gotten comfortable with new technology, revamped syllabi and course content, and been more available to students. So it’s disheartening that critics inside and outside academe are questioning the value of a remote education, these professors say.

“Like everyone I know who teaches in higher education -- at all ranks, including graduate students -- I’ve worked countless extra hours this summer to ensure that my fall courses offer the best possible experience for students, and I’ve done all of this without pay,” said Rose Casey, assistant professor of English at West Virginia University. “Like my colleagues, I take teaching seriously, and that means putting in lots of extra time to make sure that students can take courses that are intellectually stimulating without being overwhelming during a pandemic.”

About that uncompensated labor: in preparation for the fall semester, Casey said she’s read widely about online teaching; met weekly with colleagues over Zoom to discuss online pedagogy research, strategies and tools; and overhauled syllabi and teaching materials for her classes.

Even though many of the required readings for her courses will stay the same as before, she said, her assessments and, of course, her teaching will be different. Instead of a few essays making up most of students’ grades, Casey created 10 new, smaller assignments to help students keep pace.

“I’ve totally redrafted my policies, too, to make them more equitable given issues of access that will arise in this sudden shift online,” Casey added. “All of this has taken a lot of time and thought.”

The good news? “I’m honestly really excited about the courses I’ve developed, and I can’t wait to work with my students this fall.” The bad? The dominant “narrative” surrounding remote education has “largely been that online courses are inferior to face-to-face, but that’s just not true.”

Inherently Inferior?

As institutions start the fall semester in online-only mode, or reopen and then close again to due to coronavirus outbreaks, a number of student-led petitions asking for tuition discounts cite the inferiority of online instruction. One petition to the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors says, for instance, that “we are experiencing reduced instruction time due to the limitations of online learning both in our capacity to retain information and limited student-student and student-professor interactions.”

Students “have been forced to pursue more individualized learning while working towards achieving the same diversity of thought as we would have with in-person, experiential learning,” the petition continues. “The basic fact is that what we are receiving from the university during this pandemic does not achieve the standard upon which our tuition is based.”

Another petition to Rutgers University signed by 31,000 people as of Wednesday says that the institution must recognize the “disparity and understand that remote education does not deem the same tuition costs as in-person education.” Rutgers “must rectify this issue by ordering a tuition cut of some sort to make up for the lack of educational engagement and additional resources that would be received if in-person.” Many students have an “extra difficult time learning remotely and do not reap any benefits,” the petition notes.

At Michigan State University, a similar student petition says that “online classes hold … far less value compared to those that were once in a classroom. The students and peers of Michigan State University presume the degree has now been devalued and deemed not equivalent to the tuition rates that the university is imposing.”

Beyond student criticism, even some academics have criticized remote instruction. “When you take the experience out and go to all-remote learning, effectively what you have is a streaming video service that costs $58,000 a year,” Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at New York University, recently told CNN. Galloway was asked to comment on the notion that a remote term is “glorified Skype,” and reason for a tuition break.

College is expensive and instruction does make up a significant share of any university budget. It’s the largest single expenditure category on many campuses, including community colleges and public and private four-year institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But it still only accounts for up to 41 percent of any institution type’s budget, on average.

Don’t Blame the Faculty

Some tuition discount seekers differentiate between the cost of instruction and the price of college over all. Others don’t. In any case, many colleges say that the pandemic has left them in dire financial straits and that there is nowhere to cut the budget, except for instruction. Yet cutting into the faculty and other instructional costs right now wouldn’t exactly boost institutions’ case that online education is valuable, or their ability to make it so.

Sue Estroff, a professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus, last week asked administrators there to improve their “messaging” about the value of remote instruction as the campus transitions back to all-remote instruction due to coronavirus outbreaks. Estroff said it would help everyone if the university signaled that remote instruction is an “alternative” to an in-person experience and not a “failure.”

Estroff said this week that a Zoom class “is nothing like Skype, except for being simultaneously on screen. And let’s also consider that the students are not inanimate objects. They are part of the learning process and should not expect to be passive in this process. They have a responsibility to adapt, as do we.”

Chapel Hill’s hurried transition to remote instruction has been complicated, Estroff also said. Faculty members have been “scrambling.” But they are making it work with a lot of, well, work.

“If you teach a class of 45 to 50 students, and you lectured in person pre-pandemic, then you have to completely redo all your PowerPoint slides or other materials in order to add your lecture,” she said. And while it may be acceptable to misspeak in a live lecture, “not so with recording. So lots of do-overs.” Any asynchronous narration of this kind must also be more comprehensive than it would be in person, she added, since students can’t ask questions in real time.

Course materials get uploaded to a learning management system, and then small course sections that meet weekly get redesigned for Zoom breakout room formats, Estroff continued, estimating that each course session takes about four to five hours to rework. There are 28 sessions per term.

Justin Ortagus, assistant professor of higher education administration at the University of Florida, said he taught online prior to the coronavirus, and that “labeling online instruction as ‘glorified Skype’ says more about the critic’s understanding of online education than it does about what’s actually being offered when faculty have advance notice to develop and teach the online course.”

Advance Notice Helps

The advance notice “is key,” though, he said. Without naming names, Ortagus said that universities that shifted from face-to-face to remote instruction “at the last minute have not done their students or faculty any favors.”

Ortagus has known for months that he’ll be teaching online this fall, and he used to the time to work with instructional designers, record videos and otherwise make sure “students have a high-quality online experience.”

In any case, many faculty members have been “drinking out of a fire hose since this pandemic started” and now “live where they work, and this is an extremely stressful moment that calls for grace and thoughtful conversations about how to offer the best possible online course when time and resources are constrained.”

Courtney Brannon Donoghue, assistant professor of media arts at the University of North Texas, estimated that she spent 10 to 15 hours per week in June and July working on her courses -- which she knew in advance would be online -- and 45 to 60 hours per week this month. This term, she’s teaching in two online formats: remote asynchronous, for online readings, lectures, discussions and assignments, and synchronous weekly Zoom meetings for further discussion and small group work. Summers are typically when faculty members are expected to conduct research, write publications and do other scholarly work, she said.

Creating course content, whether for a new class or one previously taught in person, “is labor-intensive and requires time, resources and creativity to make the experience resonate with as many students as we can,” she said. However they’re teaching this fall, tenure-track, tenured and contingent faculty members alike “are experts in our field, and the craft of our industry as educators should not be diminished.”

Donoghue added, "We are in a global crisis, so this semester is completely unprecedented. Universities are asking us to do more with less. Everyone in my department is teaching overload classes to meet the needs of our students."

Estroff teaches smaller courses in the medical school at Chapel Hill, which decided early on, and apart from the university as a whole, to go remote in most programs for 18 months. So far, Estroff said she’s found that these students are “as energetically engaged in making their learning environment work as I am.”

Don’t Discount Teaching

For undergraduate students, however, Estroff said she guessed that "what happens in the classroom is a much smaller part of their university and learning experience. They are understandably missing the rest of college life." Yet that is "not equivalent to a decline in the quality of classroom teaching."

Adam Kotsko, a visiting assistant professor in the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College in Illinois, said he’s personally “not a big fan of online education” and really does “think in-person is a superior format, though individual online classes can be better than individual in-person courses.”

Yet he also suspects that most student demands for remote-instruction tuition reductions are “less about pedagogical quality and more about the quote-unquote college experience more generally.”

“It’s not as though college marketing has been laser-focused on quality of instruction, right?” he added.

Galloway, whose “video streaming service” comments irked many faculty members, said in an interview that there’s an “electricity” to classroom teaching and learning that online education can’t match. 

“Go see Hamilton on Broadway and then watch it on Netflix and tell me what you think,” he said. "There's a reason you have to pay 200 bucks to see the New York Knicks play and it costs a lot less to watch them on TV."

The faculty isn’t at fault, though, Galloway added. Instead, he blamed colleges and universities in “hallucinations that they can maintain their prices for a product that is in the short term, at least, going to be diminished. I don’t think that’s a very strident statement.” For the record, Galloway believes that online education represents "the future" in many ways, as it can increase teaching capacity. 

Galloway said his own fall course cap had been raised from 160 to 280 -- without additional support from teaching assistants. With students paying about $7,000 to take the class, he said, there’s pressure to “bring it” every time he turns on Zoom and deliver $2 million in value by the end of term.

Casey, of West Virginia, said she “absolutely” appreciates that university tuition and associated costs are expensive, noting that the state of West Virginia cut public spending on higher education by 26 percent in the last decade alone. And so tuition "covers the cost of professors’ expertise as well as the substantial costs of running a large institution."

Added Costs

Faculty expertise fuels instruction, whether it’s online or in person. And remote instruction comes with some added costs.

Glenn Colby, senior researcher for the American Association of University Professors, said that “at its worst,” remote instruction might resemble something like Skype. But that’s when professors take a "banking" approach and try to "deposit" facts into students. When remote instruction is working right, faculty members treat their students like “co-investigators” -- and use new technology to foster communication among everyone in the class.

As for how that technology is paid for, Colby said many institutions collect technology fees from students to fund things such as learning management systems. Those systems, in term, required paid staff to administer them and support faculty members who use them.

Ortagus, of the University of Florida, said that “contrary to much of the public discourse, high-quality online education is not necessarily cheaper than face-to-face education. Even if we assume that universities already have the required technology and course infrastructure in place, online courses require more time and resources to launch when compared to face-to-face courses.”

Additional resources include instructional designers, production and multimedia specialists, and other support personnel. For these reasons, among others, Ortagus said the "math" surrounding tuition discounts for public colleges and universities is "difficult to reconcile." Many private institutions have similarly tight budgets.

"Revenues are decreasing and costs are rising in this unprecedented shift online," he said.

Galloway's course cap increase aside, Ortagus said that for the "overwhelming majority of universities, the quality of the online course is a major consideration, and that means low enrollment numbers in online courses to ensure meaningful faculty-student interaction."

All About Design

While tuition refund demands reveal some conflation of educational quality and access to undergraduate campus life, they have another underlying premise: that remote instruction is inherently inferior to face-to-face instruction.

Is it? Christine Greenhow, associate professor of education at Michigan State, said that “people automatically jump to, ‘This is necessarily inferior.’ And that’s not true. It can be better.”

One metastudy from the U.S. Education Department found that "on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction," for example.

“Just as there can be terrible in-classroom teaching, there can also be very bad online teaching,” Greenhow added. The key is course design. Specifically, Greenhow said online learning experiences should include frequent, direct and meaningful interaction -- between students and between students and the professor -- and combine synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Students also need the right tools.

“It goes without saying that for all students to get a fair shot at high-quality online learning, they have to have the high-speed internet, devices and technical supports they need,” Greenhow said. “We as instructors need to ask our students about their technology conditions, take stock of what the issues are and connect them with people and resources that can help.”

Professors should also seek student feedback, to take the class’s “pulse” (it’s not always the same for everyone), and allow for course corrections where needed, she said.

Many students -- like their professors -- expressed dissatisfaction with how their classes went in the spring. Asked if professors have had enough time since then to design and execute strong courses, Greenhow said those who were teaching online before the pandemic have a head start. But teaching in any capacity -- in person, hybrid or online -- always requires practice, she said.

Some professors got an extra leg up over the summer and enrolled in boot camp-style online teaching courses. Such courses were either offered at the institutional level, overseen by teaching and learning staff experts, or administered by third parties. The Association of College and University Educators saw 3,000 instructors take its courses in effective online teaching in the last few months alone. The online classes help professors design effective courses, syllabi and class sessions and build inclusive online learning environments. They also train professors to use active learning strategies and to promote students’ higher-order thinking and self-directed learning online.

Susan Cates, CEO of the association, called ACUE, said that “rich and meaningful teaching and learning is absolutely possible online,” and that it’s important to separate emergency remote instruction in the spring from online instruction now.

Training for the Transition 

The "need for training in evidence-based teaching has been there all along," Cates said. But the intensity of the "felt need" among faculty members over the summer was "elevated because of the transition online and high levels of uncertainty about the coming year."

John Mogulescu, dean of the City University of New York’s School of Professional Studies, said his institution invested heavily in faculty readiness for remote instruction, and his school in particular led the largest such initiative over the summer. The school, which has offered online degrees for 15 years, created a three-week online teaching essentials workshop to transition the university’s emergency remote teaching efforts into what Mogulescu called “sustained and effective online teaching.”

Echoing Greenhow and Cates, Mogulescu said the key differences between emergency remote teaching and online teaching is careful development and preparation, use of asynchronous as well as synchronous instruction, and “recourse to decades of research and best practices.”

The School of Professional Studies’ workshop has been offered monthly for cohorts of about 500 professors since May, totaling about 2,000 participants who completed the program. Mogulescu said the response was “overwhelmingly positive,” recalling that one faculty member called the workshop a “lifesaver” and another said it added a “sense of rejuvenation” to their teaching plans.

While many professors initially feel a “fear of transitioning to a radically different way of teaching,” he said, the workshops place professors in the role of “virtual learners,” making them more in tune with the needs of their students. They also build a “community of practice” on which to rely in the months ahead.

Like so many professors across academe, Mogulescu said that CUNY faculty and staff members are working “incredibly hard to make sure that our students can continue to succeed and reach their educational goals even while navigating the significant disruptions brought about by this pandemic.”

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