A few years ago, I wrote an article for this site called “Why I Won’t Teach Online.” How short-sighted was that! Little did I know then that a novel coronavirus would make us all teach online -- no matter how any of us felt about it.
Like everyone else, I ended up teaching fully online last spring, and now I’m preparing to teach online again -- or at least partly online -- this semester.
At my university, those of us who were instructors were able to opt for face-to-face (for labs and select other courses that needed to be in-person), hybrid/HyFlex or entirely remote. But many of us who chose the middle option are starting the semester online, given the high likelihood of community spread with faculty members, administrators and students all coming back to the campus and COVID-19 cases still holding steady -- if not increasing -- throughout the country.
I look forward to meeting with my students in person again in the not-too-distant future. Probably we’ll have class outside, well spaced out and wearing masks. But in the meantime, I’ll gladly put my heart into teaching online, even though this would have been anathema to me a year ago.
My university, like most others that are reopening, has adopted prudent measures to ensure social distance, mandatory mask wearing and regulated foot traffic flows and room occupancy limits throughout the campus. So why am I veering toward online, when I could teach face-to-face, still my preferred mode? Here are five reasons.
It’s safe. Given the realities of the coronavirus pandemic, teaching online is the safe thing to do at this time. Even with -- or precisely because of -- all the safety procedures that my institution has put in place, it seems obvious that the smart thing to do for the safety of everyone is to teach remotely for the time being. If I like teaching face-to-face because I care about my students, then I also choose teaching online right now, because I care about my students.
It’s temporary. Thanks to inconsistent leadership and bungled responses at all levels, this situation will very likely drag on for many more months. But it probably won’t last forever. We’ll be back in the classroom eventually -- even if it’s a changed classroom, with newfound sensitivity to virus transmission, shared space and personal hygiene. And until then, we can make do with our Zoom screens, phone calls and Google Docs. We’ll get through this time, as long as we keep communication lines open and are patient with one another.
It’s a chance to learn. I can use this time to try new teaching methods and to make my pedagogical values newly vivid. For instance, this semester I’m implementing something I learned from one of my colleagues over the summer during an online teaching conference my university organized. It sounds obvious enough: a strict focus on teaching just one thing each class. So in my contemporary poetry class, we’ll just spend a full day just talking about enjambment, or how lines can carry over to the next without a marked pause, and what the effects are. And then the next day we might just talk about juxtaposition. And so on.
By narrowing our attention to single lessons each class, I hope that I can make the online learning experience both straightforward and low-pressure for my students, who are no doubt navigating myriad complexities in their own lives right now. And I, too, will learn from this streamlining and using online tools, I hope -- making me a better teacher, whether online or back in the classroom, for years to come. I’ve learned so much from my online teaching colleagues over the past several months, and I have newfound respect for this mode of education -- even if I eventually end up back in the traditional classroom myself.
We have the tools; let’s use them. While I’m not about to merge my entire life seamlessly into Canvas, Matrix-style, I can still use the digital tools at hand to make this experience not just tolerable for my students but also worthwhile. For example, in my classes we practice collaborative writing using Google Docs; these skills and the platform become valuable well beyond college. And as we’re all online anyway, it becomes somewhat easier to draw from reading materials from around the web, teaching media literacy while also using the internet as a living archive, ready for interpretation and critical thought.
Some instructors are very good at utilizing the features of an LMS; others may go lower-tech, employing emails and even just phone calls to teach and mentor their students effectively. But the point is that since we have already been adopting these communicative technologies over the past couple decades, now is the time to really use them -- and use them well.
It’s not just about me. Finally, this whole thing isn’t about what I want, what I am going to get out of it. It’s about public health. It’s about the realization that without our larger collective groups, without our communities, everything starts to crumble. It’s also a chance to model this philosophical awareness -- for our children, our students and our peers. Opting to teach online at the beginning of this fall is a recognition that things are still not quickly reverting back to normal, that “reopening” isn’t just a matter of willpower and wishful thinking.
Teaching online, however experimental and makeshift it can still seem at times, reflects an awareness that my students and colleagues are all in varying circumstances and that it is safest for us all to stay home, or otherwise relatively isolated, as much possible right now. This is no easy mandate, and it comes with its own costs. But again, if we can learn anything from COVID-19, it’s that we live in a networked world, that we are never alone -- as a species or as individuals. Teaching online feels like the right thing to do in the moment, and we can make it meaningful by learning from those who have been doing it effectively for years.
The last six months have been a steep learning curve for me, deeply humbling at times, and I’m sure that’s not over yet. But as we transition into this latest pandemic semester, I hope that universities and their faculty exercise flexibility and generosity as our modes of instruction shift around, and as our students go with us into this truly novel terrain.