I am online for my courses this semester. Baylor has done a remarkable job getting as many courses taught in person as possible, but there was actually an increasing demand for online courses over the summer, too, due to health concerns or location (I have a student taking one of my courses from China, for example). As of February 2020, I would have assumed that online teaching was by definition an inferior mode of delivery. But now I am not so sure. Done well, I believe it can equal or even surpass some aspects of in-person teaching.
1. Student participation: The biggest surprise to me has been how easy it is to foster student participation. On Zoom, the handy names feature means that, as long as students don’t log in as a Marvel character (“Black Widow”), I can easily call on them at any time from day one of the semester. I have tried to establish the expectation that I will be calling on students as much as looking for volunteers for answers, and that has gone better than in most of my in-person classes. When I go back to in-person, I need to do a better job of getting name tags/plates for all the students in order to replicate what happens automatically for instructors on Zoom.
2. Student conversations: A related surprise is how easy it is to foster individual conversations with students after class. Most of the time I end class by saying, “If you have an individual question, just stay on the call.” Sure enough, at least one or two students do. I normally stay after class for 10-15 minutes just to talk with students. This typically wouldn’t happen as much in person because I or the students are usually dashing off somewhere else, or the students might find it a little more daunting to approach me after class in person.
3. Student engagement and retention: In my introductory American history class, I have recorded lectures which students watch on their own, and they take quizzes over the lectures and readings for each day. For in-person classes, I obviously did my lectures live, which is better, not least because it allows for questions and more give-and-take. But I really like them taking short quizzes over the material for each day. I suspect I am already getting more consistent engagement and retention of the course material.
The full-blown bad and ugly may still be on the horizon. But the primary challenge I have found is that students have a host of potential problems (or claimed problems) with technology that are entirely out of my control. It’s on them to have a good internet connection, so some students go in and out during class, and surely do not get as much out of the meeting. Others have webcams malfunction so I can’t see if they’re really there. And I believe that it is easier for the students to go AWOL on attendance or assignments when everything’s online, in spite of my (usual) efforts to contact them when they show signs of struggle or absence.
4. Personal learning: One of my chief takeaways from online teaching, though, is that I am just glad to know how to do it. I feel like I have learned more as a teacher this year than maybe since my first year of teaching. I always want to be the sort of person who is willing to try new things, professionally and technologically. This year forced many of us to do that in some really stretching ways, and I for one will be a better teacher for it.
A form of this article originally appeared in Kidd’s newsletter.