Why I’m (Still) Teaching Online

I pitched this piece to Inside Higher Ed and even started writing it, but they turned it down. Oh well. So I’m posting it here as a blog entry instead.

About a week after Christopher Schaberg’s op-ed “Why I Won’t Teach Online” was published, Inside Higher Ed also published my intentionally playful response “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To).” This was in March 2018, two brief years and a lifetime ago, back in an era where we actually had a choice about teaching online or face to face, and back when that choice wasn’t a matter of personal safety and public health. How times change. Now he has written again, this time a piece called “Why I’m Teaching Online.” This time, we agree more than we did before, though not entirely. 

I agree with Schaberg that teaching as many university classes online this semester as possible (and probably next semester as well) is the right thing to do for both personal and public safety. College campuses are joining nursing homes, prisons, and meat packing plants as prime spots for spreading the virus. (I will leave it to readers to contemplate what these places all have in common with each other.) My university has tried to provide a safe campus experience during the time of covid, but the need for everyone to stay six feet apart from each other means we do not have enough classrooms and other large spaces to hold more than about 20% of our classes face-to-face. 

Almost all of the classes EMU is holding on campus now are ones that would be difficult to hold online, courses that depend on special equipment or that are very hands-on (pottery immediately comes to mind). While almost everyone here is happy with this arrangement (including those like Schaberg who two years ago never thought they’d be doing this), I do have a few colleagues who grumble about how this is all completely overblown, that covid is no worse than the flu, and it will fade away in no time soon. This just goes to show you that not all academics are in favor of science and data, but I digress.

I also agree with Schaberg that shifting from the f2f to the online classroom is a great learning opportunity for faculty to rethink their approach to teaching– and this is especially true for those of us who have found ourselves doing the same thing not necessarily because it is still “the best” and most current approach, but because it “works,” at least well enough. It isn’t easy to adapt to the affordances of online teaching, but it can be revitalizing since it requires a new perspective on an old practice. And it’s not just about learning new ways to teach online: a lot of the activities I first tried online have found their way into the courses I teach face to face.

But there are two places (really, one and a half) where we disagree. Schaberg says that the current moment also gives us a chance to introduce new technologies into our teaching. “We have the tools; let’s use them.” Well, sorta. 

The examples that Schaberg cites here are Google Docs, “drawing reading materials from the web,” and email. If these technologies are actually new to Schaberg, well, welcome to 2005. And yes, this is also a good time for faculty to learn more about your institution’s Learning Management System (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) But I’ve also heard a lot of stories about teachers trying to use new and shiny online toys and tools less because it helps their teaching but more because it is new and shiny. It reminds me of the Monty Python bit about the machine that goes ping.

My pet peeve example of this is the use of video– particularly live video. I blogged about this earlier and also recently published a short article about it here, but the short version is a lot of faculty new to online teaching are overusing applications like Zoom. I think the appeal of Zoom (and similar synchronous video tools) is that it is a technology that appears to replicate the traditional teacher-centered classroom: teachers talk, students sit and listen, occasionally interrupting with questions. There are even “breakout rooms” to put students in discussion groups once in a while. 

In practice, Zoom is a mixed bag at best. It certainly has its uses for conferences and occasional larger group meetings, and we are learning more about other successes through a lot of trial and error.  But it’s difficult and oddly exhausting to stay engaged in a Zoom class, and don’t get me started on the issues of privacy and surveillance it and related technologies raise. Streaming video also requires the kind of decent computer and robust wifi access that a lot of my students just don’t have. No, I think Zoom is a great example of how sometimes the more simple and established technology and approaches to online teaching are still the best: asynchronous course designs that rely on students working through problem sets, using discussion boards to talk about readings and activities, collaboration with tools like Google Docs, and so forth. 

Finally, Schaberg says all of this is temporary: “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.” Sorry, but this ain’t temporary. Not even close.

Restaurants, theaters, bars, international travel, cruise ships, salad bars, and so much more are going to be different experiences when they fully come back– if they are able to fully come back at all. We will all continue to hold a lot more work meetings and routine visits with doctors via video conferencing tools. Many who were forced to work from home will never regularly return to the office, and some will take advantage of that freedom to live not where they have to but where they want to. On and on and on.

So yes, there will come a point where students and teachers will once again meet in physical classrooms in real time. But there will also be a lot more fully online classes, and these classes will become a part of the normal offerings at the kinds of elite and exclusive universities that have long resisted online teaching before Covid. And even most face to face classes will not be entirely face to face. Instead, teaching and learning after the Covid crisis will increasingly be “hybrid:” that is, a mix of some face to face meetings with asynchronous discussion and assignments, along with some synchronous video conferencing, particularly with individual students and small group work.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong. One of the many things I’ve learned from 2020 is don’t become too comfortable in assumptions about the future. One of the curious features of the 1918 pandemic was that once it was over, people the world over seemed to put it all behind them to the point where it was mostly forgotten–until something similar happened again this year. Though this moment feels to me like less of a memory we will suppress and more like a tipping point that will impact almost everything for decades.

“Synch Video is Bad,” perhaps a new research project?

As Facebook has been reminding me far too often lately, things were quite different last year. Last fall, Annette and I both had “faculty research fellowships,” which meant that neither of us were teaching because we were working on research projects. (It also meant we did A LOT of travel, but that’s a different post). I was working on a project that was officially called “Investigating Classroom Technology bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” a project I always referred to as the “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit” project.

It was going along well, albeit slowly. I gave a conference presentation about it all in fall at the Great Lakes Writing and Rhetoric Conference  in September, and by early October, I was circulating a snowball sampling survey to students and instructors (via mailing lists, social media, etc.) about their attitudes about laptops and devices in classes. I blogged about it some in December, and while I wasn’t making as much progress as quickly as I would have preferred, I was getting together a presentation for the CCCCs and ready to ramp up the next steps of this: sorting through the results of the survey and contacting individuals for follow-up case study interviews.

Then Covid.

Then the mad dash to shove students and faculty into the emergency lifeboats of makeshift online classes, kicking students out of the dorms with little notice, and a long and troubling summer of trying to plan ahead for the fall without knowing exactly what universities were going to do about where/in what mode/how to hold classes. Millions of people got sick, hundreds of thousands died, the world economy descended into chaos. And Black Lives Matter protests, Trump descending further into madness, forest fires, etc., etc.

It all makes the debate about laptops and cell phones in classes seem kind of quaint and old-fashioned and irrelevant, doesn’t it? So now I’m mulling over starting a new different but similar project about faculty (and perhaps students) attitudes about online courses– specifically about synchronous video-conference online classes (mostly Zoom or Google Meetings).

Just to back up a step: after teaching online since about 2005, after doing a lot of research on best practices for online teaching, after doing a lot of writing and research about MOOCs, I’ve learned at least two things about teaching online:

  • Asynchronous instruction works better than synchronous instruction because of the affordances (and limitations) of the medium.
  • Video– particularly videos of professors just lecturing into a webcam while students (supposedly) sit and pay attention– is not very effective.

Now, conventional wisdom often turns out to be wrong, and I’ll get to that. Nonetheless, for folks who have been teaching online for a while, I don’t think either of these statements are remotely controversial or in dispute.

And yet, judging from what I see on social media, a lot of my colleagues who are teaching online this fall for the first time are completely ignoring these best practices: they’re teaching synchronous classes during the originally scheduled time of the course and they are relying heavily on Zoom. In many cases (again, based on what I’ve seen on the internets), instructors have no choice: that is, the institution is requiring that what were originally scheduled f2f classes be taught with synch video regardless of what the instructor wants to do, what the class is, and if it makes any sense. But a lot of instructors are doing this to themselves (which, in a lot of ways, is even worse). In my department at EMU, all but a few classes are online this fall, and as far as I can tell, many (most?) of my colleagues have decided on their own to teach their classes with Zoom and synchronously.

It doesn’t make sense to me at all. It feels like a lot of people are trying to reinvent the wheel, which in some ways is not that surprising because that’s exactly what happened with MOOCs. When the big for-profit MOOC companies like Coursera and Udacity and EdX and many others got started, they didn’t reach out to universities that were already experienced with online teaching. Instead, they reached out to themselves and peer institutions– Stanford, Harvard, UC-Berkeley, Michigan, Duke, Georgia Tech, and lots of other high profile flagships. In those early TED talks (like this one from Daphne Koller and this one from Peter Norvig), it really really seems like these people sincerely believe that they were the first ones to ever actually think about teaching online, that they had stumbled across an undiscovered country. But I digress.

I think requiring students to meet online but synchronously for a class via Zoom simply is putting a round peg into a square hole. Imagine the logical opposite situation: say I was scheduled to teach an asynchronous online class that was suddenly changed into a traditional f2f class, something that meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 11:45 am. Instead of changing my approach to this now different mode/medium, I decided I was going to teach the class as an asynch online class anyway. I’d require everyone to physically show up to the class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 am (I have no choice about that), but instead of taking advantage of the mode of teaching f2f, I did everything all asynch and online. There’d be no conversation or acknowledgement that we were sitting in the same room. Students would only be allowed to interact with each other in the class LMS. No one would be allowed to actually talk to each other, though texting would be okay. Students would sit there for 75 minutes, silently doing their work but never allowed to speak with each other, and as the instructor, I would sit in the front of the room and do the same. We’d repeat this at all meetings the entire semester.

A ridiculous hypothetical, right? Well, because I’m pretty used to teaching online, that’s what an all Zoom class looks like like to me.

The other problem I have with Zoom is its part in policing and surveilling both students and teachers. Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education both published inadvertently hilarious op-eds written to an audience of faculty about how they should maintain their own appearances and of their “Zoom backgrounds” to project professionalism and respect. And consider this post on Twitter:

I can’t verify the accuracy of these rules, but it certainly sounds like it could be true. When online teaching came up in the first department meeting of the year (held on Zoom, of course), the main concern voiced by my colleagues who had never taught online before was dealing with students who misbehave in these online forums. I’ve seen similar kinds of discussions about how to surveil students from other folks on social media. And what could possibly motivate a teacher’s need to have bodily control over what their students do in their own homes to the point of requiring them to wear fucking shoes?

This kind of “soft surveillance” is bad enough, but as I understand it, one of Zoom’s features it sells to institutions is robust data on what users do with it: who is logged in, when, for how long, etc. I need to do a little more research on this, but as I was discussing on Facebook with my friend Bill Hart-Davidson (who is in a position to know more about this both as an administrator and someone who has done the scholarship), this is clearly data that can be used to effectively police both teachers’ and students’ behavior. The overlords might have the power to make us to wear shoes at all times on Zoom after all.

On the other hand…

The conventional wisdom about teaching online asynchronously and without Zoom might be wrong, and that makes it potentially interesting to study. For example, the main reason why online classes are almost always asynchronous is the difficulty of scheduling and the flexibility helps students take classes in the first place. But if you could have a class that was mostly asynchronous but with some previously scheduled synchronous meetings as a part of the mix, well, that might be a good thing. I’ve tried to teach hybrid classes in the past that approach this, though I think Zoom might make this a lot easier in all kinds of ways.

And I’m not a complete Zoom hater. I started using it (or Google Meetings) last semester in my online classes for one-on-one conferences, and I think it worked well for that. I actually prefer our department meetings on Zoom because it cuts down on the number of faculty who just want to pontificate about something for no good reason (and I should note I am very very much one of these kind of faculty members, at least once in a while). I’ve read faculty justifying their use of Zoom based on what they think students want, and maybe that turns out to be true too.

So, what I’m imagining here is another snowball sample survey of faculty (maybe students as well) about their use of Zoom. I’d probably continue to focus on small writing classes because it’s my field and also because of different ideas about what teaching means in different disciplines. As was the case with the laptop bans are bullshit project, I think I’d want to continue to focus on attitudes about online teaching generally and Zoom in particular, mainly because I don’t have the resources or skills as a researcher to do something like an experimental design that compares the effectiveness of a Zoom lecture versus a f2f one versus an asynchronous discussion on a topic– though as I type that, I think that could be a pretty interesting experiment. Assuming I could get folks to respond, I’d also want to use the survey to recruit participants in one on one interviews, which I think would be more revealing and relevant data, at least to the basic questions I have now:

  • Why did you decide to use a lot of Zoom and do things synchronously?
  • What would you do differently next time?

What do you think, is this an idea worth pursuing?