Don’t get me wrong– online courses have their problems.
Lots of courses/subjects wouldn’t work well exclusively online: my go-to examples of these include science lab courses, ceramics classes that involve a kiln, welding, hair dressing, and any sort of training in how to do surgery, along with a new example someone gave the other day: scuba diving. Online courses take more time to develop and they take more time to teach– at least initially. A lot of students (and faculty too) struggle with the self-discipline and self-scheduling it takes to do a class online. At the beginning of the term, I always remind my students that taking a class online is a bit like buying a membership to a gym open 24 hours a day: sure, it means you have a ton more flexibility to go workout whenever you want, but you still have to have the self-motivation to go. A lot of students (and probably even more faculty) simply hate that much time in front of a computer screen. And for better or worse, a lot of students and faculty just do not want to do something different from what they’ve been doing for a long time because change is hard, scary, time-consuming, unknown, etc., etc.
Plus there is the value of the whole “traditional (elite) college experience” that includes all the stuff that happens that is not part of coursework and classes, though as I blogged about here, it’s important to remember that’s not the only way to go to college. Also, I’m really only talking about higher education and online instruction; I think there are a ton of reasons why exclusively online teaching is not a great idea for most secondary school students, and why it’s probably unworkable for elementary school students.
All that said, I actually do like teaching online as well as I like teaching face to face– though for different reasons. So now that summer is here (albeit the shelter in place version) and I have a lot more free time, I thought I’d write a bit about why.
Starting with the least important pluses for teaching writing online:
- Most student behavior problems disappear. I said I was starting with the least important, but this does matter to me. Teaching and working with students is the best part of my job– though being able to write and research pretty much whatever I want is a very very close second and it often takes priority for me. But like all humans, students can also be assholes, especially when they do stuff like show up late, steadily play with their cell phones or laptops, chat loudly with classmates, wander in and out of the room, groan or sigh deeply to register their disagreement with an assignment or requirement, sleep during a discussion, show up drunk or high, etc., etc. I’m not saying this kind of bad behavior is widespread, but all it takes is that one student.
This kind of bad behavior is a non-issue in online classes. I can’t see students groaning or complaining or whatever because they’re not sitting right there in front of me. In an asynchronous online class, showing up 20 minutes late or not paying attention or distracting others are non-issues, and I don’t have do more dramatic/cop-like things like asking a student to leave the room. And while this hasn’t happened to me, I do have colleagues who have had problems with students that were serious enough to warrant campus police intervention. That’s definitely not an issue online.
- The flexibility. This is the main reason why students take classes online. It’s not that they “like” the format better (though some do); they take classes online because they have work and life obligations that would make taking classes all on campus impossible. Traditional and on-campus students sometimes take classes online, but I also have a lot of non-traditional students in my online classes, folks who are working to pay the bills like everyone else. A lot of my students are the primary care-giver for very young children or for other family members. A lot of my online students are trying to cut down on their commute to campus, especially if they are only attending part-time. Some students are online because they moved far away for some reason and this is the only way they can finish their degree. The point is the flexibility of asynchronous online classes is what allows them to pursue a college degree in the first place.
By the way, this flexibility is only possible if the class is asynchronous. If an online class is still expected to meet at a specific time, then it’s no longer all that flexible for students to fit into the rest of their lives. I think this is one of the reasons why almost everyone I know with any experience in online teaching is not that interested in synchronous online classes.
Now, I like the flexibility of the format because I prefer to work at home (even when forced to do so because of a pandemic). Teaching one or two courses online each term cuts down on the number of times I have to work on campus. I especially prefer to teach graduate courses online because we otherwise teach them at night (and I find teaching at night unpleasant), plus students have been asking for more online offerings for a while now. Teaching online and working from home makes it a lot easier for me to do things on weekdays like to the gym, shop for groceries, run errands, etc.
Plus online teaching allows me to do some limited travel during the term in ways that aren’t possible with an all face-t0-face schedule. I finished teaching an online summer class a few years ago while in Paris and never even told my students where I was. I don’t know if I could pull off teaching an entire semester while traveling in Europe or wherever, but I also know it’s something I might be able to try one of these years.
- Students end up writing A LOT more online than they do in f2f classes. This is because all the participation in an online class happens in writing. Several years ago, I taught a graduate-level rhetorical theory class online and I did a very rough estimate word count for the semester’s worth of discussions. It was like 60,000 words; in one semester, my students and I collaboratively wrote as many words in a 200 or so page book. I’ve always thought that one of the key things anyone can do become a better writer– with or without a teacher– is simply to write and write and write. This leads to one of the other advantages, which is a bit of a paradox:
- Student participation is better, both in terms of quantity and quality– assuming the class requires participation. There’s two reasons for this. First, the only way for students to demonstrate “presence” and participation in an online class is to actually say (write) something. In a f2f class, a student can sit silently, be present, and give the impression that they’re paying attention and thus participating. That’s fine, but in an online class, the student who never says anything is simply not there. Added bonus? These students who aren’t willing to speak up in a f2f group discussion often have a lot of really great things to say in the online discussion. I’ve had some of these students tell me over the years they participated more because they were more comfortable writing something than saying it out loud, and also because they had time to think about what they wanted to say. And quite frankly, those students who are a little too comfortable talking all the time in class can’t dominate the conversation as easily in the text format.
- Last but not least, teaching online has forced me to think much harder about pedagogy in ways that help my f2f teaching as well. Teaching successfully online is all about the affordances of the medium, finding ways to minimize the problems of being asynchronous and online and maximize the benefits of the format. This has taken a lot of work and thinking– and yes, time too, unfortunately. But I’ve also learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work for me as a teacher. It’s hard for me to put a very specific finger on it here, but along with thinking about how to move some classroom element or activity from the f2f setting to the online setting, I also have to think about why I am doing what I’m doing. Among other things that have come from this thinking about transforming my teaching is a bit of an ego check and realization that my students don’t really need or want me to be there all the time, if that makes sense. So I try to do things in my teaching that are less focused on me me me (again, a reason why I am not a big believer in video lectures) and more on how I want my students to make connections with each other, the writing, and the reading of the class. Again, that leaks back into my f2f teaching too.