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.

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