A few big picture takeaways from my research about teaching online during Covid

Despite not posting here all summer, I’ve been busy. I’ve been on what is called at EMU a “Faculty Research Fellowship” since January 2022, writing and researching about teaching online during Covid. These FRFs are one of the nicer perks here. FRFs are competitive awards for faculty to get released from teaching (but not service obligations), and faculty can apply every two years. Since I’m not on any committees right now, it was pretty much the same thing as a sabbatical: I had to go to some meetings and I was working with a grad student on her MA project as well, but for the most part, my time was my own. Annette also had an FRF at the same time.

I’ve had these FRF before, but I never gotten as much research stuff done as I did on this one. Oh sure, there was some vacationing and travel, usually also involving some work. Anyone who follows me on Facebook or Instagram is probably already aware of that, but I’m happy with what I managed to get done. Among other things:

  • I conducted 37 interviews with folks who took my original survey about online teaching during Covid and agreed to talk. Altogether, it’s probably close to 50 hours worth of recordings and maybe 1000 pages of transcript– more on that later.
  • I “gave presentations” at the CCCCs and at the Computers and Writing conference. Though I use the scare quotes because both were online and “on demand” presentations, which is to say not even close to the way I would have run an online conference (not that anyone asked). On the plus-side, both presentations were essentially pre-writing activities for other things, and both also count enough at EMU justify me keeping a 3-3 teaching load.
  • Plus I have an article coming out about all this work in Computers and Composition Online. It is/will be called “The Role of Previous Online Teaching Experience During the Covid Pandemic: An Exploratory Study of Faculty Perceptions and Approaches” (which should give you a sense about what it’s about), and hopefully it will be a “live” article/ website/ publication in the next month or two.

The next steps are going to involve reviewing the transcriptions (made quite a bit easier than it used to be with a website/software called Otter.ai) and to code everything to see what I’ve got. I’m not quite sure what I mean by “code” yet, if it is going to be something systematic that follows the advice in various manuals/textbooks about coding and analyzing qualitative data, or if it is going to be closer to what I did with the interviews I conducted for the MOOC book, where my methodology could probably best be described as journalism. Either way, I have a feeling that’s a project that is going to keep me busy for a couple of years.

But as I reflect on the end of my research fellowship time and also as I gear up for actually teaching again this fall, I thought I’d write a bit about some of the big picture take-aways I have from all of those interviews so far.

First off, I still think it’s weird that so many people taught online synchronously during Covid. I’ve blogged here and written in other places before about how this didn’t make sense to me when we started the “natural experiment” of online teaching during covid, and after a lot of research and interviews, it still doesn’t make sense to me.

I’m not saying that synchronous teaching with Zoom and similar tools didn’t work, though I think one pattern that will emerge when I dig more into the interviews is that faculty who taught synchronously and who also used other tools besides just Zoom (like they included asynch activities, they also used Zoom features like the chat window or breakout rooms, etc.) had better experiences than those who just used Zoom to lecture. It’s also clear that the distinction between asynchronous and synchronous online teaching was fuzzy. Still, given that that 85% or so of all online courses in US higher ed prior to Covid were taught only asynchronously, it is still weird to me that so many people new to teaching online knowingly (or, more likely, unknowingly) decided to take an approach that was (and still is) at odds with what’s considered the standard and “best practice” in distance education.

Second and very broadly speaking, I think faculty who elected to teach online synchronously during Covid did so for some combination of three reasons. And more or less in this descending order.

  • Most of the people who responded to my survey who taught online synchronously said their institution gave faculty a number of different options in terms of mode of teaching (f2f, hybrid, synch, asynch, etc.), and that seems to have been true generally speaking across the board in higher ed. But a lot of institutions– especially ones that focus on the traditional undergraduate college experience for 18-22 year olds and that offered few online courses before Covid– encouraged (and in some cases required) their faculty teach synchronously. And a lot of faculty I interviewed did say that the synchronous experience was indeed a “better than nothing” substitute for these students for what they couldn’t do on campus.

(It’s worth noting that I think this was striking to me in part because I’ve spent my career as a professor at a university where at least half of our students commute some distance to get to campus, are attending part-time, are returning adult students, etc. Institutions like mine have been teaching a significant percentage of classes online for quite a while.)

  • They thought it’d be the easiest way to make the transition to teaching online. I think Sorel Reisman nailed it in his IEEE article when he said: “Teachers can essentially keep doing their quasi-Socratic, one-to-many lecture teaching the way they always have. In a nutshell, Zoom is the lazy person’s way to teach online.” Reisman is okay with this because even though it is far from the approach he would prefer, it as as least getting instructors to engage with the technology. I don’t agree with him about that, but it’s hard to deny that he’s right about how Zoom enabled the far too popular (and largely ineffective) sage on the stage lecture hall experience.
  • But I think the most common reason why faculty decided to teach online synchronously is it didn’t even occur to them that the medium of delivery for a class would make any difference. In other words, it’s not so they decided to teach synchronously because they were encouraged to do so or even because they thought redesigning their courses to teach online asynchronously would be too much work. Rather, I think most faculty who had no previous experience teaching online didn’t think about the method/medium of delivery at all and just delivered the same content (and activities) that they always did before.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs here and these are all three sides (!) of the same coin; then again, maybe not. I read a column by Ezra Klein recently with the headline “I Didn’t Want It to Be True, but the Medium Really Is the Message.” He is not talking about online teaching at all but rather about the media landscape as it has been evolving and how his “love affair” with the internet and social media has faded in that time. Klein is a smart guy and I usually agree with and admire his columns, but this one kind of puzzles me. He writes about how he had been reading Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, and how he seems to have only now just discovered Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman, and how they all wrote about the importance of the medium that carries messages and content. For example:

We’ve been told — and taught — that mediums are neutral and content is king. You can’t say anything about television. The question is whether you’re watching “The Kardashians” or “The Sopranos,” “Sesame Street” or “Paw Patrol.” To say you read books is to say nothing at all: Are you imbibing potboilers or histories of 18th-century Europe? Twitter is just the new town square; if your feed is a hellscape of infighting and outrage, it’s on you to curate your experience more tightly.

There is truth to this, of course. But there is less truth to it than to the opposite. McLuhan’s view is that mediums matter more than content; it’s the common rules that govern all creation and consumption across a medium that change people and society. Oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd.

Now, I will admit that since I studied rhetoric, I’m quite familiar with McLuhan and Ong (less so with Postman), and the concept that the medium (aka “rhetorical situation”) does indeed matter a lot is not exactly new. But, I don’t know, have normal people really been told and taught that mediums are neutral? That all that matters is the content? Really? It seems like such a strange and obvious oversight to me. Then again, maybe not.

Third, the main challenge and surprise for most faculty new to online teaching (and also to faculty not so new to it) is in the preparation. I mean this in at least two ways. First off, the hardest part for me about teaching online has always been how to shift material and experiences from the synchronous f2f setting to the asynchronous online one. It’s a lot easier for me to respond to student questions in real time when we’re all sitting in the same room, and it’s much easier to do that f2f because I can “read the room.” Students who are confused and who have questions rarely say (f2f or online) “I’m confused and I have some questions here,” but I can usually figure out the issues when I’m f2f. In online courses– certainly in the asynch ones but I think this was also mostly true for synch ones as well– it’s impossible to adjust in the moment like that. This is why in advance/up-front preparation is so much more important for online courses. As an instructor, I have to explain things and set things up ahead of time to anticipate likely questions and points of confusion. That’s hard to do when you haven’t taught something previously, and it’s impossible to do without a fair amount of preparation.

Which leads to my second point: a lot of faculty, especially in fields like English and other disciplines in the humanities, don’t do as much ahead of time preparation to teach as they probably should. Rather, a lot of faculty I interviewed and a lot of faculty I know essentially have the pedagogical approach of structured improvisation, sometimes to the point of just “winging it.”

This can work out great f2f. I’m thinking of the kind of improvisation accomplished musicians have to improvise and interpret a song on the fly (and more than one of the people I interviewed about teaching online for the first time used an analogy like this). A lot of instructors are very good as performers in f2f class settings because they are especially good lecturers, they’re especially good in building interpersonal relationships with their students, and they’re especially charismatic people. They’re prepared ahead of time, sure, and chances are they’ve done similar performances in f2f classes for a while. These are the kind of instructors who really feed off of the energy of live and in-person students. There are also the kind of instructors who, based again mostly on some of the interviews, were most unhappy about teaching online.

But this simply does not work AT ALL online, and I think it is only marginally more possible to take this approach to teaching with Zoom. If the ideal performance of an instructor in a f2f class is like jazz musicians, stand-up comedians, or a similar kind of stage performer, an online class instructor’s ideal performance has to be more like what the final product of a well-produced movie or TV show looks like: practiced, scripted, performed, and edited, and then ultimately recorded and made available for on-demand streaming.

And let’s be clear: a lot of faculty (myself included) are not at their best when they try the structured improvisation/winging it approach in f2f classrooms. I’ve done many many teaching observations over the years, and I am here to tell you that there are a lot of instructors who think they are good at this at this kind of performance who aren’t. I know I’m not as good of a teacher when I try this, and I think that’s something that became clear to me when I started teaching some of my classes online (asynchronously, of course) about 15 or so years ago. So for me, I think my online teaching practices and preparations do more to shape my f2f practices and preparations rather than the other way around.

In any event, the FRF semester and summer are about over and the fall semester is about here. We start at EMU on Monday, and I am teaching one class f2f for the first time since Winter 2020. Here’s hoping I remember where to stand.

 

 

 

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