In the pandemic, many college professors, forced onto Zoom and other video conferencing platforms, have continued to teach online as they have always done face-to-face, and lectured via streaming video as they have done in person. Many are unaware that online teaching can actually open up new opportunities to innovate their teaching practice.
In fact, many college professors were downright grumpy at being thrown into a new teaching format.
“Having made the decision to teach online, teachers are often left alone and unprepared for the challenge of functioning in an entirely technology-enabled environment where rules and behaviors are radically different,” writes Edwige Simon of the University of Colorado in her dissertation on the professional identity of university teaching on the Internet. Facing the screen, the faculty can erupt in frustration, sadness, and even anger.
Despite this, there are some teachers who, thanks to the forced experimentation online, have found new and rewarding ways of teaching – doing things that stimulate active learning, by turning video conferencing classes into engaged peer-to-peer discussions about what students are doing have researched, alone or with others, transform between classes—activities such as watching videos, visiting websites, and reading academic books and articles, among other offline resources. Some educators are so passionate about active learning that they work so effectively they expect it to continue offering online courses even as pandemic restrictions are fully lifted and things are fully personal again.
Digital teaching is commonly divided into “asynchronous” and “synchronous” modes, with “synchronous” referring to real-time teaching in a classroom or virtually via Zoom or other video conferencing tools. “Asynchronous,” on the other hand, refers to activities that are being done by students and teachers at all times—at home, in the library, even commuting, doing homework, emailing, posting messages and consuming videos and podcasts, reading, writing and such further . Because these Greek-derived words can be off-putting jargon, I suggest “online” teaching as a substitute for synchronous and “offline” for asynchronous.
When digital instruction first came to higher education about a quarter century ago, most interaction was conducted offline in text form. It took years before video streaming made it possible to conduct virtual classes universally in real time as well, paving the way for remote classes to be offered both online and offline.
Siva Priya Santhanam, an assistant professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, said she uses the online time for reviews and discussions. “I avoid lecturing during this time and use various activities to clarify questions and ambiguities, provide feedback and create opportunities for discussion”, building a relationship with students online, even if they were in their face-to-face classes.
I took a very similar approach when teaching online at The New School in Manhattan a few years ago. Never have I ever given a real-time lecture on Zoom. Instead, the students watched my seven-minute video lectures themselves, I also watch videos of interviews I’ve had with experts on topics in my class. After that, we spend the next hour in the virtual classroom chatting and exploring what they discovered offline.
Whitney Kilgore, chief academic officer at iDesign, an online program management company that specializes in instructional design, told me that when students talk and think in groups, solve problems, and correct each other, “it gives them the opportunity to behave that way both the teacher and the learner.” Kilgore says students retain the lesson better in student-led discussions than when they passively listen to lectures or watch videos on YouTube.
Kilgore is urging senior academic staff to recognize that the transition from face-to-face events in traditional classrooms to active online learning may not be easy. She encourages colleges and universities to recognize that quality online learning is not achieved solely by putting teachers in front of live cameras on Zoom. “Learning design is a discipline,” she says. “Not everyone can get online without the right support.”
“Think of the screen as a place for two-way conversations instead of just talking to your students,” says Kristen Sosulski, executive director of the Learning Science Lab at NYU Stern School of Business. “If you see it as a conversation space rather than a lecture, design your course accordingly.”
Before they click Zoom, Sosulski says instructors need to realize they’re not getting the feedback they normally expect — face-to-face eye contact. “But if you need evidence of student engagement, you need to design your online course to be engaging, with mini-quizzes and mini-exercises, as well as other interactive activities.”
Faculty members, who for years have been teaching face-to-face seminars that encourage peer-to-peer interaction, encourage engagement and debate, may not find the transition online as intuitive when in front of a screen. Not every instructor is able to translate what works face-to-face into distance learning.
As Joshua Kim, director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth College, warns, “Faculty’s experience in traditional classrooms – stimulating discussion, guiding students to explore and creating knowledge – these mental muscles are honed through years of practice on campus strengthened, but don’t need to simply practice it in digital media.” Incorporating active campus learning strategies that are effectively delivered on campus into successful distance learning can take time and creativity.
Most of us don’t believe that remote students can go from online to offline and back again – students are either offline or online. In one mode or another. But breakout rooms and chat have broken through the binary opposition, like actors slipping into the wings and then reappearing on stage. A key strength of the virtual format is that students can be asked to take time alone or with other students in a group to reflect on the material before coming back together for online reflection.
I often share my digital classroom experiences with my daughter, Jenn Hayslett, Head of her own coaching and consulting firmwho taught at Marlboro College and now teaches online independently.
“I try to give learners a chance to think every time I ask a question,” she recalled in a recent conversation, in which she gave students about two minutes “offline” to write a question and about to think about a question that raises them “online”. She then gives them extra time to explore their minds with their partners in a breakout room. “Students love time to think,” concluded Jenn enthusiastically.
Student reflection is an important part of working in breakout rooms and encourages students to reflect on their experiences of virtual collaboration, with faculty members helping them build communication and critical thinking skills.
A little over a hundred years ago, the American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey, a very early proponent of active learning, recognized that reflective thinking is nurtured by “Doubt, hesitation, helplessness‘ – Moods often discouraged when certainty, confidence and conviction are demanded of students.
“Reflective thinking,” Dewey noted, “means that judgment is suspended pending further investigation. It takes time to process impressions and turn them into substantial ideas.”
As the pandemic ebbs, we don’t yet know when or if colleges and universities will once again rely on distance learning to keep colleges running. But faculty distance learning lessons in a crisis may be needed again.