"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“In the race between education and catastrophe, which Mr. H.G. Wells pointed out long ago, we can already see the finish line. And at the moment, catastrophe is in the lead.” – Lewis Mumford (1946)
When I originally applied to teach a course during the 2020 summer semester it was my belief that the class would be taught in person. Perhaps I was being overly optimistic, but my course proposal had been submitted in the waning months of 2019, and though COVID-19 was making headlines it was not yet apparent just how seriously it would upend everything. Alas, by the time the summer semester rolled around I was given the option to teach the class online or to cancel the class entirely, and so I chose to teach the class online.
With the fall semester looming, with some already fretting about the spring semester, and with many universities still putting forth unhelpful mixed messages (or laughably unrealistic reopening plans) there is a fair amount of anxiety about what online instruction will mean. What follows are some of the lessons that I learned from teaching online this summer. This is not a step by step technical guide on how to use a particular platform, nor is it advice on how to build a classroom community while students are quarantined in different parts of the world. I’ve read plenty of articles and watched plenty of videos on those topics, but what I’m hoping to convey here are some of the things that often go unspoken in such pieces, but which ultimately seem more important (at least in my opinion) than knowing how to set up breakout rooms on Zoom.
I am a PhD candidate, currently in the dissertation writing stage. I have fairly extensive experience as a TA (seven courses, plus one as a grader), and other teaching experience prior to working on my PhD; however, the course I taught in the summer of 2020 was my first as the “teacher of record.” I do not claim to have anywhere near as much teaching experience as someone who has been lecturing for a decade. But I do have experience designing and implementing an online course in the middle of this pandemic. Furthermore, I also helped transform an in-person course into an online course during the spring 2020 semester. Or to put it simply: I have less teaching experience than many, but I have a decent amount of experience teaching in this pandemic.
I recognize that many people will have significantly more constraints on their time than I had. I do not have children, I am not caring for an elderly parent, I am in relatively good health—and I fully understand that my experience was shaped by the fact that I was able to devote fairly undivided attention towards teaching.
I do not believe that the challenges facing education today will be fixed with a magic high-tech solution bestowed upon educational institutions by companies looking to make money (or by non-profits for that matter). And though the “today” in the previous sentence may make it seem like I’m talking about the pandemic, I felt that way long before the pandemic hit. I am staunchly opposed to techno-utopian thinking, and to the belief that complex social/political/economic/educational issues can be solved by the right app. My experiences teaching online during the pandemic have done nothing to shake my critiques of techno-utopian thinking; if anything my experiences with the shortcomings of these platforms and the feelings of alienation and discontent they produce have only hardened my views on the matter. While I make some comments in the following text about using various tech platforms, these should not be taken as an endorsement of these tools. Or to put it simply: the pandemic has forced us to use some high-tech tools, when the pandemic ends we should turn most of these tools off.
What follows are my comments and observations, gleaned from teaching online in the spring and summer. I hope that some of these observations might be useful to others who are preparing to teach online in the coming semester(s).
Do not forget, we are in the midst of a historic crisis
Some of your students have had the virus. Some of your students will get the virus. Some of your students will have people in their lives who get the virus. Some of your students will be worried about getting the virus. Some of your students will be busy with additional familial responsibilities as a result of the virus. Some of your students will be in a financially precarious situation because of the virus. Some of your students will be dealing with unstable living situations due to the virus. Some of your students will be mourning those who have lost their lives due to the virus. Some of your students will be having a hard time focusing on coursework because all of their attention is being eaten up by the virus. Some of your students will be struggling to recover from the virus. And, of course, you can replace “some of your students” with “you”
There is a deadly pandemic ravaging the world, in many countries it keeps threatening to come back, and in some countries (such as the US) it has not been successfully managed. There is a lot of uncertainty. There is a lot of worrying news. And there is still a very good chance that we will see a calamitous second wave of the virus during the fall semester. Oh, and in the US, there’s also an election coming up in November that seems like it could have all kinds of destabilizing fallout. At risk of being accused of pessimism, it’s worth bearing in mind that the world situation against which the fall semester is unfolding is far from ideal.
As you design your class, and as you implement it, remember that the world is on fire.
The asynchronous versus synchronous choice impacts everything else
One of the biggest questions surrounding teaching online is whether to conduct the class in a synchronous form or an asynchronous form. Frankly, there are benefits to each; however, the choice of which way to conduct your class will have a significant impact on everything else. Yes, this seems obvious, but it has many less obvious impacts. If you run your class in a synchronous fashion, your students (and you) will know that on “days x, y, and z from [hour] to [hour] I need to be on [platform g].” But if you run your class in an asynchronous fashion you’ll have many more students (or even you) who simply blocks out one day a week to do all the work. A nice thing about going asynchronous is that it provides students with a great deal of flexibility, but you should not then be surprised when students take advantage of that flexibility. The choice of synchronous versus asynchronous isn’t just a choice about how you want to deliver material to your students, it’s about how you want students to engage with the entire course. Many of your students (and potentially you as well) will be balancing schedules for multiple overlapping obligations – things that are synchronous will usually wind up getting prioritized, while things that are asynchronous can be more easily shunted into the category of “catch up on this when I have time.”
One of the reasons why this really matters is that most professors don’t opt for fully synchronous or fully asynchronous – what’s more common is some kind of hybrid. In such a blended model (to give an example), lectures are pre-recorded and posted online by eleven a.m. on days x and y, and there is then a synchronous discussion section held on those same days from one to two p.m. (with the idea being that the students will watch the lecture and then come to the discussion). Unless those discussion sections are made mandatory, there’s a good chance that many of your students won’t make it to them for the simple reason that they didn’t watch the lecture right when you posted it. Thus, in a situation such as this, what matters is to decide where you want to put the weight – are you going to lean more towards synchronous or asynchronous?
This is the choice from which all other decisions about your online class will ultimately flow. And it is a decision not to be taken lightly. If you decide three weeks in that want your class to go in a totally different direction that will just create more work for you, and annoy students. Even trying to shift from synchronous sections being optional to making a certain percentage of them mandatory will result in grumbles.
Teaching online is extremely time intensive
This is a point that has been made many times, but it really bears repeating: teaching online takes more time than teaching in person. Exactly how much more time teaching online will require from you will depend a fair bit on choices you make about how you’re going to run your class, but you should anticipate that your online class will take substantially more time than an in person class. And much of this time will be taken up by various technical tasks. Managing platforms, responding to emails, properly uploading content to platforms, making sure students have access to platforms, responding to emails, planning out a lecture so that it can be recorded, editing lecture recordings, connecting with students who are working in multiple time zones, responding to emails—all of these things will devour as much time as you’re willing to give to them, and a fair amount of time you aren’t willing to give to them. Where once you were able to track discussion participation by just looking out at the classroom to see who was literally participating in the discussion – you now need to check dozens of blackboard posts. Many of the things that were able to easily be accomplished in the face to face classroom now need to be carefully planned out.
While writing lectures and grading papers still take a lot of time, what really winds up taking up so much more time is all of the additional technical tasks created by teaching online.
Teaching online is exhausting
There have been plenty of articles written about the experience of “Zoom fatigue.” That is a very real thing and it should not be ignored; however, there is also a kind of fatigue that comes just from speaking directly to your computer’s camera for half an hour (or an hour, or even fifteen minutes). One of the exciting parts of being in a classroom is getting to see the immediate reactions to your various comments. Are students engaged by what you’re talking about? Are students lost? Did the students groan appropriately at your pun? You don’t get any of that instant feedback when you’re just speaking into the camera (even if you’re delivering the lecture in a synchronous fashion). The adrenaline boost that once came from speaking in front of a crowded room has been replaced by the cold unblinking eye of your computer’s webcam.
“Zoom fatigue” is real, so is “recording your lecture fatigue.”
Have very clear expectations
When is the assignment due? How are grades calculated? How many absences are allowed? Which readings are mandatory? What are your office hours? There are a million different opening lines for the joke to which the punchline is “it’s in the syllabus.” And, to be clear, most syllabi really are carefully constructed guides to a class that provide students with all of the information they need. They really do tend to have the answers to students’ questions, and to present these answers in a concise way. But for your online class you need to make your expectations even clearer, and you also need to clearly explain a whole other set of explanations.
In addition to all of the stuff about assignments and readings, you’ll need to clearly set out how you expect students to be handling all of their online responsibilities. When do you expect them to watch the lecture by? How many synchronous sessions do they have to show up for? How should they communicate with you? How do you expect them to behave on a synchronous call (camera on or off?)? Which platforms do you expect them to be using and what functions of those platforms do you expect them to be making use of? You’ll need answers for all of these questions, and you should try to anticipate these questions ahead of time. Will you still find yourself answering questions by saying “it’s in the syllabus”? Yes, you will. But it’s better to be able to redirect students to the syllabus than to realize that the reason no one is coming to the synchronous sessions on Friday at three p.m. is because you didn’t clearly state that it isn’t optional.
Pick a couple of tools and stick to them
Over the course of the pandemic there has been a deluge of new platforms. Some of these platforms provide really interesting capabilities, some of them are nearly identical to other platforms, and some of these are really quite bad. While there is much to be said for familiarizing yourself with what’s available, do not allow yourself to be consumed by the eternal quest for the perfect platform. Relying on five different platforms will sap you of energy that can be better spent on other tasks, and having to make content that will work across five platforms means that you wind up spending more time thinking about the strictures of the platform than you can spend focusing on the content itself. Decide on the essential functions you want and pick a couple of platforms that get you close enough. If you need to have one platform for posting asynchronous lectures, one for conducting synchronous conversations, and one for posting content – fine, but be mindful of the way that managing the technical minutiae can devour your time. Furthermore, the time that is consumed by learning one new platform after another could be more fruitfully spent learning the deeper capabilities of a couple of platforms.
While staying with a couple of platforms is an important way to guard your time, it is also important for maximizing your students’ time as well. Asking your students to jump between fifteen different platforms places a large burden on them as well. It is better to ask them to learn the course content than to ask them to learn how to use fifteen different platforms just to access the course content.
You aren’t going to get an Academy Award for editing or sound design
Even the best lecturers stumble over their words from time to time, ramble a bit, need to pause for a sip of water, or lose their train of thought when a student sneezes. In a normal classroom, such moments require no real thought – they happen, everyone moves on. But when you are recording your lectures you find that suddenly those issues can be corrected. Indeed, you can edit away at your video until there isn’t a single “um” or momentary pause! You can edit out every aside, trim out that time you sneezed – or you can simply start your lecture over every time you realize that you could have just said what you just said in a slightly better way. But you’re better off not doing that at all. Sure, you might want to go in and edit out those first thirty seconds after you’ve hit record but before you’ve gotten the PowerPoint properly up, and you might want to edit out those last ten seconds after you’ve said farewell in which you let out a big sigh of relief—but don’t devote hours to trying to make your lecture video perfect. Getting bogged down in editing is another one of the ways that the technical tasks of teaching online can occupy a huge amount of time. The slight verbal ticks, the asides, the sneezes, the pauses for water, the distracting sounds that come in through the window – all of these are common features of a lecture that takes place in a classroom, and there is nothing wrong with keeping them in your recorded lecture. Indeed, those little moments can help humanize you, and also serve as a subtle reminder that all of this is taking place under less than ideal circumstances.
Beware the panopticon
The various online platforms available to you for teaching purposes will put a level of data at your fingertips that is overwhelming. You can know when your students logged in, how long they logged in for, when they watched the lecture video, the speed at which they watched the lecture video, whether or not they watched the entire lecture video, if they’ve truly downloaded the articles…and the list goes on. Some of these tools will provide you with a really detailed picture of exactly who is engaging with your material and how – and these tools can provide you with straightforward answers about who is engaging with the material (granted, all of these systems can easily be tricked [there’s little to stop a student from hitting play on the lecture video while they do something else]). Of course, the flipside of all of this information is that it might just make you feel wretched. You spent hours on that video, and they didn’t even watch all of it!
You’re better off ignoring these surveillance settings altogether. If a student truly vanishes, it can be useful to know the last time they logged in – but there is very little to be gained from emailing a student and saying “I know that you haven’t watched the last three lectures.”
Check in with your students early (and then often)
During a normal semester, you can safely make a few assumptions about students. For example: you can assume that most of them are in the same time zone. Granted, that’s about the only assumption you can really safely make. It’s extremely important to obtain an accurate picture of who your students are and what their situations are. You need to know where in the world they are (and they quite likely are scattered all around the world), and you need to know what other things they are trying to balance in their lives. In a normal semester it’s good to know which of your students are also working full time, which have extensive family responsibilities, and which of them are struggling with other issues – but it is even more important to know those things now. Furthermore, it is important to check in regularly with your students to find out how things are going. If you make it clear to your students that you care about the things they are struggling with, they’ll be more likely to let you know when there are serious disruptions.
It’s important to know which of your students just had to move home. It’s important to know which of your students are taking care of younger siblings. It’s important to know which of your students are waiting on their COVID-19 test results. And a lot of the times, students won’t tell you unless you take the time to actually send that “just checking in, how are you?” message. True, sending such messages can be very time consuming, but this is an absolutely essential use of time.
Yes, your students really do want to see your pets
Questions of online etiquette have often wrestled with the matter of what happens when a cat or a dog or a rabbit or a bearded dragon or a [insert other pet] appears on screen. Oftentimes, the appearance of the animal is framed as unprofessional; however, most people who have been in a lot of online discussions knows that most people rejoice when a fuzzy dog appears on the screen.
Throughout my lectures my cats made regular appearances. Could I have closed the door to the room in which I was recording? Sure, but then they would have sat outside clawing at the door and crying to be let in. Besides, students always seemed amused when the cats would make an appearance in my lectures. You don’t want your pets to distract from your overall content, but if there’s a brief disruption in your talk because a cat has just walked in front of your camera – that’s fine.
Don’t overestimate your students’ technology skills
According to the clichés, students today are so tech savvy that they can instantly master any new gizmo or platform that they come across. After all, they are “digital natives” whilst their professors are troglodytes who are still struggling to program their VCRS. This is balderdash. Yes, there are certainly some students who are great with learning new platforms, but you should assume that the majority of your students will probably need to be taught how to use the various platforms that you’re using for your class. You should not assume that your students are familiar with a particular platform, nor should you assume that they’ll be able to figure out how to post a comment on a video, or how to access the quiz you posted, or how to access resources through the library website. That platform that you’re certain all of your students know how to use? Not all of them know how to use it. You’ll need to provide detailed instructions for your students on how to do the things you’re asking them to do. Will a couple of them balk at these tutorials? Sure. But, a lot of your students need these explanations, even if they’re too embarrassed to ask. And it is better to provide these explanations for the whole class than to wait for the trickle of apologetic emails as student after student comes to you asking for technical assistance.
Don’t make assumptions about what technology your students have access to
Some of your students have a new laptop that is entirely their own and are going to be tuning into your class from somewhere with excellent Internet access – but you should not assume that this is a description of all of your students. In the absence of campus Wi-Fi, and campus computer labs, you cannot assume that all of your students are going to have access to the same type (or quality) of tech tools. You will have students who are sharing a computer with siblings, you will have students who do not have a personal computer, you will have students with a computer that is too old to run that super cool platform you’re planning on using, you will have students trying to do everything on their smartphone, you will have students who don’t have reliable Internet access, and the list goes on. As you structure your class around access to various online platforms you need to consider which students are going to get left behind, and you need to ensure that you are finding these students and keeping them from getting left behind.
Students really do miss the classroom
You will have some students who genuinely excel in the online environment. But in all likelihood those students are going to be a small minority (and many of them are the same students who would have exceled in a in-person classroom environment). The bulk of your students will make do with the online class because they realize that this is just how things are. You can work until the wee hours of the night to make sure that your online classes are exciting and engaging, but many of your students will still feel a little bit saddened every time they hit play on a pre-recorded lecture. While many students will be grateful for the degree of flexibility provided by asynchronous elements, a lot of them will really enjoy the moments where they actually speak to you, or the situations where there is a synchronous class discussion. On the one hand, this has to do with the delivery of course material and the value of a real back and forth discussion between peers; on the other hand, there’s just something refreshing (and even “normal”) about actually seeing/talking to your professor/peers. You’ll have some students who will avoid synchronous sessions as much as possible (or entirely if you make them fully optional), and you’ll have some students who excitedly log in for every synchronous session.
We often treat the social aspect of a college classroom as an afterthought, but many of our students really miss seeing their fellow students in the classroom, and they’ll be happy to have even an imperfect facsimile of it.
Building community is important, it’s also very difficult
There is a mountain of excellent scholarship from media studies scholars (and many other disciplines) discussing the way that online communities come into being and the way that they function. Nevertheless, there’s a difference between the way that K-Pop fans or Trekkies come together online out of a shared passion, and the way that a classroom community is built. Constructing a genuine sense of community in an in person classroom that meets three times a week can be very challenging, and it is even more of a challenge when your students aren’t seated in the same room. Making sure that students introduce themselves, putting them in groups, requiring them to respond to each other’s discussion board posts – all of these can help build community…but none of them will be perfect. Try to think seriously about what your course objectives are, and within that context try to think of the various opportunities for bringing your dispersed students together. But be mindful that what may seem like an idea for “building community” might really just be “forcing students [and you] to do even more work.”
You can’t make everyone happy
No matter how you structure your class: half of your students will want the class to be more synchronous while the other half will want it to be more asynchronous. No matter what online platforms you use: half of your students will be really impressed by the affordances of that platform while the other half will wonder why you aren’t using some other platform. No matter how flexible you are: half of your students will wish that the class had more ironclad structure and the other half will wish that the class had even more flexibility.
You need to manage expectations. And you should expect that no matter what you do a decent percentage of your students are going to wish you did something else.
Be kind to your TAs
If you are fortunate enough to have TAs for your class, be generous and kind to them. This is a good piece of advice for any semester, but it is particularly worth bearing in mind right now. Many graduate students are having an extremely difficult time at the moment. Their funding is even more precarious, their research plans have been destroyed, the job market has gone from a garbage heap to a garbage fire, and many of them are feeling as though they have been completely abandoned by their universities (because many of them have been). Furthermore, many graduate students are in a position where they really cannot push back at all on the various unrealistic expectations that are being foisted on them.
Please, be kind to your TAs. Many of them are quite talented at pretending to be okay when they are in the midst of a total breakdown.
Prepare for the world situation to get worse
The spring of 2020 was a lesson in what happens when you fail to prepare for the worst. Universities found themselves suddenly rushing to construct and implement pandemic plans on the fly. While the summer of 2020 could have spent developing robust online plans for the fall, too many universities spent the summer of 2020 putting together absurd reopening plans that will likely not survive through September. You need to plan for what happens if there is a major outbreak in your location. You need to plan for what happens if you are no longer able to teach (for whatever reason). You need to plan for what happens if in November your society is in the throes of total breakdown. And you need to try to imagine the crises that do not immediately come to mind, and you need to prepare for those too. It is better to be prepared for the worst and have the worst not happen, than to only be prepared for the best and to be caught unprepared when the best does not happen.
Frankly, the best way to brace for these situations is simply to build a lot of flexibility into your course. It doesn’t hurt when constructing your syllabus to know which weeks you’ll cut if you have to, which assignment can be jettisoned, which readings don’t really need to be assigned, and which hour-long lectures can really be fifteen minute lectures.
Remember, everyone is very overwhelmed right now
Your students are trying to balance all of their responsibilities while the world is falling apart. You are trying to balance all of your responsibilities while the world is falling apart. Your friends are trying to balance all of their responsibilities while the world is falling apart. Your colleagues are trying to balance all of their responsibilities while the world is falling apart.
Try to be kind to yourself, and try to extend this kindness to others.