In the pandemic many higher ed faculty, forced onto Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms, have continued teaching online just as they always did face to face, delivering lectures over streaming video as they did in person. Many are unaware that teaching online can actually open new possibilities to innovate their teaching practice.
In fact, many college instructors have been downright grumpy about having been thrown into a new teaching format.
“Having made the decision to teach online, teachers are faced, often alone and unprepared, with the challenge of functioning in an entirely technology-mediated 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 faculty teaching online. Facing the screen, faculty can erupt in frustration, sadness—even anger.
Even so, there are some instructors who have found new and rewarding ways to teach, thanks to the forced experiment with online—by doing things that stimulate active learning, turning video conferencing classes into engaged, peer-to-peer discussions of what students explored on their own or with others between class sessions—activities such as viewing videos, visiting websites and reading scholarly books and articles, among other offline resources. Some instructors are so taken by active learning working so effectively that they expect to continue offering courses online, even when the pandemic restrictions completely lift and things are fully back in person.
Digital instruction is commonly divided into “asynchronous” and “synchronous” modes, with “synchronous” referring to real time teaching in a classroom or virtually over Zoom or other video conference tools. “Asynchronous,” on the other hand, refers to activities performed by students and instructors anytime—at home, in the library, even while commuting, doing homework, emailing, posting messages, and consuming videos and podcasts, reading, writing and so on. Since these words derived from Greek can be off-putting technical jargon, I’m proposing “online” instruction as a substitute for synchronous and “offline” for asynchronous.
When digital instruction first entered higher ed about a quarter of a century ago, most interaction was conducted in text offline. It was years before video streaming allowed virtual classes to be conducted universally in real time, too, opening the way to deliver remote classes both online and offline.
Siva priya Santhanam, an assistant professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said she uses online time for reviews and discussions. “I avoid lecturing during this time, and use several activities to clarify questions and confusions, provide feedback, and create discussion opportunities,” building a relationship with students online, even if they have been in her face-to-face classes.
I took a very similar approach when I taught online at The New School in Manhattan a few years ago. I never delivered a lecture in real time on Zoom. Instead, students viewed my seven-minute video lectures on their own, also watching videos of interviews I conducted with experts on topics covered in my course. Afterward, we spend the next virtual classroom hour in conversation 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 are doing the talking and deliberate in groups, solving problems and correcting each other, “it gives them the opportunity to perform as the teacher as well as the learner.” Kilgore says students retain lessons better in student-led discussions than they do listening passively to lectures or watching videos on YouTube.
Kilgore urges senior academic officers to recognize that moving from face-to-face lectures in conventional classrooms to active learning online may not be easy. She encourages colleges and universities to acknowledge that quality online learning does not happen merely by placing instructors in front of live cams on Zoom. “Learning design is a discipline,” she says. “Not everyone can shift online without the proper level of support.”
“Think of the screen as a place for two-way conversations rather than just talking at your students,” says Kristen Sosulski, executive director of NYU Stern School of Business Learning Science Lab. “If you recognize it as a space for conversation, rather than a lecture, you’ll design your course with that in mind.”
Before they click on Zoom, Sosulski says instructors must recognize that they won’t get the feedback they usually expect—in person real eye-contact. “But if you need evidence of student engagement, you’ll need to design your online course to stimulate it, with mini-quizzes and mini-exercises, among other interactive activities.”
Faculty members who have been teaching seminars face-to-face for years, encouraging peer-to-peer interaction, animating engagement and debate may not find the shift online as intuitive when facing a screen. Not every instructor is adept at translating what works face to face to remote instruction.
As Joshua Kim, director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth College, cautions, “Faculty experience in conventional classrooms—generating discussion, guiding students to explore and create knowledge—these mental muscles are strengthened over years of practice on campus, but may not be easy to exercise in digital media.” It can take time and creativity to incorporate on-campus, active-learning strategies delivered effectively on campus into successful remote instruction.
Most of us don’t think remote students can flip from online to offline and back again—students are either offline or online. In one mode or the other. But breakout rooms and chat have broken through the binary opposition, like actors who slip into the wings and then appear back on stage. A key strength of the virtual format is that students can be asked to take time on their own or with other students in a group to reflect on material before coming back together for online reflection.
I often share my experiences in digital instruction with my daughter, Jenn Hayslett, head of her own coaching and counseling firm, who has taught at Marlboro College and now teaches online independently.
“I try to give learners an opportunity to reflect every time I pose a question,” she recalled in a recent conversation, allowing students about two minutes “offline” to write and reflect on a question she raises “online.” She then gives them additional time to explore their thoughts with their partners in a breakout room. “Students love reflection time,” Jenn concluded enthusiastically.
Student reflection is a key part of working in breakout rooms, encouraging students to think about their virtual collaboration experiences, with faculty members helping them build communication and critical thinking skills.
Just over a hundred years ago, American philosopher, psychologist and education reformer John Dewey, a very early supporter of active learning, recognized that reflective thought is nourished by “doubt, hesitation, perplexity”—frames of mind often discouraged, when certainty, confidence and conviction are demanded of students.
“Reflective thinking,” Dewey observed, “means judgment suspended during further inquiry. Time is required in order to digest impressions and translate them into substantial ideas.”
As the pandemic ebbs, we don’t know yet when or whether colleges and universities will once again come to depend on remote instruction to keep colleges in business. But lessons learned by faculty teaching remotely in a crisis may be needed again.