Reflections of a Reluctant Online Professor

What I’ve learned so far, and I am still learning.

Posted Jun 22, 2020

Like thousands of other faculty members this spring, the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic moved me from the familiar comfort of my classroom to the terra incognita of online teaching. Fortunately, my college planned ahead by hosting workshops and encouraged faculty members to prepare in case we all moved online without warning—which we did (well, we had a weekend to prepare, anyway).

Was my transition from face-to-face seamless? No.

Was it terrible and awful? No—not at all. (Phew.)

To be fair, I did the rest of the spring 2020 semester synchronously during the same time periods as when the courses would have physically met. What did I learn? Quite a bit, but nothing that is really new. I will say this, really, it’s an admission: Online teaching is not so bad. I admit I went in with a negative attitude, but for my students’ sake, I lost that attitude immediately—and I had some great classes as a result. Am I great at online teaching? Lord, no—but I am working on it, as are many of my friends and colleagues at my college and around the country.

Here are a few take-aways:

Less lecturing is more. Instructors really should not lecture for the same time online as they do in the classroom—the classroom affords pauses and a different rhythm than an online class. Cover key points, try to have a little discussion, answer questions, and move on. Otherwise, students will be hit with a wall of words and lose track of where you are and what’s important.

Now videos? This summer, I’ve been teaching my first asynchronous online course. I was urged to record videos introducing each of the chapters the students would be reading. But by doing so, I was strongly encouraged to speak for no more than 10 minutes and to get right to the main point or message about each chapter. I did and it felt much more helpful than a detailed overview—after all, that’s what students will gain when they read the textbook after watching each shortly introductory video.

I did away with quizzes. I gave a weekly multiple-choice quiz in one class to assess whether students had done the reading. I decided that I did not want to repeat that online. In fact, I decided that what mattered to me was reading students' written reflections on the course material; I had them write a weekly one-page reflection paper in answer to a prompt I sent out to the class. I enjoyed reading their responses and often used them to shape my comments for the start of the subsequent class. I also feel that having students write is a better use of their time outside the classroom.

What about exams? Instead of a traditional closed-book final exam, I gave them a list of 10 or so essay questions and let them select the two they wanted to write about (they could write three-pages of double-spaced responses for each question, or six pages total). And I let them use their books and notes to craft their answers—they cited the works they used and attached a reference page to each of the essays. Again, writing was a better use of their time—as well as being able to synthesize and integrate the course materials together.

Were my spring courses perfect? Far from it—but they were a start, and I now know that online courses can be good experiences for students and faculty members. In the meantime, I am now preparing for the fall. I expect to teach online then, too—I really won’t know until sometime in August—but now I am planning to have both synchronous and asynchronous components in all my courses.

I am happy to admit I’ve learned a bit about how to teach online and I look forward to learning more.