Jim Lang

Professor at Assumption College

On Not Drawing Conclusions About Online Teaching Now — or Next Fall

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By James M. Lang i

On March 18, a little over a week into the official beginning of stay-at-home orders in Massachusetts, I posted to Facebook an image of my third daughter with her acceptance letter from the college she plans to attend in the fall. (Yeah, I guess I’m that kind of parent.) At the time we anticipated being in quarantine for a few weeks, or perhaps a month or two. Conversations about whether colleges and universities would open online in the fall were still only a low background hum.

Once those conversations became louder, both in the public sphere and in our household, my daughter began to wonder whether she would be starting her college career remotely. "You’ll be on campus in the fall," I assured her. "They’ll have figured out some way to deal with this by then."

Now, another few weeks later, I’m much less certain that we’ll be loading up the car and dropping her off at a dorm room in late August. Based on the updates from my own college’s president, which include information about the deliberation process and the plans of other nearby institutions, it seems likely that many campuses will indeed be starting online this fall.

If they do, my daughter is contemplating whether she will defer for a semester or even a year. She has a part-time job that could resume when local businesses begin to reopen, and she thinks she would be able to increase her hours to close to full time. She doesn’t want to start her college experience online — and I understand that. While I will encourage her to start in the fall, I have no doubt that beginning her college career in a virtual classroom will be a diminished experience for her.

In saying that, I don’t mean to throw my voice in with the Jonathan Zimmermans of the world, who argue that online teaching is inherently inferior to face-to-face instruction. In a recent column, Zimmerman supported his thesis by pointing to the negative responses from students back in the 1950s to the first great experiment in distance learning — courses via television. "Social distancing is necessary to preserve good health," Zimmerman wrote, "but it’s not good for education. And if you think otherwise, just ask your students."

That essay provoked a storm of criticism on social media. Every online teacher or faculty developer I knew posted disparaging comments about it. For the most part I agreed with the criticism. Zimmerman’s decision to critique contemporary online learning by looking back at distance-learning efforts of an earlier era was an interesting but unconvincing choice. The technologies available to today’s online teachers are varied and robust enough to make a qualitative difference between distance-learning courses of 1950 and those of 2020.

Unconvincing though they might be, arguments like Zimmerman’s are finding purchase right now because of the negative responses that many faculty members and students have voiced during their first encounters with teaching and learning in a virtual classroom. Faculty members are feeling burned out by Zoom sessions, exhausted from the work of putting their course materials online, dissatisfied with their screen-mediated conversations with students who used to speak with them in their offices or after class. They miss the lively space of the in-person classroom.

So do their students — in some cases, much to their surprise. Students at my college are all assigned a faculty adviser; each semester I meet with my advisees to plan their courses for the coming semester. In April we met via Zoom, and before we got down to course business, I asked how their newly virtual classes were going. Every single one of them reported that they wished they were back on the campus in their face-to-face courses.

"I never thought I would say this," one student replied, "but I miss being in class. It’s just not the same online."

Experienced online teachers and faculty developers have rightly responded to those complaints by pointing out that we should hardly expect satisfaction with online teaching this spring semester, given that our transition to it was so rushed. Faculty members who had never before touched their college’s learning-management system suddenly had to master it in a week or two. Lack of familiarity with all of the digital tools available meant that too many instructors tried to replicate their face-to-face courses online, without considering the distinct challenges and opportunities raised by teaching in a different medium.

The implication of this argument — that online teaching did not go well in the spring semester because we were not well prepared for it — is that things will be better in the fall, if we have to teach all or part of our courses in a virtual classroom. After all, faculty members will have had a good six or eight weeks of online teaching under our belts, and most of us will have learned from that experience, right?

All around the world, faculty-development centers and online-teaching experts are revving up their engines for an intense summer of consulting and workshopping, preparing to help instructors teach more effectively online. And no doubt those efforts will improve the quality of remote instruction in the fall.

But if we are hoping that improved online teaching and learning will quiet the complaints, or assuage the concerns of students like my daughter, I think we will be sorely disappointed.

That is not because online courses are necessarily inferior to the face-to-face kind. Anyone who holds that position hasn’t read enough about online teaching, thought enough about the students who can benefit from it, or interacted enough with instructors who are doing amazing things in their online courses.

Two years ago I began working with just such an online teacher, Flower Darby, a senior instructional designer at Northern Arizona University, to translate the lessons of my bookSmall Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning, into a separate volumeSmall Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes.

I learned from her how online instruction can provide a gateway to higher education for those who would otherwise be denied access to it. I learned how online teachers with the right tech tools can work wonders in their medium, just as some teachers can work wonders in the physical classroom. Darby’s work convinced me that, for some students, online and hybrid courses can provide a learning experience every bit as robust as a face-to-face course.

For some students. And therein lies the rub.

The students who are voicing discontent with remote instruction this semester — or who, like my daughter, are not enthusiastic about the prospect of online learning in the fall — are the ones who made a deliberate choice to attend a physical campus, offering largely face-to-face courses. For those students, online learning will probably never be able to replicate what they want and expect from college. So we are likely to hear some level of dissatisfaction from them again in the summer and fall, no matter how much we improve our online teaching.

For many of those students, especially at residential colleges and universities, classroom learning forms only a part of the college experience. Much as I hate to admit it, those of us who teach can overestimate the role that classroom learning plays in college life. Outside of the classroom students are doing sports, acting in plays, meeting in advocacy groups, planning events, socializing, partying, dining, exercising, and more. All of those activities are parts of a holistic experience that they were seeking from their time in higher education.

Online learning gives them just one piece of that experience — and it’s the one that demands the most mental effort, and tends to provide the fewest opportunities for making friends, socializing, moving their bodies, and other activities that are essential to well-being.

Even on commuter campuses, a fully online experience robs students of the time they spend studying in the library or in the campus cafe, meeting with friends, talking to faculty members in office hours. It also prevents them from coming to campus to escape home situations that might not lend themselves to academic work, for one reason or another.

Online teaching and learning will always fail some proportion of our students, and perhaps the greater proportion, because it will be a lesser version of the college experience they were having or expecting. But we should not draw conclusions about the value of online teaching based on its appeal to a population of students who didn’t choose that mode of instruction.

As arguments and opinion pieces about online learning continue to appear in the coming months, two points are worth remembering:

  • First, we need to temper our expectations of remote instruction. Even if we are able to whip every faculty member up to speed on the latest digital teaching tools, we can never replicate online the full range of experiences that students have on a physical campus, including those who spend only a few hours a week there. We will hear complaints. We will lose some students, and we’ll have to wait for some who choose to defer.
  • Second, the dissatisfaction we will hear — about the spring or fall semesters — should not lead us to hasty conclusions about either face-to-face or online teaching. We need to avoid lazy generalizations that fail to take into account the infinite variations of students who are seeking a higher education.

Those of us who wind up in virtual classrooms again in the fall have an obligation to do everything we can to master the medium, and create the best possible online courses for our students. It’s OK to acknowledge that even our best efforts will not satisfy many students, without translating that acknowledgment into a universal dismissal of online teaching and without denigrating the work of the many thousands of faculty members who are providing transformative online-learning experiences for their students.

James M. Lang is a professor of English and director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning. Follow him on Twitter at @LangOnCourse. Read his series for The Chronicle on Small Changes in Teaching here.

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