By Flower Darby
If there’s one big takeaway from the Covid-19 crisis for higher education, it’s that teaching well online is increasingly, and vitally, important. Maybe you’re thinking: Well, once this global health threat recedes — with testing, tracing, and vaccines — online learning will diminish in prevalence and I can go back to teaching entirely in person.
Not likely. The virtual train has left the station. And it’s to your advantage to be on it.
Having survived the huge disruptions of this spring’s emergency online pivot, leaders across higher education have a new perspective now on the value of online options to help students keep progressing toward a degree in the face of an unexpected impediment — whether it’s a pandemic, a hurricane, or a personal challenge. The financial arguments for why colleges and universities need to improve their course-delivery options are important. But for me, as for many of you, it’s actually, and only, about the students.
It comes down to this: If you care about your students, if you want them to learn and succeed, you’ll embrace the opportunity to improve your online teaching this summer. If you’re an administrator, you’ll support today’s — and tomorrow’s — students by helping your faculty get better at online teaching.
How to get better at it is the focus of this new series of columns. As someone who has taught in virtual classrooms for the past 12 years, and written about online instruction, I know this can feel like a daunting task. So I’m going to tackle it in bite-size pieces. My emphasis will be on asynchronous, planned activities — because they have far greater potential than synchronous teaching (e.g., lecturing in real time via Zoom to a bunch of students trapped in boxes on your screen).
But first, for those of you still having doubts, here are four reasons you should join the online-teaching movement and start improving your digital pedagogy.
Covid-19 caught us off guard. We don’t want to be in that position again. Academics have years of experience with face-to-face courses: first as students, then as teachers. The same is not true of online classes, and plenty of professors have long resisted the idea of teaching online.
We learned in March 2020 that sometimes we don’t have a choice. With very little experience to fall back on — indeed, in some cases, next to none at all — those new to remote instruction found themselves at a loss. If you’re like most faculty members I know, you didn’t enjoy the sensation of being thrown into the deep end of the online pool.
Yet you stepped up at a time of unparalleled chaos in higher education, and did admirably well to help your students complete the spring semester. Now, with a little breathing room this summer, it’s time to invest in yourself as an agile educator — someone who is ready to pivot at a moment’s notice, someone who can teach online in any number of models. Like a butterfly breaking free of the constraints of its cocoon, you can emerge from Covid-19 with new abilities and new strengths in your teaching repertoire.
You’re in this profession because you love the classroom. You can learn to love a virtual one, too. Like many academics, I was initially uncertain about online teaching. My classroom persona is high-energy, dynamic, fun. I love to feed off the energy in the room. So 12 years ago, when I was first asked to teach an online composition class, I hesitated. I didn’t see how I could take what I loved about in-person teaching and replicate it online.
Still, I was an adjunct faculty member back then (i.e., not in a position to turn down work), so I decided to accept. If I hated it, I figured I didn’t have to take another online course. Much to my surprise and delight, I discovered that online teaching didn’t suck. In fact, I liked it. I came to love it — not every semester and not every course, mind you. I’m well familiar with the drudgery of a heavy online-teaching load.
But I’ve learned how to connect with online students in ways that — while they aren’t the same as the ones I use in person — are meaningful and authentic. Many online students may not otherwise be able to attend college, and I’ve definitely come to see the value of helping such students to realize their dreams.
You may have been surprised this spring to find aspects of online teaching that you actually liked. Building on those aspects is a good place to start your summer prep.
Digital tools and strategies can enhance your in-person teaching, too. We all know faculty members who, in March, had to take a crash course on their own institution’s learning-management system (LMS) because they had never learned how to use it before. Becoming more adept with the basic functions of the LMS gives you more teaching tools and strategies to use — not just in a virtual environment but in a physical classroom, too.
The LMS is an underdeployed tool with significant potential for fostering dynamic teaching and learning interactions. As you look to the fall semester, consider what students can do outside of class — asynchronously via the LMS — to engage most effectively when they’re in the same room with you. For example, assign students to do research on a topic, post relevant links in an online discussion forum, and analyze the merits of other students’ contributions. By asking them to create content before class, you are preparing them to engage in rich discussions on the topic in class. Or, like a couple of my colleagues, require students to finish vocabulary quizzes in your LMS. Students then come to class already speaking the basic language they need to know.
Once you’ve added online activities to your face-to-face courses, you may never look back. Because there is no downside to offering students more ways to spend time with course content, whatever the type of classroom.
Sticking your head in the sand and waiting for this to blow over is not an option. It’s nearly impossible to say what the new normal in higher education will look like in 2020-21, but it will include online teaching in some form or another.
College students taking classes this fall are likely to be unusually vulnerable and will need lots of support as they navigate financial, health, and safety concerns. The most important support you can offer, as a faculty member, is your very best teaching. And that means expanding your online-teaching abilities.
Do it for your well-being — so you’re well prepared for what lies ahead in the fall of 2020. Do it for your students — to create flexible classes in which they can learn and thrive. Do it for all of us in higher education who are pulling toward the same goal — to create a more enlightened society of fully engaged citizens who are ready to take on the complex, unknown problems of tomorrow.
When you strive to be a better online teacher, you help to make the world a better place. That seems worth doing to me.
Flower Darby is an assistant dean of online and innovative pedagogies at Northern Arizona University and an instructional designer. She’s the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. Find her on Twitter @flowerdarby.
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