I would have never guessed when I dismissed the students in my religious studies seminar on March 5, 2020, at 5:20 pm, that it would be my final time, to date, teaching being in-person with students. While COVID-19 presented and continues to pose substantial risks to all, as a survivor of Neurofibromatosis and as an individual with only one fully working lung, I have been living with additional risks these past seventeen (and counting) months of pandemic life. As a result, I have been living in a constant state of lockdown.
Like other professors across the nation, I finished teaching my Spring 2020 classes online as COVID-19 first became a significant threat in the United States. I have also been teaching online since and will, per the latest orders from my physicians at U.T. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, need to stay online “until further notice.” Because of COVID-19, then, I have gone from teaching one class online each summer to teaching all courses in an asynchronous virtual format using twenty-first-century technology, including Blackboard, GroupMe, Microsoft 365, and Zoom.
I am an educator at heart—basically all my energy relates to pedagogy in some way or another. I truly love it. And for as long as I have been teaching, I have always spent substantial time thinking about and studying the
science art of teaching.
I have been doing such metacognitive reflections even more lately as teaching eighteen classes entirely online between Summer 2020 and Summer 2021 has provided a very different teaching experience.
And let me just say it:
Factors of pedagogy aside, being all online has been enjoyable. I enjoy being home more often (rather, all the time!). I enjoy always getting enough sleep. I have saved countless hours each week in commute time. I have more time with Dr. Trevor Lovejoy. I get to cook for my parents more. I have had even more time for writing, reading, and reflection—all of which benefit my students.
Factors of pedagogy fully considered, I have certainly had some exceptional online students and many other students producing quality, thoughtful work, but for me, virtual teaching has not been as fulfilling. There is little contact with others. Students struggle. They really struggle online.
I have long seen the research and heard frustrations about how students generally don’t fare as well in virtual classrooms, often failing from simply not completing assignments. Prior to COVID-19, I had firsthand experience in that regard. I taught an online Texas History class back in 2015, and over half the class never submitted an assignment. At the time, I didn’t have internalized understandings of how commonly online students don’t pass their classes or realize how demoralizing this can feel, especially when teaching exclusively online. I now really know that successful virtual students are highly self-disciplined, strongly and independently motivated, and organized. Those students are rare when it comes to online education.
During the past seventeen months of online teaching, it’s been common for 30-50 percent of students to forgo doing any given assignment. I have made videos, only to run data reports that show not even a third of students opened it. That same report shows that only half of those who opened it watched the entire video. I have posted hundreds of questions and comments on our discussion boards and consistently haven’t received even a single reply, with only a few even reading it. An instruction can say, “watch one of the following two movies,” and I will receive numerous emails asking for clarification or asking if it’s required to watch both movies. Examples go on and on. Such has, sadly, made me briefly reconsider my life trajectory at times lately. It has also forefronted the pay inequalities that full-time, non-tenure-track faculty like me face.
The lack of engagement has obviously occurred in the context of COVID-19. I know very well that successful teaching always requires plans to be tentative works-in-progress. Even in the most ideal circumstances, plans can and should change. As we collectively embarked on these adventures in pandemic teaching, I was prepared for students en masse to report COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations and to even hear about student deaths. The disengagement that I have seen and that educators across the nation are reporting can’t entirely or even mostly be attributed to COVID-19 infections, as masking and physical distancing have avoided countless illnesses. When I hear anything about challenges unique to pandemic life, students mostly say their work situation is different or that they miss friends and family.
The idea developed at some point in our society that online classes are, by definition, easier. It doesn’t help that some classes are indeed “easier” or at least have a substantially lower time commitment compared to face-to-face counterparts. For example, I hear of online classes that only require a midterm and a final exam and that never provide contact between students and the professor. Other examples I hear involve classes that basically amount to a check list of items to submit with no additional engagement offered.
In contrast, all my classes provide substantial opportunities for learning. For example, my students are assigned weekly wrap-up posts, weekly formal and informal discussions, show and tell presentations, short activities, essays, and exams. Full details can be found in my course syllabi. I am adamant that as a professor, I have a responsibility to really teach students. This includes giving them challenging readings and challenging activities. I have not lowered the learning opportunities offered to my students because of our current collective crisis. I have maintained my dual practices of rigor and compassion. While a few students have said my classes have “too much work for a pandemic” and that I am “too involved with the discussions,” offering an abridged version of my classes would be cheating my students, financially and educationally.
Through these experiences, I have come to further appreciate two very different descriptions of the face-to-face classroom and how they speak to my online teaching experiences. Both are from scholars I have long followed. (It should be noted that both are quoted here in ways not entirely mirroring their original contexts but absolutely in keeping with the general philosophies of these authors.)
Writing in 1998, the late Dr. Jonathan Zophy describes the face-to-face classroom as a magical place that can’t be replaced by any form of distance learning: “Two minds in close proximity making eye contact in a give and take exchange of ideas, each fully aware of the other and able to see when the exchange is going badly or going well, strikes me as a wonderful learning situation.”
Such exchanges are my favorite part of face-to-face teaching. I have seen again and again, through over a decade of teaching, how a class community develops automatically. In a face-to-face environment, everyone helps everyone become and stay motivated. Everyone participates, even when it’s only with a raised eyebrow or a smile. This magic of face-to-face interactions has yet to have an online equivalent. Office hours are what I have missed most. Pre-COVID-19, my office and its long conference room table would usually be packed with students before class. We ate lunch together and chatted about anything and everything. In Fall 2019, for instance, I had 239 visits during office hours, and in the time before COVID-19 interrupted the Spring 2020 semester in early March, I had 193 visits.
One of the things, then, that stands out to me most about the past 16 months of teaching exclusively online is how it changed my relationships with students. I don’t get the opportunity to know them as well. While the GroupMe chats for each class help substantially, I’m learning to accept that getting to really know them simply isn’t possible. In terms of online office hours, I initially designated set times throughout the week but changed them to by appointment after no one came.
Speaking ten years later than Dr. Zophy, Dr. Michael Wesch’s textual reading of classroom walls finds the face-to-face classroom a much bleaker place. He finds that classroom walls ‘say’ that “to learn is to acquire information,” “information is scarce and hard to find,” “trust authority for good information,” “authorized information is beyond discussion,” “obey the authority,” and “follow along.”
Although access to high-speed internet remains an issue, asynchronous classrooms absolutely allow for more democratic learning. Students no longer speak over and interrupt each other. Students with limited means of transportation or unpredictable work schedules no longer must run across campus to arrive to class on time.
Other time constraints too are effectively eliminated. Everyone can ‘speak’ and ‘speak’ as much as they would like. Such discussion board threads also give people the opportunity to have more time to articulate and polish their thoughts. However, it should be noted that the students who do complete discussion assignments mostly do so at the last minute.
And this is one of the ways I’m finding a different kind of enjoyment with online teaching: students can generally get the desired experiences regardless of their college or how their classes are delivered. It’s about providing students with opportunities. I’m available when and how students desire. Online teaching, I’m accepting, simply requires a very different kind of teaching.
Online teaching has also shifted my pedagogy in important ways that will continue when (or if) face-to-face teaching becomes safe for me again. And it’s an “if” given the risks that COVID-19 poses to someone like myself who has extensive pre-existing conditions and given our society’s all-too-common disregard for COVID-19 and disregard for crip bodies, especially ones that aren’t cripnormative.
My online setup has improved substantially over the past year. Formerly, I had an online folder for the syllabus and other administrative info, another folder for readings, another for assignments. Now, everything is on what I call a “Live Course Calendar.” Students can find my contact information, all the topics for the semester, details about assigned readings, and links to assignments on one page. It takes a lot of work to get everything set up this way, but student after student has reported that my course is the most organized online course they have ever taken. And I know my instructional design skills are better. The cliché about “simple being better” is often accurate.
I have also worked hard to find tasks that are both educational and that students are more willing to complete. I have decreased the number of required online discussions and added activities throughout the semester. For one of these activities, students write a personal letter to “someone, anyone real or imagined” that shows personalized understandings of and applications of course topics. The letters are fantastic, and students often report it being a therapeutic exercise. In these letters, students really find ways to show their passion for our topics, while connecting them to personal experience. Letters have been written to parents, to siblings, to future partners, to God, and to many others.
An especially effective change that permits a kind of one-on-one engagement with students is the addition of metacognition submission questions. For each activity, essay, exam, or project students submit, they answer a series of questions. Adapted (and/or borrowed) from Dr. Jesse Stommel and from Professor CJ Schmidt, these questions include:
· What did you learn by doing this assignment?
· What were your strengths; what did you do particularly well?
· Where do you have room for improvement?
· Is there anything I should know about your experience completing this assignment?
· Do you have any questions for me about your assignment?
· What grade would you assign yourself and why?
· Anything else?
Some of these questions were addressed in more informal ways in face-to-face settings, such as when I would ask a class for what they thought about a particular assignment. But this is a change that will absolutely remain long-term. Formalized processes of reflection are a known way to facilitate and increase learning. In an online environment, these questions are often the closest thing to direct communication I have with students individually.
With all of its highs and lows, I find online education fascinating.
As a student, I took my first online class—Chemistry—as a first-year college student in 2005. Later I took College Algebra, Political Science, World Geography, and Modern Latin America virtually as an undergrad. While my M.A. and Ph.D. are in History and all classes for these degrees occurred face-to-face, I also have 18 graduate hours in Education, 15 of which were completed online. And as of this month, I’m signed up to take online graduate courses in English.
As a professor, I want to keep improving and keep finding ways to make it more satisfying. As I’m writing this, I’m teaching three online Summer 2021 classes that are about to end and preparing to teach six online classes for the Fall 2021 semester.
And for all sorts of reasons that are beyond the scope of this piece here, we need to all give more serious thought to virtual learning and teaching. Most immediately, while institutions of higher education have been firm in their plans for an almost complete return to face-to-face, I expect the Delta variation will force another en masse move to online. A million (too many) in the United States alone have died from COVID-19 so far, and many, many more could die if we don’t revive precautions.
Regardless of what happens in the next few months, computerized teaching and learning will certainly continue to have a growing role in how formal education happens. We need to all keep learning how to more effectively teach and learn virtually.
Andrew Joseph Pegoda (@AJP_PhD) holds a Ph.D. in History and teaches women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; religious studies; and English at the University of Houston. Previous articles can be found in The Conversation, History News Network, Time, and The Washington Post, among many others.