Throughout my own college education I didn’t take a single online class. For both my graduate and undergraduate degrees I attended small liberal arts colleges that prided themselves on small classes, strong teaching, and close personal attention. Neither of them offered any online classes at the time, much less fully online programs. But when I was ABD I returned to teach full time at one of them as a Lecturer, from 2004-2008, and one year the college faced the Avian flu — remember that? In response, the college asked its faculty to design courses that would allow students to complete their semesters online should the college have to close unexpectedly. So this Coronavirus situation has been faced before. These contingency plans have been considered in the past, if not implemented, so it seems appropriate to revisit what online education is, how it works, and common misconceptions about it as many colleges across the country are actually closing now and moving courses online at the last minute.
My first experience of an online class was in fact in response to a mini-crisis: I was dropped into an online graduate class last minute due to the unexpected death of a faculty member. I started teaching in my first full-time Assistant Professor position in the Fall of 2008, and due to that unexpected death, I had to cover an online graduate class the Spring semester of that year, before I started full time. Needless to say, with my prior educational background I was deeply skeptical of online education. However, as I continued on with that institution I typically taught at least one online class per semester out of a four course load and at least two over the summer, always at the graduate level. I then went on to lead the successful redesign of a fully online Master of Humanities degree program, which I then Chaired, in addition to the numerous online classes I’ve developed from scratch and taught. That experience has changed my perception of online learning.
The most common misperception about online classes is that they’re low quality — that they’re somehow worse instructionally because they’re online. That perception is mistaken, but it exists for a reason. The original major online programs were developed and expanded by for-profit colleges and universities such as the University of Phoenix, which had over 600,000 students at one point. The truth is that for-profit colleges and universities themselves are the problem, having the lowest graduation rates, the lowest retention rates, the worst employment numbers for their graduates, and the highest student loan default rates. It doesn’t matter if their programs are fully seated or fully online: they get the same results.
But since the for-profit higher educational model is an abject failure with either seated or online classes, it’s not the class format that’s the problem. I’d like to emphasize a core idea that I think applies to pedagogy across the boards: there is no magic bullet when it comes to teaching. There is no one model that works best in all circumstances, for all students, at all times. The truth is that different pedagogical models have different strengths and weaknesses, so choosing one over the other involves a tradeoff: you sacrifice the benefits of one kind of pedagogy for the strengths of another. That tradeoff needs to be defined in terms of the student population.
How do we understand that payoff for different student populations? A few fundamental principles might help at this point.
- It’s not the format, it’s the teacher. Some teachers teach better in online environments, some worse, and some about the same. But no format works well unless the teacher works well, and teachers are able to work well when they are supported with decent pay and benefits and treated with respect by administration and students. Many colleges and universities think online programs reliant upon adjunct instructors will be a cash cow for them, but they wind up spending more in advertising to continually recruit students to replace the ones they lose — and seldom get to the point where their program really grows in a sustainable way.
- It’s not the format, it’s the student. Online classes require more work, not less, from both teachers and students, and they require more independent work and discipline from the student. Some studies have shown that advanced students do better in online classes because they have more independence, while at the same time, experiments with online formats for general education curriculum at San Jose State University and elsewhere were met with horrible failure. Students who need more attention and direction from their teachers will do worse in online environments. Students who prefer to work independently will do better.
- Online classes are more rigorous, not less. In most online classes, the student must participate publicly every week. Almost everything is in writing: instructions, assignments, lectures, feedback, etc. There are usually some video components as well as PowerPoints, but unless it’s a math class, there’s a lot of reading and writing every week.
- Can teachers replicate their pedagogy in an online environment? The most common thing I’ve heard from teachers who have never taught online is, “I can’t replicate what I do in the classroom online.” Of course not. But once you start to teach online, you will find a new “instructional you” as you do so, and you’ll find it works the other way too: you can’t replicate what you do in an online class face to face either. I think this is part of why people think online classes are somehow worse: it’s hard to generate that same in-person chemistry. It’s like of like seeing a concert versus watching one on film. It’s hard to beat the live experience, but you can’t rewind and rewatch a live performance either. That’s the tradeoff, and studies indicate that the chemistry produced in an in-person classroom isn’t absolutely vital for student learning. Students think they learn more when the chemistry is there, but assessments of actual learning show otherwise.
- Spoken words help with reading comprehension for difficult texts. Reading out loud helps. Close, line by line readings of parts of difficult texts help. When I teach Paradise Lost, I often cover the first 40 lines this way, and students are able to read much better on their own afterwards. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, find YouTube equivalents or podcasts. There are many good resources already out there for many of our major works.
So, how should we react to moving our classes online? First, be patient. Students will be stressed, teachers will be stressed, IT people will be stressed, and the technology itself will be stressed — servers will get a lot busier all at once.
Next, realize that student learning occurs from what students do in and out of the classroom, not teachers. Teachers are facilitators of student learning, not the source of it. Classrooms don’t work like The Matrix: there’s no jack you can plug into the back of your head that will teach you to fly a helicopter. So while teachers are vital to learning, students need to understand learning only occurs for them when they do the work.
Finally, once it’s set up, get to work. Work on your classes at least a little bit every day until your work for the week is complete, and above all, don’t try to just do it all in one day and be done with it. You’ll get behind.
We will get past this.