Teaching online versus online teaching

Having heard many stories and tips about online teaching I was very apprehensive about teaching my first class of this term. How could I not fail? At the same time, I’m enormously grateful to all the people and my university for sharing great advice and best practice examples (see e.g. here). Thinking through the scenarios not only got me worried but also gave me a lot of headspace to anticipate and navigate through a number of (possible) obstacles before plunging into the unknown. What can I say? I went through all sorts of worries and finally came up with a decision that, so far, worked for me: I teach online rather than do online teaching. This means that I teach much in the same way I would have done offline, with the small exception that it’s happening online. What does this entail for students and myself?

Let me address students first. I’ve heard many people say that you, students, tend to keep your cameras and microphones off, and use the chat instead. Although I personally prefer to see people’s faces and hear their voices, I think this would be ok for at least some part of the interaction. The reason I recommend switching your gear on and making yourself heard and seen is that you should take your space. Online teaching is often presented as a challenge that deprives us of direct interaction which, in turn, has to be compensated with all sorts of “tools”. Yes, of course, we are used to physical cues in communication, the perception of which we now often simply miss out on. But what strikes me as crucial is that we participate. I don’t think any amount of online tools or refined environment makes up for your participation in the conversation. I find reading the chat more cumbersome than listening to you. I also prefer speaking over writing. But I’ll get used to the chat and learn to change my ways happily, as long as you participate. The crucial aspect is not how it’s done, online or offline, but that you do it. Make your contributions, ask you questions etc. as before.

That said, I also think that you can participate more fully if you use all the devices available. The online space is not just a toolbox or learning environment. It’s first of all a political space with all the power imbalances and hierarchies that we have offline. It’s at least partly our choice whether we want to amplify or adjust the old space as we’re moving online. This is why I’d recommend using all the resources that enhance your presence for participation. You’re not a passive receptor and instructors are not emulating youtube. We’re still at the university, a public and democratic space for academic exchange.

This morning, I was quite nervous whether my “strategy” would work. It’s way too early to assess this, but what I find worth reporting is that, for me at least, teaching this course online was much the same experience as teaching it offline. I thought it would be awkward to be talking to a screen, but then people who know me also know that I often speak with my eyes closed… The silence after asking a question might be slightly longer, but we all know that the situation is special, so it’s fine. Of course, I miss cues, but I noticed I can ask for them more often, if need be.

For the time being, I have also decided not to record my teaching events. If someone misses a class, they will miss it. More importantly, I know that recording the stuff would change the stakes for the students and myself. Over and above the well-known privacy issues and unintended misuse of recorded material, watching a lecture is different even from silently participating in it, let alone giving it. (The fancy word for this is “synchronous” teaching, I guess. But that would be misleading. Even if the lectures cannot be viewed later on, students will still experience “asynchronous” teaching. That is, they will still have to do the reading, thinking and discussing before and after. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the “flipped classroom”, but to my mind this is different from actually teaching students.)

Is that so? On the face of it, one might think there is not much difference between watching a recorded lecture and silently taking part in an online lecture, especially if the audience is rather large. I beg to differ. Even if you don’t want to join in, participating in an actual lecture still gives you the opportunity to interfere. At least for me, such an opportinity changes the level and quality of attention, even if (or especially when) I decide not to raise my hand. Seen this way, recording lectures is a way of providing material on top of other material, such as readings, videos and podcasts. It goes without saying that we shouldn’t underestimate the value of such materials. After all, teaching is no replacement for learning, that is: independent self-study is still a, sometimes underestimated, component of the educational process. But the moments of interaction, the so-called contact hours, remain special: they come and go. And with them the opportunities for participation, for noticing others in relation to yourself come and go. My hunch is that these moments thrive on the fact that they cannot be repeated. In this sense, watching a recorded class is not the same as taking part in a given class.

All that said, this is in no way dismissing the fantastic ideas and tools for proper online teaching. Yet it is crucial to be reminded that, at this moment, most of us teach online (if they have this liberty, that is) because the pandemic causes an emergency. But just as new social media competence is rooted in old-fashioned reading and writing, the quality of teaching is rooted in our resources of offline thinking and interaction.

In any case, I wish everyone a happy and safe beginning of term.

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