On Teaching Online (So Far)

Today marks the 33rd day of quarantine, or, rather, a state-wide policy of staying at home. Others elsewhere living under other circumstances will count a different number of days. I count 33 days since Friday, March 13, when the university where I work announced that classes were cancelled for the following Monday and Tuesday and that when Wednesday dawned, all classes would be online.

I was somewhat luckier than most. I had begun to have conversations with my students that week about what it would mean if we had to go online, and so we had made plans together, which helped, I think, the eventual deployment. I remember quite clearly working through some of the finer points of how we would conduct ourselves in my eleven o’clock class when, as class was finishing one of my students looked at his phone and announced, “Oh, it’s official. We’re going online.” (Of course, my university announced it first on Twitter, and then about an hour later sent an email to faculty.)

So, it’s been a month — well, three and a half weeks really — and I have learned a lot about teaching online, appreciating that how you gauge comprehension is a fundamental shift between the two environments. In face-to-face lectures and discussions, you have an entire range of facial expressions, gestures, and postures that reveal to you the scope and depth of someone’s understanding of the material being examined. A slight eyebrow furrow can lead you to re-state a proposition with a different set of words that raises not only that person’s eyebrows but a host of others. A different person’s posture reveals they are having a bad day or, perhaps, they haven’t prepared for class, prompting you to think about ways to re-engage them, give them reason to seize the next opportunity to examine the material for themselves, looping them back into the next discussion. All of this changes online, and the number of solutions that some learning management systems offer to assess student learning now begins to make sense — though, I confess, I continue to think that any number of them are rather unimaginative and, honestly, somewhat trivializing of any content which must pass through them.

A couple of other things tumble out of my experience of online teaching so far, the first of which is time management, which I glimpse not only through the lens of my screen but also through watching my own high-school aged child adapt to the change in circumstances. While my daughter spends hours in front of the computer, I am not entirely sure that it is an effective use of her time. That is, I think she confuses time spent staring at the screen with time spent working. I don’t think I am being unfair here, because I can be equally guilty of allowing myself the “quick break” to watch a YouTube video, sometimes educational like something from 3 Blue and 1 Brown or StatQuest but also just as likely, if I am being honest, to be the highlights from a Premier League game or a woodworking video (that I justify as avocational advancement). What my daughter lacks and what my students lack, and perhaps even I lack, is the regimentation of the varied workday. My daughter is quite clear about it: she was quite used to her day being broken up into chunks, each of which allowed her to focus quite clearly on the task in front of her, confident that there would be a change of class, a change of topic, and, perhaps, a change of pace. This kind of clear set of steps accompanied by variation is one way to be productive. As an adult I use it quite often. Indeed, I am entirely reliant now on being good at scheduling my day in a way that gives me the opportunity to focus intensely on a particular task, but often that focus is driven by the fact that it is bounded and I know that I can push because coming up at two o’clock, for example, I am going to break for coffee and a stroll into the garden (or what we would like to be a garden at some point in its stunted existence).

Finally, there is the matter of writing. No matter what I teach, I think the one thing that I can contribute to my student’s own personal and intellectual development is the ability to write well: to develop ideas, to base those ideas on clearly-defined inputs, and then to communicate those ideas, analytical or argumentative, well. If anything should be conducive to writing it’s the online environment. After all, at its base, the internet is simply bits being sent from one computer to another, mostly in the forms of words (or things like words like HTML tags). Or, put another way, much of our electronic communication, especially among my students, is based on some form of texting — the particular application/platform within which they text is less important than the fact that they exchange words so readily.

So you would think that shifting to all-online teaching would be a boon to the teaching of writing, but so many people are so anxious about writing that you actually spend considerable amount of time as an instructor giving them confidence, and that often comes in the form of one-on-one sessions before and after class, in the hallway, or in your office. I now spend a considerable amount of time inside Teams doing much the same, but it is far more difficult and takes far more time. (And, to be honest, this kind of effort is not rewarded institutionally: we have so devalued the teaching of writing that it’s really a wonder it gets taught at all.)

What Online Learning Should Look Like

I have taken courses from Codecademy, Coursera, and Stanford/EdX. Perhaps because they are all MOOCs, they follow very similar UI conventions. That noted, I like those conventions quite a bit. I find them much easier to navigate, to understand where I am and what I am supposed to be doing than the UI of something like Moodle, for example. Moodle is a Swiss Army knife, with something for everyone, but it makes it very, very difficult — at least in my experience — to strip off the parts a course doesn’t need, leaving users with having to navigate through irrelevant, and thus sometimes confusing, material.

This process, of a user needing to keep track of where they are and thus keeping track of what they are supposed to be doing, is known as cognitive overhead, is something I have been thinking about since the late 80s, but always in a casual fashion, always with only my own courses in mind. The many designs of this website, for instance, are part of my ongoing thinking through how to frame visually what interests me.

The question of design was hammered home to me over the past two weeks while I was enrolled in an on-line workshop to be certified in on-line course design. What I saw was the best possible use of Moodle I have ever seen, but within the framework, I encountered a mishmash of PDFs, Word documents, and on-line presentations that were poorly designed. Poorly designed may be, however, an inappropriate description: I don’t think there was any thought given to design at all. (We can argue that there is no such thing as no design, merely under-thought design some other time.)

Whatever the description, the outcome is that users struggle to figure out what it is they are supposed to know or what they are supposed to do. It was maddening.

Udemy's Interface

Udemy’s Interface

New Kinds of Value

In a post in the HBR blog, Ron Johnson, who is now CEO of J. C. Penney’s but once was VP for Retail at Apple, makes the case that retailers, and I assume he is thinking specifically about his current context, must offer customers more than price if they are to survive and compete against the big box discounters. He notes that the Apple Stores were not successes at first: no one came to the Genius Bar. But in a few years, they had to put an appointment system in place to manage the flow of people to the Bar. He also notes that employees in the stores do not work on commission, which frees them to focus on being with customers, trying to understand them.

The lesson for other retailers, Johnson argues, is not to mimic the Apple Store in various ways but to re-think their business. The question retailers should be asking themselves is not how do we increase profits or revenues but “How do we reinvent the store to enrich our customers’ lives?” His analogy is to Steve Jobs, who did not push hard on the development of the iPhone in order to achieve some percentage of market share but because he wanted to re-invent the phone.

The notion of creating value, especially new types of value, is a bit of a cliché in business circles, but time passes despite cliches about time passing. I think much the same kind of fundamental re-thinking of education is called for, but, and here’s the catch, it should be done in a dialogue with faculty. Faculty, perhaps better than anyone else in higher education (and perhaps not), know what it means to create and distribute knowledge: it’s our job to do both. More importantly, faculty are, by definition, almost always the ones most often in direct contact with the various forms of distribution as we both teach classes and submit our materials to publishing outlets for review, evaluation, and eventual distribution.

But I did say it was a dialogue, and one thing I can say to my fellow faculty members is that I am most happy right now with the freshman honors English course I teach. Why? Because as I worked through the process of possibly making it a hybrid course for my university, the change in the infrastructure of the course as well as the folks in Distance Learning at my university, demanded that I answer some very basic questions. “Begin with the end in mind,” they reminded me, which got me thinking about what were the core lessons I wanted students to learn. Suddenly I found myself re-thinking the way I teach writing and the way my students think about writing. I will detail the new structure for the course in an upcoming entry, but for now I can report that I am delighted with the results. And so are the students.