Commentary: Online teaching doesn’t have to suck for students or educators
This wholesale leap into digital education has also reaped surprising benefits for learning, says NUS’ Chris McMorran.
SINGAPORE: Every week I read about another university in the United States forced to abandon in-person instruction due to a sudden rise in coronavirus cases: UNC-Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, James Madison.
This sudden change of direction has taken a toll on students, who are now restricted to remote instruction and self-isolation after moving to campus only weeks before.
It has also impacted faculty members, now forced to redesign their modules in the midst of the semester.
Here in Singapore, I have been planning for online teaching since May, when the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences made the controversial decision to offer nearly every course online this semester.
The decision was unpopular with many colleagues, including me. After all, nearly everyone prefers face-to-face instruction.
COVID-19 has completely disrupted higher education around the world. Student exchange has been suspended, orientation camps cancelled, and academic conferences moved online.
I have felt these disruptions deeply as a lecturer at the National University of Singapore. But not all is lost, and in fact, much has been gained in these unusual times.
Going completely online turned out to be the pragmatic choice. Deciding early gave me precious time to plan for online teaching and to consult with others.
I had time to redesign my modules, rethink my teaching style, learn new skills, experiment with new technologies, and plan new ways to encourage active learning made possible by - not in spite of - the online teaching environment.
Now that the semester is well underway, and I have had more time to reflect on what we have lost and gained through purely online teaching, I can say one thing for certain: Online teaching doesn’t (have to) suck. In fact, the results have been far better than I expected.
In ten years spent teaching at NUS, I have been fortunate to share the classroom with thousands of amazing students whom I care about very much.
I realise now this is precisely why FASS chose to go fully online: We care about the health of our students and their families, and we have a duty to both protect them, while also providing a world-class education.
WHAT WE HAVE LOST
But we all start from the premise that something is missing in online learning when face-to-face instruction forms most of what we’ve known to be higher education.
I also have been to enough concerts, sporting events, weddings, graduation ceremonies, National Day Parades, and theatrical productions to know the power of sharing an experience with others in the same space.
There is something undeniably intentional about walking into a classroom, committing oneself to a chair, making eye contact or mingling with those sitting nearby, and getting ready for what’s to come.
As an educator, I miss feeding off the energy of my students while lecturing, and I miss the sound of a room buzzing from small-group discussion.
WHAT WE HAVE GAINED
But as an educator, I know there’s potential for gains when we experiment with new ways of learning.
In years past, when I lectured to a group of 400-plus, I encouraged student engagement through hand-held response devices and smartphone apps.
I even used specialised software to elicit written questions during lecture, but not many volunteered.
The design of the lecture theatre can make students feel tiny and vulnerable. It takes a brave soul to raise one’s hand in such a large room.
And do you shout your question, or wait for the lecturer to hand you the microphone? In my experience, not many students are ready for that kind of potential public embarrassment.
Since moving to online learning, questions flow like water, and students are active at levels I never quite reached with technologies alone. But it’s not because of the technology, it’s because of the context.
Now, I pre-record lectures and ask students to watch them before we meet. Then, we devote our precious time together to clarifying the material and delving deeper into areas of interest to the students.
One question often fuels another, until suddenly dozens of students raise their virtual hands or type their questions.
Plus, more students are emailing with follow-up questions and contacting me for one-on-one online meetings.
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The tools for active learning have been around for years, but the pandemic and learning online seems to have inspired students to take advantage of them in new ways.
And I am not alone. Colleagues from around NUS tell me they are fielding more questions with online teaching than they ever received in person.
Online, there is none of the hierarchy built into classroom design.
Our faces are the same size, and we all face the same direction - into the camera. We all look directly at each other, giving each other equal respect.
Online, students can take their time to carefully formulate a question, and I can request each student to turn on their microphone and video camera and ask their question to the entire class.
I can even click a button and place students in breakout rooms to discuss a question. This recreates the buzz of the classroom without the time and commotion of moving desks or awkwardly turning in one’s seat.
Even in a small class, online teaching can lead to surprising outcomes. One comment in particular from a 5-week module I taught during the school break sticks out: “Actually I find that the Zoom platform might be more social than in the classroom setting (maybe it's something to do with seeing everyone's faces head-on, so it feels more personal somehow).”
Of course! When I stand at the front of the classroom, I see everyone’s faces. But students only see the back of each other’s heads. Classrooms are designed that way.
Online, students’ names are always visible on the screen, which helps them get to know each other better.
As another student from my July module wrote, “It's the first time in uni that I actually know my classmates better and I'm comfortable speaking up around them.”
None of these benefits come by chance. Online teaching requires completely rethinking the relationship between student and teacher. It requires redesigning assessments so they can be done synchronously or asynchronously, across space.
I purposefully included more small-stakes group work, and I take the time to rotate group members so everyone gets to know each other. Taking this extra step in a physical classroom is difficult.
Students are creatures of habit: Where they sit on the first day of class is where they tend to remain all semester. Online learning shakes up habits, ensuring that they interact with more students and thus hear more perspectives.
Students learning online may not have the same social life outside the classroom, but they need not feel isolated. We can create opportunities for them to make friends and collaborate as learners.
Recently, as coronavirus cases in Singapore have dwindled, I have been asked to consider adopting a hybrid model for one of my modules of fewer than 25 students.
Hybrid teaching would mean meeting some students in person and others online. I choose to remain online. I spent months carefully planning for online learning. Changing course midstream threatens to undo all that work and to disrupt my students’ new learning habits.
Just as one cannot smoothly go online overnight, one cannot go hybrid without careful thought and planning. Plus, colleagues who have asked students about the possibility of going hybrid found that a large majority prefer to continue with online learning only.
Some students worry about spreading the virus to family members, while others have become comfortable and thrived with new online learning habits. They are asking more questions, collaborating across time and space with more peers, and connecting more with their professors.
When it is safe to return to the classroom, I will be the first person through the door.
In the meantime, carefully designed online teaching is not a worse option or a stopgap.
It is a tool to engage active learners and break down some of the biggest barriers to learning in higher education.
Chris McMorran is Associate Professor in the Department of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore. He is also past recipient of the NUS Outstanding Educator Award and FASS Inspiring Mentor Award.