I have been teaching online, on and off, for about 30 years, in many subject areas at all tertiary levels. So you would expect that moving my face to face classes to online during the pandemic would have presented me with minimal challenges, right? Not so – there was a big difference. In almost every case over those 30 years, the students were in the online class because they wanted to be – whatever the reason, they had chosen to take the class this way. For the last 18 months this has not been the case – they were in the class because they had no choice. For many students around the world this will continue for some time. This means that student engagement, communications, provision of learning materials and even classroom ethics take on a much different role. We really need these drafted students to want to be there.
I have prepared these thoughts in the hope that some might find them useful – I do believe that the “new normal” will be different to the old, particularly in online education. In fact, perhaps the pandemic has given proponents of online education a platform on which we can build.
To me, this is paramount. I recall that when my daughter went to elementary school, not once did she wake in the morning and say “I don’t want to go to school today”. I thought this a wonderful accolade for the school – to have established a learning environment to which students delighted in coming. To have students in our classrooms who want to be there solves so many issues. In the online environment (particularly now) most are not there because they want to be and many of the peripheral attractions of the face to face environment such as meeting friends, the gym, or getting out of the house, are not there. Therefore, it takes on particular importance in the online classroom.
How to achieve it? First we need to find ways to make the material interesting and relevant. I often start by using recent news items that are directly relevant to the subject material and ask the students to consider the implications for their profession or expected workplace. I try and set assignments that students can do from the point of view of their profession. If we are looking emerging technologies the assignment will give them an opportunity to evaluate them from the perspective of a nurse, a policeman, or a banker perhaps – whatever profession they might aspire to. Show you are taking an interest – one good technique is to continue feedback on work. If you suggest a change in writing style (for example) on one piece of written work, look for improvement on the next piece and make sure you compliment the student (by name) on it. And while we are on names – use them! I always use the student’s first name but you need to make sure you get it right. Finally – try and humanize the professor…. Tell stories from your experience that illustrate the course material, particularly ones where mistakes were made. Textbooks are full of success stories – it is the instructor’s job to highlight the other side – what can go wrong and what happened.
Communication with Students
It is important to remember that students use communication tools differently to the way we do. You can never assume that everyone has read your email! Students use email to appeal grades, submit late work or apply for jobs. You will need to find ways to make yourself available by text, chat or the ‘phone. Consider putting your office number through to home, or perhaps giving them your cell – I have often done this over the years and cannot think of a single occasion on which it has been abused. And remember – when students have a problem they expect an immediate answer! If you don’t give them a contact number, make sure you read the message and at least send a holding reply. Find a way to communicate using the “announcements” section of the LMS but don’t expect them to check it every day – try color coding new announcements so they can see changes at a glance.
One practice I have found useful is to ask one or two students in the class to review an announcement or an email before I send it to the whole class. You will probably need to pick your students but you will find them very willing to be involved and most helpful. And they will often pick up matters that are of concern to them that I have not covered well.
If you run “office hours” don’t expect to be swamped – a few will appear on the first or second occasion but not many after that. It is useful to make attendance mandatory early in the semester so you can have a one-on-one chat with each student (and humanize the professor!) This will provide you with an insight into whether the student is likely to be “at risk”, whether they might have distractions keeping them from their studies (such as too many classes, a part-time job, etc.) and whether they will have access to sufficient resources.
Group work and discussions
While most professors see both of these as essential in online classes, generally speaking students hate them. While we see group work as preparing the students for life in the work place and providing an opportunity to work on and complete large tasks, students see them as unnecessarily convoluted and problematical; we look upon discussions as an opportunity to replicate the classroom interaction and iterative development of ideas, most students see them as “busy work” which contribute little to learning. I have some sympathy for these views – trying to complete a task with recalcitrant and unfamiliar team members who operate to different standards, frustrations with communications, and in the case of discussions – a question in their minds must surely be “Does anybody read what I put up?”
I use group work sparingly – I try and set only one significant group task a semester and try and promote team building with a limited exercise first so that they establish communication links, I set dates by which the group has to give progress updates, I allow multiple submissions of the final version of work – doing so will save you a lot of hassles, (there are always last minute edits) and I state that I retain the right to conduct a peer review (but I have very rarely used it).
For discussions, it is probably unrealistic to expect a large class to read everyone’s postings. It is important to be clear about what is expected… it is very easy to just put up a general topic and hope students contribute something useful but better to define what has to be done – relate to practice, identify options, interpret a reading, etc. I break the class into groups and set each member a week/topic on which that student is the team leader and required to prepare a summary of the discussion. For small classes I do this myself making sure I mention some students by name and quote some of their work.
Strangely I find teaching online to be more ethically problematic than face to face. I think that this might be because of interaction with some students – typically those with problems or issues. Due in part, I am sure, to my desire to establish a rapport with the students in the interest of wanting them to want to be there, I find myself tempted by things like giving special consideration to one without making the same available to all, giving extra weight to problems such as lack of resources again without knowing if others are suffering similar problems, or perhaps taking personal requests into account more than I would normally.
My advice is to be aware of what you doing – always document your decision (I believe that the act of documentation itself forces us to consider implications that we might otherwise gloss over) and discuss what you are doing with your colleagues and regularly assess whether what you are doing is in line with their actions.
An opportunity from Covid-19?
Maybe something good might come out of the misery inflicted by the pandemic. Students and instructors around the world have experienced online education, most for the first time. This gives its proponents an opportunity to showcase it. But there is a stigma – online classes and the resulting degrees are often considered to be second-rate. While I have long argued that online education is not for all of the people all of the time, educational technology is now providing us with the magnificent opportunity to lift people out of poverty and improve lives worldwide. But for this to happen we need to get some things right. We need to ensure that our online learning environment is as robust as the face to face one. This covers delivery of material, interaction with professors and fellow students, and a guarantee that the student getting the credit is the one who completed the assessment. We need a “gold standard” for online education, but there is much to be done to achieve this. There are many good online programs – Georgia Tech, MIT and Arizona State come to mind. Coursera and EdX have vast experience. There is a role for the accreditation bodies too. Let’s get together as we come out of the pandemic and set a standard by which all online classes can be judged, while the world is watching.
About The Author
Dr. Geoffrey Dick currently teaches at St John’s University in New York City. First appointed full Professor of Information Systems in 2009, he has taught in a number of universities in the United States and around the world. He has a particular interest in online education and its future, including how it might be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Geoff has taught and researched Information Systems for almost 30 years. His research (around 100 publications) is mainly in the areas of telecommuting (his PhD) and on-line education – he is the recipient of the ICIS prize for best paper in education and was awarded the 2009 Emerald Management Review Citation of Excellence for one of the best papers published worldwide in the top 400 business journals. Recent publications have been in the CAIS, JITCAR, JISE and JITE-R. He has been a visiting fellow at UC Davis, the University of Malaya, the Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, University of Agder in Norway and has taught in the prestigious programs of the ESAN Summer School in Lima, Peru, the CETYS International Summer Program in Ensenada (where he holds a Foreign Professor appointment) and at ITAM in Mexico City.