In this post, Andrew Walsh reflects on the promises and pitfalls of innovation in the transition to online teaching.
What more can be said about the advantages and drawbacks of online teaching? After almost two years of the uncertainty, shifting institutional guidelines, and changing expectations that the pandemic has brought to the work of teaching, there is no shortage of great resources out there for those trying to make sense of what, to many of us, has been an eye-opening transition to a new and very different way of engaging with students. Thinking back through what I’ve learned, it’s not a list of well-tested best practices that comes to mind. Rather, I find myself returning time and again to the matter of learning itself and to what makes trying to do it online so difficult.
In mid-March 2020, when news came down that courses at my home institution would be moving online in the middle of term, expectations around the quality of what we’d be able to muster in the three days allotted to the transition were understandably low. Some of us shifted classroom courses to synchronous Zoom meetings, while others recorded and posted narrated PowerPoints for students to access when they could. It was a transition of hurried, though often inspired, work done by frazzled but dedicated teachers (and mostly appreciated by frazzled but dedicated students) under the pressure of late-term necessities. By the end of April, however, as the realization of what was ahead set in, things changed. What would our classes look like in the fall, and what might we do over the summer to prepare?
Along with several other colleagues in Anthropology, I signed up for a six-week summer course on online teaching. Developed and taught by amazing instructors from our Centre for Teaching and Learning and run mostly asynchronously on our own learning management system, this was my first proper experience of an online course. As hoped, it provided much needed opportunities for thinking about, discussing, and experimenting with new ways of teaching suited to the online environment. But it was also, for me at least, often frustrating, disorienting, impersonal, and anxiety-inducing in ways that the in-person classes I had taken (and taught) previously were not. Where do I find the discussion forum I’m meant to be posting in? Did my assignment upload properly? Should I re-record that Voice Thread introduction to make myself come across as less of an idiot? Do I really sound like that?
I learned right away that online teaching is hard to do well – it demands that we carefully consider the possibilities and limitations of an unfamiliar instruction format while attending to students’ lives and learning styles in ways that, frankly, shouldn’t have felt as novel as they did. More importantly, though, this course taught me how hard online learning is – challenging in how it required us (we teachers turned students for a six-week term) to achieve certain ‘learning outcomes’ (consider new ideas, reflect on new sources, engage in new debates, and so on) while negotiating multiple forms of engagement, a clunky online platform, and our instructors’ (and their assistants’) distinctive approaches. I could never be sure in the moment that I was getting what I was meant to get out of the course, or that my own contributions made sense to others in asynchronous conversations. No encouraging nods, no flashes of corrective confusion, no relieving glances from puzzled others to tell me I’m not alone.
Of course, this class was just one of many things preoccupying me at the time, and so I fit my participation in when I could, appreciating the flexibility of the asynchronous format but also wishing that it could be more structured (and so less forgiving of my tendency to procrastinate) and less of a constant buzz (and so something I could fully ignore on weekends). I’m tempted to say that all this put me in a position like that which our students would shortly find themselves in, but it didn’t. I was only taking this one course where they would be taking five. I wasn’t being graded. I wasn’t working on the side – this was my job.
The course’s final assignment required me to develop and deliver an online lesson to classmates on a topic of my choice. I chose to approach a familiar topic (sapphire mining and ecotourism in Madagascar) in a new way by creating an interactive online lecture with the help of h5p – a program that allows you to insert pauses, links, quizzes, and other prompts into a YouTube video. It took longer than it should have, and I worried (as students often do) that the effort I put into it wasn’t well reflected in what came out. Judge for yourself: https://h5pstudio.ecampusontario.ca/content/3912
My classmates approached their online lessons differently – using games and polls, animated explications of keywords, asynchronous brainstorming sessions, and so on – providing plenty of tools and approaches to consider and, so, cause for hope about what online learning might look like in the year to come. And then came the deflating realization of what wading through all the possibilities would involve. Vetted recommendations from colleagues and students became more important than ever, and I began making some myself. Having experienced just a little of what’s involved in creating online content, I’ve developed a special appreciation for colleagues with the vision and stamina to produce ongoing series/channels from which the rest of us can draw with the assurance of quality. This includes Michael Wesch’s well subscribed YouTube channel as well as two newer favourites: “Humans in 5”, a collection of hundreds of short (sub-five-minute) videos on everything from intergenerational trauma to Neanderthal ears produced and hosted by Sarah-Louise Decrausaz and Michelle Cameron, and “Human Stories”, a growing collection of short lectures featuring scholars talking about their research in accessible language.
Going through my classmates’ lessons one after the other in the final week of class also got me wondering about the whiplash our students might experience in moving from one to another innovative approach inspired and enabled by the transition to online teaching. In our final discussion, one of the course’s instructors recommended that we continue to learn what we can about the new tools and approaches afforded by online teaching, but always aim to work with them at our own comfort level. It was great advice. As effective and exciting as innovative teaching methods can be, there is something to be said for the comfort that a certain amount of familiarity and consistency can bring to the experience of online learning. When we surveyed students about their experiences of the rushed end-of-term transition in March 2020, we learned that what they often appreciated most about our efforts were the things they knew they could count on in the midst of so much uncertainty: weekly reminders and checklists, opportunities to meet up with instructors in real-time (if only on Zoom), and knowing where to find what they were looking for on the learning management system (no matter what the course). What mattered more than us being innovative in how we approached our online teaching was us simply being there – not in the classroom, maybe, but there all the same, clearly engaged, as on top of things as we could manage, and, with our own messy backgrounds, invasive cats, and sometimes shaky internet connections, part of something shared. And so, moving forward, it became important to consider not just the efficiencies gained by producing slick evergreen content suitable for reusing, repurposing, and sharing, but also the undeniable plusses of the shaggier stuff (full of uhhhs and ummms) that demonstrated our presence.
I know I’m not alone in having learned a lot about teaching – and not just online teaching – over the past two years. Most important to me is how the transition to (and then back from and then to again) online teaching has highlighted key aspects of our diverse students’ lives and learning that were always there. Any kind of teaching may be hard to do well, but learning is always harder. Having been reminded of this through my own experiences of an online course, the challenge now is to remember.
Andrew Walsh is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Western University in London, Ontario. He is the author of Made in Madagascar in the Teaching Culture series.