Teaching into the void: Musings on online teaching during a pandemic [Update]
Working from home has its perks but teaching can become quite a frustrating, lonely experience when asynchronous teaching is involved. After two semesters of online teaching and going into the third, I want to describe in this article the hurdles I perceive, how I overcame some of them, and what I still find challenging about online teaching.
June 2020: Musings on online teaching
Teaching in times of Covid-19 has made me wistful in a way that I never thought teaching could. While I enjoy working from home for the simple fact that it provides me – a hyper-vigilant, fidgety introvert – with a sense of security and calm I seldom get to experience, I miss my students terribly. I am recording sessions for a lot of my classes and upload them to the university learning platforms and while I believe that this format makes some sense for most of my classes, it is still unsettling, awkward, and frustrating to teach into the void of my laptop, pretending I am talking to somebody when, in fact, I can never be sure whether or not my students will actually listen to the recordings and if they do, when they do it. It feels like postponed or delayed one-way communication. It makes me feel hungry for discussion but leaves me with an empty mouth.
It makes me feel hungry for discussion but leaves me with an empty mouth.
More frustrating than the loneliness of teaching like this, however, is the fact that my way of teaching does not translate well into this asynchronous online style. I am a big fan of teaching as guided exploration, i.e. to venture into a topic together with my students and instead of lecturing them about the topic, facilitating their own journey by asking open questions and giving them time to explore every nook and crevice of an academic issue in their own time. When I am recording my sessions and don’t have any live interaction, this becomes impossible. I have to revert back to lecturing which poses one central problem for the content I am presenting: While I as a literary scholar insist on the idea that there is no such thing as the “correct” interpretation and that there are, in fact, a multitude of possible meanings that can unfold in varying contexts, lecture-style teaching always insinuates that the interpretation I am presenting is the “correct” one. And instead of having produced this interpretation through a community effort with my students in class, I am simply presenting them what I think works. I am talking at them, not with them. It is not how I think teaching works best and it is not how I think I want to teach for much longer.
While I will not change my teaching organisation this semester simply because I don’t want to disrupt the fragile routine my students have developed with their classes in these times of insecurity and constantly changing demands and conditions under which we are working in academia under Covid-19, I will have to reorganise a lot of my classes for the upcoming semester in case teaching online will remain the modus operandi for public health reasons. Even though I am aware of the way in which live online teaching via online platforms is much more exhausting for both teachers and students, I will definitely give it a shot next time around. And who knows? Maybe it is not as chaotic as I envision it to be. I already know from one of my smaller online seminars that it can work out if everybody – teachers and students alike – work hand in hand to turn the class into a success. Maybe it can work just as well for very large seminars. I will let you know how it goes. Wish me luck.
April 2021: Musings on online teaching [update]
The second full online semester has passed and the third is already in full swing as the global pandemic still has the world in its grasp. After I wrote about my concerns regarding online teaching during the global pandemic in a blog entry last semester (see above), I wanted to take the time now to re-evaluate my experience with socially distanced teaching and online learning.
What is still good about online teaching?
My students are really doing their best to work with me on making the experience as social, pleasant, and academically useful as possible. Many of my students react to me asking them to switch on cameras or upload pictures of themselves to help with communication, but I have also understood that not everyone in my virtual classrooms has access to the necessary hardware or can freely share their living space like this: Some live together with family or flatmates that don’t want to appear on screen, others feel uncomfortable sharing their private environment like this. While it is possible to use a virtual background to hide one’s private spaces, I also know from my personal experience that not everybody can do so for reasons that range from camera quality to issues with the actual background – and that is okay.
My students deal with the current situation relatively well, although they tell me that it is hard for them. They make use of additional office hours with me to keep in touch, monitor their progress, and stave off the feeling of being alone with their work. They also share with me how they are working on organising themselves under these circumstances, as well as their successes and problems in that regard. I appreciate that very much because it helps me to understand the situation from their perspective. It is also, I find, important work in the relationships between me and my students that are the foundations for any academic work that we engage in together. My colleagues and I frequently talk about online teaching, our own experiences with it, and how to improve the situation. Exchange of experience and information happens frequently and regularly. While I still miss the opportunity to spontaneously go to my colleagues’ offices for shop talk or a quick amicable chat, I get the impression that we are all doing our best to not only make the situation bearable and workable but also use this opportunity to create new avenues of exchanging experience.
What works better than in the first semester?
I have a much better idea of how the software works: Panopto video recordings of sessions for students to watch don’t take more than one take anymore to be useable (the first online semester was so, so much worse in that regard). I am familiar now with most settings in Zoom and have figured out ways to work around technical limitations, e.g. when it comes to the sharing of video or audio recordings for analysis.
I know that not all of my students (and maybe not even all of my colleagues) can afford upgrades like this.
I got some hardware upgrades and tech gadgets that help me with making the experience less challenging and more manageable for myself: I bought a second screen, a better microphone, and got a LAN cable to stabilize my internet connection (which proved to be necessary especially when my husband and I are teaching or having Zoom meetings at the same time). Buying all this, however, also leaves a sour taste in my mouth: I know that not all of my students (and maybe not even all of my colleagues) can afford upgrades like this.
What is still bad about online teaching?
I miss my students and my colleagues. Zoom isn’t the same and the feeling of frustration at the fact that I can’t really meet my students has only steadily grown over time. Teaching a class while looking at small tiles on a monitor is still difficult for a variety of reasons:
As a teacher I heavily depend on being able to “read” my students’ faces: Usually, I can gauge whether or not most of the group is still with me, whether or not they understand a point I was trying to make, whether or not they are bored or tired or need repetition. All that is so much harder via online teaching when I can’t always see everybody’s faces with just one look at the classroom or when camera resolution varies so widely. Also, the fact that students may not always look directly into the camera (because why would they?) makes reading faces so much harder for me.
Secondly, certain in-class activities simply don’t work online. The advantages of using physical movement and the manipulation of a physical space (for instance in group work or presentations) is no longer an option.
What is worse than during the first semester?
Zoom fatigue is real. I find it much more draining – physically and mentally – to teach seminars online than it ever was for me in-person in a physical classroom. A lot of it has to do with staring at the screen more than I am used to: While I would usually spend four to six hours a day in front of a monitor interspersed with 90-minute teaching sessions, I am now bound to my monitor eight to twelve hours a day.
I sometimes forget to take breaks from sitting at my desk because there are no social interactions that would require me to do so (meetings with colleagues, lunch or coffee breaks, in-person office hours). Because I forget breaks and spend so much time in front of my laptop, I am suffering from back and neck pain again. Some students and colleagues have told me that they are having similar issues. Without gyms open, exercising to combat the physical downsides of online teaching is harder for me.
I have also noticed that the limitation of spaces that I frequent has made me more prone to forgetfulness: It is easier for me to remember tasks and appointments when there is a routine to where I physically have to move but also a pattern of changing environments: In any normal semester, it was easy for me to remember that on Wednesdays I teach a seminar at 8:30, then have two to four scheduled appointments between 10 and 12, then lunch or coffee with colleagues, and then another seminar or meeting afterwards because my body helped me to remember by knowing I had to switch spaces at specific times: from my office to seminar rooms to the cafeteria to offices of colleagues. Spaces jog my memory and without changing scenery, I feel that my brain has a harder time keeping track of appointments and tasks.
...the limitation of spaces that I frequent has made me more prone to forgetfulness.
I am no neuroscientist or medical professional, but as a scholar with knowledge about the significance of space and spatial semantics I have come to understand that space and memory functions are intricately linked and space can be a powerful mnemonic device. Without changing spaces which usually trigger certain memories and connected tasks for me, I have a harder time organising myself and remembering important details, tasks, and appointments. My bullet journal has therefore become even more important to me.
Online teaching and learning offer a bunch of wonderful ways to be more inclusive and make use of and explore new didactic tools. However, they also have some considerable downsides: Despite my students really giving it their all, we all feel the frustration of continued social isolation for which Zoom and other programmes cannot provide a suitable substitute. While some issues can be overcome with hard- or software upgrades (if finances allow for it), the quality of social contact in teaching and learning via online tools was, is, and remains limited. Zoom fatigue and the fact that I cannot use space the way I am used to made teaching during this second online semester much harder for me and I feel that my physical and mental health is taking a toll in spite of me being an introvert at heart who – under other conditions – thrives when working from home.
I am looking forward to keeping a lot of the tools and strategies I have learned in future classes, however, I still think – now more than after the first semester – that online teaching can supplement but not substitute live, in-person teaching and learning.
4. Juni 2020
maybe a motivating experience with huge Zoom meetings:
I had a Zoom Q&A with my favorite band after an online concert and there were 988 people inside and it was possible to ask questions even if there were so many people! It is not the same as face-to-face but it is the best at the moment and we students also think it is desperate not to have the possibility to interact directly if we have questions (at least all I talked about). Even in these crazy times, it is nice to be possible to interact with the lecturers and other students and not just sitting alone with all the stuff. So, if you prefer Zoom meetings - go ahead 😊
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