Friday, May 07, 2021

Teaching Online

 It's been a complicated end of a term, in part because this term was even more hectic (and continues to be even more hectic) than last year's terms. I was interested to see the results of a recent survey by Thomas Nadelhoffer on online philosophy teaching. I often don't have the same perspective on teaching as my colleagues, but in this case, my own experience matches the survey results fairly well. I didn't take the survey, but I thought I would give my own answers to some the questions here, since it makes a convenient summary.

(1) During pandemic -- Did you teach partly or fully online during the pandemic? YES -- fully.

(2) Before the pandemic, had you ever taught a course that was either partly or fully online? YES -- I have taught several hybrid Introduction to Philosophy courses.

(3) Which of the following formats for teaching did you adopt -- fully online asynchronous, fully online synchronous, fully online asynchronous + synchronous,  hybrid? FULLY ONLINE SYNCHRONOUS, in the sense that I was assigned courses that were fully online synchronous courses. But I'm not sure it's quite a well-formed question; a synchronous course, properly speaking, is one that requires in-person class meetings, but they will often have an asynchronous component. For that matter, my in-person classes always have an asynchronous component, since I often assign learning modules.

(4) Which course levels have I taught online? 100-LEVEL (Intro) and 200-LEVEL (Ethics), mostly the latter.

(5) When you first started teaching online, did you expect to ever teach online again after the pandemic? YES. 

(6) How much time and energy did you spend preparing in advance for the courses you taught online? A GREAT DEAL. Online courses require a great deal of frontloading -- a lot has to be set into place already for it to work properly during the term.

(7) How much time and energy did teaching online require during the semester relative to your normal in-person courses? MORE. (That was only to be expected.)

(8) What's the best way to describe your expectations before you started teaching online? SOMEWHAT PESSIMISTIC, since it was originally all done in a scramble.

(9) Did your experiences match your expectations? More or less.

(10) Do you plan to teach online after the pandemic? MIGHT OR MIGHT NOT. 

(11) Now that you have taught online, do you view teaching philosophy online more or less favourably than before? SOMEWHAT LESS FAVORABLY. Frankly, this really brought confirmed to me all the reasons why I never went through the process to certify with the Department for teaching online-only courses.

(12) Based on your experiences, how confident are you in your ability to teach philosophy online in a way that is engaging and effective? CONFIDENT. Students regularly tell me that they find me engaging, so I have confirmation there. 'Effective' is always a trickier thing to assess.

(13) Based on your experiences, how confident are you in other people's ability to teach philosophy online in a way that is engaging and effective? CONFIDENT. I actually think many instructors over-worry about their ability to handle this kind of situation.

(14) What do you think the biggest challenges are when it comes to teaching philosophy online? The single biggest challenge is maintaining student motivation and momentum, far and away. But I think one of the common answers -- in-class engagement -- is also a complicated issue. It's not so much that students don't participate as that participation is massively more variable and inconsistent than it would be in a classroom. Part of this, I think, is that online interaction is evidence-impoverished; everyone has less information about the reactions of everyone else than they would in person, so it's easier to miss nuances and to miss key points, and, more than that, it is more difficult for most people (including myself) to communicate, since there is less feedback in doing so. I also have sympathy for the 'there's no chalkboard' answer; there are workarounds, but there is really no substitute for having something you can easily write and diagram on, which physically stays visible the entire time, no matter what else you are showing, which you can point to as needed for emphasis and clarification.

(15) If you were to give advice to someone who was about to teach their first online philosophy class, what would it be? I would say that they should definitely incorporate interactive components, have scheduled meetings one-on-one with students (even just one during the term, I find, does an immense amount of good), and be flexible. As for the actual teaching, I am a big believer at all times in the position that the teacher should teach in the way they can teach; that is to say, except in matters of explicitly required policies, you should just do what makes it possible for you, yourself, to teach. However, one of the common answers -- require videos on during class -- I think identifies a common problem, which is trying rigidly to press teaching one medium into the mold of teaching in another medium. There are just going to be differences between in-person and synchronous online, and one of them is that you're going to have to have a more flexible understanding of what counts as paying attention in class. There will certainly be more distractions; the lack of personal presence changes how attention works; and you will need to adjust to that. Really, I think the best way to think of this kind of situation is as more like a call-in program (one in which, of course, you can call them, as well). One of the things I decided to do early on was try to handle things in such a way that it might still work if the students have to keeping an eye on kids or cooking dinner or some other such thing while class is going on. (As far as I can tell, anything like this is in fact rare -- most students make an effort to shed anything that could distract them -- but also sometimes unavoidable.) The obsession with seeing students is, I think, usually counterproductive -- although of course, there are many different particular kinds of activities and situations in which it would in fact make sense to require that videos be on.

But I think there's also a general tendency to focus on peripheral matters; there are better or worse ways to arrange your LMS or your recordings, or breakout groups, or what have you, but I think people often put far too great an emphasis on these things. This is a crutch. In reality, there's the teaching, there's the interaction with the students, and everything else is just one of a million ways you could do things. Losing sight of this is not exclusive to online teaching. The thing nobody wants to admit is that nobody knows how to teach. How could you? All the success of teaching lies entirely in what the student does with it. You can have methods and technologies up to your ears and it is all, at best, a convenience, a way of reducing the time and effort; none of it is actually the teaching. That just happens. Everything else is just there to set things up in a way that you think makes its happening more likely -- and that is a lot of guesswork and hard knocks.

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