Online classes are not campus classes plus webcams

In the last few days, I’ve been to a lot of meetings and participated in a lot of online discourse about moving face-to-face classes online. If I could convince my peers and colleagues of one thing, it’s this: an online version of your class should not try to imitate a face-to-face version of the same class. Use the medium for what it’s good at.

I used to teach a lot of online classes at a previous institution. Much of the time, I was teaching a campus and online version of the same course, at the same time, and roughly at the same pace. While the concepts and outcomes were the same, the methods and assessments were different.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • If you have a class with a lot of 50- to 75-minute lectures, maybe you don’t really need to replicate this same thing. You’d be surprised at how short you can make a tightly scripted video[1] that covers the same material. You don’t need to slow down or repeat yourself as much if students can pause, cross-reference, and rewatch. Perhaps even better, you might use a pre-existing video and focus your time and energy on another area of the course. For my music theory colleagues, I highly recommend Seth Monahan’s excellent YouTube channel.
  • If you have discussions, these can be even harder to manage in online videoconferences than they are in person. Even with video, the visual cues that a person is winding down or ready to jump in aren’t as apparent. Consider a text-chat platform like Slack that can allow realtime conversation that is threaded. If the face-to-face experience is important to you, consider ways to make the discussion group smaller. Perhaps divide the class in two and have the same discussion twice (maybe half as often or half as long) so that each person can contribute more. Or maybe have the discussions run concurrently (Zoom breakout rooms). It’s possible that your students could have an thoughtful, salient, and rigorous discussion without your calming, Socratic presence.
  • Consider assignments. Focus on your outcomes. What skills and content are you imparting. Maybe your students need more and smaller assignments when they’re working on their own. Maybe they need larger, scaffolded assignments. If you’re worried about academic honesty when all assignments are digital and instantly, infinitely copyable, consider making your assignments more open-ended and creative. Instead of dictating a melody, write a melody for another student to dictate. Instead analyzing a phrase of music, find a repertoire example that expresses the theoretical model. These kinds of assignments require students to think independently in a way that corresponds to the independence of a remote learning environment. When you are trying these new kinds of assignments, be very clear about what you’re asking students to do. In your campus class, you probably spend a couple of minutes talking through a homework assignment before students go off to work on it. You might be surprised at how much direction your students take from those few sentences. For remote classes, expectation clarity is something you might have to work harder at than you’re used to. As a very small example, I end almost every assignment I give on Blackboard with a “Deliverables” heading in which I list exactly what files I expect students to submit and in what formats, and I think it helps a lot.
  • Keep in touch. Your campus students are used to seeing you around. You might say hello or hear them perform. You might see them at lunch. The worst part of my remote teaching experience was the way it dehumanizes us. We forget that the person sending these emails and posting these files is a person. Post regular updates with your face and voice just to say hello and be a person. It’s easier for us in this transition since already know one another face-to-face, so that might make it easier to keep up. Anytime you’re on the phone or sending an email or posting an announcement or writing grade feedback, remember that the person writing it is a person, not an anonymous computer file, and encourage your students to do the same. I’m not saying you need to become the Cool Parent type of professor (unless that’s your thing). Just be a person and give your students space to do the same. Opportunities for doing this are built-in to the campus experience, but you might have to go out of your way a bit more to bring it to your remote class.

Teaching remotely can be just as fun, rewarding, student-centered, and rigorous as teaching face-to-face. We still need to keep in mind (myself as much as anyone) that these are different things. Some things that work great in one format won’t work at all in another and vice versa. Use each instrument for what it’s best at. Don’t try to play the viola like it’s a clarinet.

  1. I know it might sound like more work, but a good plan and a good script will save you time in the long run, especially where captioning is concerned. Upload your video to YouTube, paste in the script, and you will have a much more accessible lesson. This avoids the pitfals of YouTube’s autocaptioner and the tedium of correcting it.  ↩