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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: ‘Zoomed Out’: Why ‘Live’ Teaching Isn’t Always the Best

This week:

  • Does it seem like you now conduct most aspects of your life on Zoom? I explain how that’s added to experts’ discomfort with videoconferencing as the default mode of remote instruction.
  • Have you found a creative way to engage students online? To cover the pandemic in your course? We’re collecting readers’ stories.
  • I round up some recent Chronicle stories on teaching and learning in this interrupted semester.

**We know things are in flux on many campuses. It’s a stressful time, and we will continue to follow the coronavirus story closely. Please let us know what you think we should be covering along the way. And if you’d like to join our Facebook group for further conversation with people at other colleges, and with Chronicle staff members, you can find it at Higher ed and the coronavirus.**

Very Online

In a recent interview, a professor used an expression I’d never heard before, but I immediately knew what it meant. The expression was “Zoomed out,” and Adriano Udani, an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, was describing the way his students feel about the transition to emergency online teaching.

Zoom, of course, is the videoconferencing program many colleges have made available to professors thrown into the deep end of online instruction. And they’re not the only ones Zooming: In these days of social distancing, Zoom is the new home of everything from preschool circle time to office brainstorming sessions to long-distance happy hours.

Udani’s students are in a master’s of public administration program and often have jobs and families to manage, too, he said. They are taking classes at night. But they really wanted to be taking them in person.

“Having back-to-back classes, staring into your computer, after working a full-time job is a lot,” Udani said.

I immediately thought of Udani’s comments when I saw a tweet from Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University at Vancouver, last week. “You know how wiped you feel after that series of Zoom-call meetings you had today?” he wrote. “Because it's a lot of the energy of face-to-face without many of the psychological rewards of face-to-face? That is your students, too. Consider other ways of communicating.”

When I emailed Caulfield and asked him to elaborate, he wrote back explaining that part of the issue was the way in which many colleges had rolled out their switch to remote instruction.

“This change to online happened not only suddenly, but in a series of waves,” he wrote. “And so initially faculty were looking for something to get them through a couple of weeks, and maybe Zoom was that. But then the situation evolved, and now we're in full course delivery, with multiple issues around stay-at-home orders, community bandwidth, shifting student schedules. And we haven't had time to take a breath and reorganize for that.”

Caulfield pointed me to Tanya Joosten, senior scientist and director of digital learning research and development at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Joosten spoke with me last week, despite being on the mend from Covid-19 (an experience she’s written about in some detail on Twitter in an effort to combat misinformation about the pandemic). Her analysis: Professors flocked to real-time videoconferencing because it feels, at first blush, like the best stand-in for teaching face to face.

But this is not the best way to teach online, says Joosten, who also co-directs the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements.

Joosten sees several problems with relying too heavily on video-conferencing tools like Zoom. First, she says, there are questions about whether these programs will be able to work reliably at this kind of scale. Then there are logistical questions about students’ ability to access this kind of technology or commit to being available at a particular time during the pandemic — which raise concerns about equity. That will be even more of a challenge, Joosten says, as more people get sick.

Another risk: Videoconferencing tools end up encouraging “teacher-centered learning,” Joosten says. While these platforms are meant to facilitate multiway interaction, she says, they effectively collapse into one-way communication after a certain number of people join in.

“You and me and four of our colleagues can jump into a Zoom room — OK,” she says. “Thirty of us jump into a zoom room — how interactive is that?”

So what should professors do instead? Joosten, like other experts, recommends getting down to the essentials — “What do I want them to be able to do by the end of the semester?” — and working backward from there. She thinks the best plan is to put students into small groups — which can interact well on video — and have them work on projects together.

“When you put students in small groups,” she says, “there’s peer learning. They can utilize each other as tech support. It’s just a much better way to go than trying to have these large-group, synchronous, live sessions to replicate the face-to-face.”

Now that many professors have gone from preparing for emergency online instruction to actually doing it, we’re curious: Have you made changes in your original approach? If so, what and why? Email me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and your example may appear in a future newsletter.

Share Your Story

Colleges’ midsemester shift to emergency online instruction presents many challenges for professors and students. How can the most important elements of a face-to-face experience be reconstructed remotely, on the fly? How can professors encourage learning, without increasing students’ anxiety? How can they give every student a fair shot at success? How can students keep track of new course plans on top of everything else that’s changed in recent weeks? How can they maintain connections to their campuses? How can they learn?

Already, we’ve heard the stories of professors who, in the midst of this upheaval, have taken a creative approach to the rest of their course, finding new ways to engage students, for instance, or adjusting their course content to include the pandemic. We’d like to hear yours: tell us here.

ICYMI

The Chronicle continues to follow the toll the coronavirus is taking on higher ed. Read the latest here.

Here are some recent articles on teaching and learning you may have missed:

  • Beth described how professors are scrambling to move their courses online.
  • I wrote about the particular challenges of professors who are also watching — and perhaps teaching — children who’d normally be in school or daycare.
  • Our colleague Julia Schmalz collected professors’ best advice on handling this transition.
  • Our colleague Emma Pettit wrote about faculty members’ fears that their recorded online course sessions could be used against them.
  • I interviewed a professor whose framing principles for the semester have been a hit on social media.
  • Flower Darby, a senior instructional designer at Northern Arizona University and director of its Teaching for Student Success program, offered her advice on how to recover the joy of teaching after transitioning your courses.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us: dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.