This week:

  • I share one reader’s story about online-teaching struggles.
  • I ask you if you have faced challenges with flipped learning among students who work.
  • Tell us what you’re doing this summer to rest and recharge.
  • I point you to stories and other articles about teaching you may have missed.

Online, Every Student Is Not in the Front Row

Deborah Beck prides herself on running an engaging classroom. Her “Introduction to Classical Mythology” course at the University of Texas at Austin draws mostly first- and second-year students, many of whom are there to satisfy a requirement in ethics, global culture, or the arts.

Her teaching, she says, depends in part on being able to read the room so that she can model the kinds of learning she’d like her students to do. That means creating space for her students — and herself — to mess up and learn from their mistakes. It also means talking about ancient myths in ways that tie into modern-day ethical dilemmas. Those kinds of nuanced discussions are a big lift in any setting, but, Beck found, particularly difficult online.

What happens when you have a record-setting 200 students, as Beck, an associate professor in the Department of Classics, did this past spring, and only two teaching assistants? How do you adjust when your students are distracted and struggling because of Covid and a massive Texas ice storm that left millions without power?

What do you do when breakout-room technology doesn’t work the way it is supposed to, for several weeks in a row? And how do you engage students who are mostly black squares on a screen?

“Every student is absolutely not in the front row of my class, whatsoever,” Beck says.

That comment was in reaction to something I wrote a couple weeks earlier, when I profiled Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard who had become an enthusiastic convert to online teaching. His classes were more intimate, the conversations more sustained, the work stronger, and the students more satisfied, he told me. “When you teach online, every single student is sitting in the front row. There is a connection I never had with students before.”

Turns out, my story should have come with a trigger warning.

Beck reached out after reading the piece to point out that an experience like Mazur’s depends a great deal on resources and privilege. Many faculty members are teaching heavy course loads, have high service requirements, or are adjuncts, making it impossible to devote as much time as he did to developing and running his course. They may have few or no teaching assistants and many students who struggle with spotty technology, making it nearly impossible to have meaningful discussions in Zoom rooms.

Beck counts herself as one of the more fortunate ones. She is tenured and was only teaching one course in the spring, thanks to extra time she was given to work on a book (which she fell behind on because of the demands of this course). Yet she often felt stymied throughout the semester.

“I’m proud of the community we created and the learning we fostered,” she says. “But it was at least twice as much work with the same result that I get in an in-person classroom. And it was not better work, it was just work.”

Beck and I talked about what she learned about teaching online during a pandemic. Here are a few takeaways.

Creating an online course takes an extraordinary amount of work. Beck spent over 270 hours on this one course, according to Canvas analytics. That doesn’t include more than 50 hours creating videos, searching for online resources for students, answering emails, and so on.

In large online classes, there is limited time to engage with small groups of students. With 20 to 22 breakout rooms in each class, Beck found that she and her two teaching assistants were only able to quickly check each room to make sure everything was working properly. Occasionally, for example, they would find just one student because the rest of the group didn’t show up. Otherwise, they engaged with students by monitoring their work on shared Google Docs and commenting as needed.

Students’ feelings really varied about the course discussions, too, she said. Some loved their Zoom groups; others sat largely in silence. “That’s the thing I would have been able to smooth out if I could visit each group,” she says. “It was not possible for me to even know.”

Meaningful interaction is difficult. Though her course is large, Beck estimates she gets to know about a quarter of her students well when she teaches in person. This time around, her ability to form any kind of connection was much weaker. With students filling up to five pages of the Zoom grid, and the vast majority keeping their cameras off, Beck talked mostly into the void. “Twenty percent are on the front Zoom screen,” she says. “The rest, you’re never going to see them.”

Beck says her students also couldn’t benefit as much from learning through whole-class interaction because she was unable to read the room. Typically she fosters discussion in part by gauging students’ reactions, something she only got a loose handle on from the Zoom chat function.

Students’ ability to learn was significantly diminished, even with a modified course. By the end of the fall term, Beck says, it became apparent that students were burned out. So she cut the syllabus for this class by more than 50 percent. She also revamped the course structure to create more of a weekly routine and increased the emphasis on lower-stakes assignments, on the idea that these changes would help counteract the stresses of learning online in a pandemic.

Even so, students were overwhelmed. They found short-answer writing more challenging, for example, and the basic mechanics of good writing, such as having a main idea, remained a struggle. She also learned that students hated the weekly quizzes. “Breaking up higher-stakes exams into lower stakes wasn’t worth it,” she says, “because it was still stressful, and the benefits didn’t outweigh the costs.”

She also felt the absence of physical connection. In a face-to-face class, Beck says she is able to build a sense that we’re all in this together, which helps motivate students. But she couldn’t quite pull it off online.

That was especially true, Beck found, in a time of crisis, when their parents lost jobs, their siblings got sick, and their homes lost power. “That was the defining feature of the semester to me: how deep the losses, the stresses, the sadness was for my students,” she says.

She will continue to use online tools but doesn’t think online teaching works for her. The pandemic is likely to recede in the fall, and Beck is ambivalent about teaching online again. She likes the Zoom chat function and other tools, like daily discussion boards, but a fully online class seems unlikely to provide what she needs.

“The relational infrastructure of the classroom is so fundamental to the teaching I do that the good things about teaching online are not sufficient to compensate for losing that,” she says.

“My anecdotal sense is that people tend to use online for things they don’t care about that much, or cannot do any other way. But the things they are genuinely excited about doing, they tend to do in person. I tend to agree with that.”

Does Flipped Learning Work When Students Are Working?

Another reader, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote in to say that flipped learning, in which students do a lot of reading and other work outside of class, as Eric Mazur’s students do, is a real problem for students who hold down jobs.

“Our students take four courses per semester, and that would be 40 hours of work per week based on Eric’s calculations,” the reader wrote. “However, many of our students work 20 to 40 hours a week at jobs. I had to give up teaching a flipped classroom because students didn’t have the time to do the outside work.”

Group work outside of the classroom is equally hard, he noted, because of these other demands on students’ time. The reader added that when he taught a more affluent student body, flipped learning worked better than the traditional lecture.

That made me wonder. Have you struggled with flipped learning when a lot of your students hold down jobs? Have you figured out a way around this problem? If so, write to me at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

What Are You Doing This Summer?

We get it. You’re burned out. You don’t want to read, write, talk, or even think about remote teaching right now. You survived the past 15 months, and you need a break.

So, what will be you doing over the next few weeks before you dive into fall planning? Beckie and I want to know.

Here’s the idea: Tell us in this Google form what you’ll be doing. Maybe it’s rafting along the Rio Grande. Or diving into some scholarship you had put on hold. Or maybe you’re just going to spend a lot of time with friends and family.

Share your plans with us, and we’ll share them with other readers, on the idea that it might inspire all of us to step away from what’s been consuming us for so long, and refresh and recharge. We look forward to hearing from you!

ICYMI

  • In our post-Covid personnel landscape, one-size-fits-all tenure and promotion policies are destined to fall short, writes Kevin Gannon in this Chronicle advice piece.
  • In this Washington Post essay, John Duffy, an English professor at the University of Notre Dame, explains why he teaches the “1619 Project” to students, despite its flaws.
  • Engineering has a diversity problem. In a recent Race on Campus newsletter, our colleague Vimal Patel talks to one expert on how colleges can help.

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

— Beth

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