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29 Jun 2020

Semester post-mortem – Classes ended this semester for me the Thursday before last, but it was only today that I finally finished all of my grading and entered those grades into the system (and then almost immediately fielded questions from a couple of students who got lower grades than they thought they would). It is going to be a busy summer, so there’s not really much in the way of respite, but I thought I would take this opportunity to give my thoughts on the experience of teaching online, now that the semester is in the rear-view mirror.

“...at least I know that I can do this—well, not only that I can do this, but that I can do it fairly well.”

As I said earlier in the semester, I did eventually get my feet under me and adapt to the new teaching environment. Classes remained a challenge right up to the end, but they were a challenge I felt more and more confident in taking on. Several of the students in my undergrad class told me how much they enjoyed it, which was good to hear but also a little heartbreaking for me—because I know what they missed by not being able to have the class in person. Whenever I started to feel put upon for having to do online classes, I just thought about what my students had to deal with this semester, especially those students who came to Korea from abroad. From what I can tell, most of them made the best of a bad situation, but I still am sorry that they could not have the experience they were hoping for.

At any rate, even though the semester just ended, I’m already looking ahead. July is just around the corner, the summer will fly by, and then we will be into next semester. Will we be continuing classes online in the second semester? We have received no official guidance on that yet, but the summer session will be online, and I have heard of other universities already announcing that the fall semester will be online. At this point I am pretty much resigned to another semester (at least) of online classes. If it turns out that we are able to have in-person classes, I will be elated, but I am certainly not counting on it.

So, what have I learned from this semester that I will be applying to next semester? Well, for one, I know that online synchronous classes are not only possible, they are not as bad as I feared they might be. Granted, they do not hold a candle to in-person classes, but I believe they were my best option. I did have other options, after all. I could have prerecorded lectures for students to watch later, or I could have conducted class primarily through handouts, readings, assignments, and feedback using email or a message board. And, of course, we had the option to combine a number of these methods; while I conducted my classes synchronously, I also made use of asynchronous activities, such as brief essays instead of quizzes (in fact, I had no testing-style evaluation at all this semester). I also made much more use of our online class system. Prior to this semester, I only used the system for posting readings, class announcements, and other materials. This semester, though, I created a number of new boards for various purposes and took advantage of the online assignment submission system, which I have to admit is a lot easier than having students submit all their assignments via email. If nothing else, this semester has shown me how useful a tool the system can be, and I will continue to make use of it even after we go back to in-person classes.

There were other advantages to the situation as well, although it might be better to call them “silver linings” as opposed to “advantages.” One of my colleagues mentioned halfway through the semester that he was seeing an uptick in attendance. I hadn’t really thought about it, but when I looked at my attendance sheets I realized that attendance did look somewhat better than normal. There were a few students who had poor attendance, but I think that is going to happen no matter what. I suspect that the relative ease of attending an online class—as opposed to having to drag yourself to an actual classroom—might have improved attendance overall. I don’t have any hard statistics for that impression, though, as I have not compared attendance this semester with previous semesters. I had another pleasant surprise last weekend, though, when the final essays for my undergraduate class were due: For the first time ever, all of the students submitted their final essays on the day that they were due. True, a few were a few hours late, but I have never had a semester where I didn’t end up with at least one student failing to submit their essay on time for one reason or another. I have no idea if this has anything to do with the class being online, and it doesn’t seem like it would, but I’ll take what I can get.

As for the downsides of the online classes, well, we already know those. My biggest problem was the downgrade in interaction with students. I ended up with 48 students in my undergrad class, and I honestly would probably not be able to pick at least half of them out of a lineup. This is partly due to the fact that many of the students were either not able to or unwilling to turn on their video. I probably could have forced the matter by requiring students to have their video on (I spoke with a student today who told me that this was the case in some of her other classes), but I was reluctant to make students uncomfortable. I did encourage them to turn on their video, but to be honest it never occurred to me to demand that they do this. And the truth is that even if all of the students had turned on their video, and even if I had used ZOOM’s “gallery” display (which gives you a Hollywood-Squares-on-steroids display of 25 video tiles), I would not have been able to fit them all on one screen. Ultimately, there are limits to the interactivity of a class when you have 48 students in an online setting.

Even in a typical, in-person semester, though, I generally end up knowing about a quarter of the students very well, half of the students somewhat, and the remaining quarter not at all. I get to know the students who choose to participate in class the most, and that didn’t change this semester. In fact, I think I might have had more participation than normal, simply because students were more comfortable with typing something in chat than they would have been with raising their hand to say something in class. I will admit that this was something of an adjustment for me, and it did make me feel like a streamer at times (as I often joked about during class), but in the end it wasn’t that bad. I was afraid that it would be too distracting, and that I would find it difficult to concentrate on the class with things popping up in chat constantly. I’m not going to say that there weren’t times that it didn’t get a little hectic, but I got used to it and learned to navigate this new rhythm. I also tried to remember that, for better or for worse, the students were engaged with the class, even if that engagement sometimes came in the form of an occasional joke. And I can’t really blame the students for that anyway, since I joke a lot in class to begin with; they were really just following my lead. But most of the interaction was of a more earnest nature, and I learned to be OK with students having little side conversations in class—as long as it was related to what we were discussing, of course. I even got good at incorporating things from chat into the class, sometimes heading off in unplanned directions if that was where it seemed the students wanted to go.

So, while I would certainly be happy to go back to in-person classes next semester, and I’m not really looking forward to more online classes, at least I know that I can do this—well, not only that I can do this, but that I can do it fairly well. I know more about the tools at my disposal, I know more about the technical aspects of conducting a class online, and I know more about interacting with students in this new digital environment. I’m still dreaming of a virtual classroom à la Ready Player One, but that is unfortunately still a long way off. In the meantime, I will try to make the best of the situation, and I will try to create a learning environment for the students that will hopefully add some value to their education.

Send me your thoughts.

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