How will the successes and failures of your online pivot change the way you teach?
The year 2020 was awful for so many in academe, so I refuse to talk about the “silver linings” of Covid-19. That framing insults those who have struggled or lost loved ones. As educators, however, many of us have learned some valuable lessons from our foray into online teaching, and I hope that when things return to “normal” — summer 2021 at the earliest at my institution — we will apply those lessons to our in-person classrooms. Personally, I plan to continue recording and posting all of my lectures.
In my field of ecology, large-scale, controlled experiments are often infeasible, so we sometimes rely on “natural experiments” — that is, the occurrence of certain events, like wildfires, that allow us to study their effects observationally. My natural experiment with recording my lectures actually began just before the pandemic but turned out to be very helpful afterward in shifting my courses to a virtual classroom.
I teach a large, second-year forestry course that usually has about 180 students. As the January 2020 term was about to begin, I received the typical flurry of student emails about scheduling conflicts, but one of them stood out: A student had spent the semester break in her home country but was unable to return to Canada (where I teach) due to visa trouble, and she would miss three to five weeks of class.
Had it only been a few lectures, I would have suggested she get notes from a friend and visit my office hours to fill in the gaps. However, she would be missing fully a third of my course, which was just one of the five courses she would need to catch up on. I clearly needed to step up in order to give her a reasonable chance of success. I decided to record my in-person lectures. I recorded them using screen-capture software on my laptop, and I used a decent external microphone to pick up my voice. I move around the lecture hall as I teach, so the sound wasn’t great, but it was sufficient.
At first, I posted the videos privately, just for her. I’ve always shared my PowerPoint slides with students and occasionally recorded a lecture when I had to cancel class. I’d never given serious consideration to recording all of my lectures for students because I assumed that, if I did, attendance would plummet. My in-class interactions with students are an important part of my teaching, and I didn’t want to lose that if too many students decided that they could just skip class and watch the video.
But last January, after a week or so of recording lectures, it dawned on me: This was a lot of effort for a single student. And maybe other students could benefit from the videos without hurting the in-class component of my teaching.
I explained the situation to the class: “I’ll make a deal with you. I’m going to start posting these lecture recordings in case you miss an occasional class or need to review. Passively watching a recording is not as good as being an active participant in class, so these videos are a supplement, not a substitute. I’ll keep posting the videos as long as you keep coming to class.”
The results surprised me:
- Students kept coming to class. Because I use clicker review questions in each lecture, I had a good idea of regular attendance. It was effectively unchanged after I started sharing the videos.
- Students watched the videos much more than I expected. I figured that those students who rarely attended lectures wouldn’t bother to watch the videos, and when attendance didn’t drop, I assumed that maybe a handful of students were watching the videos. I was shocked by what the video analytics showed: Prior to the Covid-19 pivot, my video lectures averaged 62 views by 31 unique viewers, in a class of 180 students. Those viewers watched 71 percent of each lecture, on average. Students were using the videos to review and study lectures that they had also attended in person.
- I also heard from English-language learners that they appreciated the opportunity to rewatch lectures with the ability to pause and rewind when they encountered unfamiliar vocabulary.
(I had hoped to survey the students to glean more insights about their video use, but after our shift to a virtual classroom, I didn’t want to burden them with additional work.)
That level of video viewing was more than enough to justify the extra effort on my part, and there were some smaller unexpected benefits, too. One student missed a number of lectures due to a family tragedy. As she transitioned back into her studies, she said she really appreciated having recordings of the lectures she’d missed. On a practical level, when my TAs and I were grading the first midterm, some students had missed a bit of nuance in one of their answers. I was afraid I might not have adequately explained the topic, and I didn’t want to unfairly penalize students. I was able to go back to the lecture recording and confirm that I had explained it as intended.
Recording and sharing my in-person lectures was a small change in my teaching, but just a few weeks of it convinced me to make the practice permanent. Soon after, the Covid-19 pivot necessitated tremendous changes to my teaching as I adapted to a different medium of delivery and personal challenges, like the loss of child care.
Those adaptations, large and small, have given me insights into a variety of new approaches and technologies. Some have been very effective, like recording 360-degree virtual-reality videos in the field to give my students the sensation of being in the forest with me. Another good example is a nature-journal assignment developed by my colleague Jeanine Rhemtulla for her “Introduction to Conservation” course. She asked students to pick a “nature” spot available to them — the local park, the backyard, or even the houseplants and view out the window for a student under lockdown — and revisit it several times over the semester, reflecting on a different prompt each time. At term’s end, students proudly shared a virtual tour of their nature spot with their classmates.
Of course I’ve had my share of online-teaching failures, too, such as last-minute technical glitches and synchronous activities that didn’t engage students. At times, I seriously overestimated the amount of work that students would be able to complete during such trying times.
But both the successes and the failures are ideas, insights, and experiences I wouldn’t have had without the pivot. As many of us continue to teach online, at least partially, now is the time to ask ourselves how we will use these newfound skills and experiences to improve our teaching once we return to the classroom:
- Will you make increased use of discussion boards to let introverted students engage without speaking in front of the whole class?
- Will you have an informal place on your course website for students to meet virtually to study, or just to share memes and pictures of their pets?
- Will you revise your assessments to de-emphasize high-stakes exams?
- Will you allow students to attend your office hours virtually?
- Will you excuse absences and grant extensions without asking for documentation?
- Will you tell your students to stay home when they’re sick?
- Will you keep recording your lectures?
There is little I look forward to more than once again standing in a classroom — or a forest — together with my students. In higher education, this year has been an unthinkable challenge for students, faculty members, and staff members alike. There are no silver linings here, but when we come out the other side, we can take what we’ve learned to make our classes and teaching more effective, engaging, and compassionate.
(This essay was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on January 22, 2021.)