Pandemic lessons from online teaching

What I learned from teaching online during a pandemic

I moved to NYC a couple of months ago and I have been meeting new people through friends and events. When they ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I’m a professor, their reaction usually goes something like this: oh…and how was teaching online? terrible right? To which I respond: well… not that bad.

During my master’s in Indiana, I got curious about online teaching and I completed a certificate on how to do it. Back then, few people had online teaching training, and departments (or at least language departments) were eager to start offering online classes. Hence, I immediately started teaching classes online. Training on how to teach online obviously helps, especially if you are not technologically inclined. But being forced to teach all my classes online was something new and unexpected.

Thinking about this past year, it’s hard for me to compare whether they are learning the same as if we had met face to faces because it is the first time I’m teaching this class (interpreting). My colleague tells me she thinks they are learning way less than in face-to-face courses. I am pretty confident that this is because of a combination of factors not necessarily related to the online mode. First, students did not choose to take an online course, they were forced into it. Online teaching, especially the asynchronous mode, requires a type of self-discipline that not every student is ready for. Second, professors were also forced to teach online. Many were not trained and did not trust that it was possible to do it online. If you are a professor, I’m sure you’ve discussed in faculty meetings how to prevent cheating, which mode works or doesn’t work, etc. If you do not believe in what you are doing, chances are the result won’t be great. And third, we were all in crisis mode. Millions of people were dying all around the world and we were all focused on making sure we and our loved ones were safe. In summary, not the ideal environment for learning.

After having received the evaluations for both semesters, I see some patterns about what is working and what needs to be improved. Lets' start with the good stuff.

  • They like seeing you

If your course is asynchronous, they like seeing you in videos. Most of the positive comments I got mentioned how helpful the videos were. What’s in my videos? Nothing fancy. I typically record two per week. One explaining what they have to submit that week (forums, readings, videos, group activities, between 2 and 5 min). And another one explaining the “theory” of the week (never over 15 min). I usually present with a PowerPoint and keeping myself on the screen (small in the corner). I record them using zoom and keep them in the cloud, that way I just share the link and I don’t have to deal with large files. Here you have a typical comment from my students regarding this structure:

“It’s really nice having the personalized videos at the beginning of each week as well as the outside resources to help us better understand certain concepts”

  • They like seeing you synchronously

I think asynchronous courses should have a synchronous component, which could take many forms. It could be a 5 min meeting one-on-one a couple of times during the semester, a 15 min meeting with a group of 4/5 students every few weeks, or an optional weekly 30 min session. I tried different iterations of the latter. First, it was like open office hours, they would come with questions. I noticed that it became like a mini therapy session for them to vent their frustrations. I liked getting to know them, but I don’t think it was very efficient. Then, I tried going over the feedback from the previous week. I would review a selection of whatever they had to submit the week before, take some notes, and discuss my comments with them. I think this worked better. I recorded these live sessions so students that couldn’t come would be able to get the feedback as well. My only concern is how many of them actually watched the feedback videos. Finally, I tried “doing the work” during these optional sessions. In my case, it was simultaneous interpreting. We had a few technological challenges with this one. But I do see the potential for this option going forward. It would be the closest to whatever you do in your classes. I was teaching two sections of one course (32 students in total) and between 3 and 9 students would show up (usually the same group).

  • Creating opportunities for them to interact spontaneously

I created a slack channel for the course to allow them to make questions in a more direct way than email and to find a group for group projects. I also used it as a way to send them news or videos that I find interesting and are related to the content of the course. A couple of months into the semester, I found out the slack channel was sometimes making my life easier because they would answer each others' questions. One student asks a question in the channel (instead of emailing me) and a few others chime in with the answer. I just send them a thumbs up if the answer is correct (a lot faster than having to individually answer to multiple students who had the same question) or intervene and clarify if I see they didn’t get it right. This was cool, but I didn’t think it was anything revolutionary, there wasn’t too much action going on in the channel. Then, I found out they had created separate group chats (that I couldn’t see) and they were communicating with each other. I only found out about this during the optional live sessions and office hours. Some of them told me that their group had been of great help during difficult weeks, sending each other encouragement messages 🤯.

Like in everything, there’s always room for improvement.

  • Feedback

My biggest challenge was, without a doubt, providing individual feedback. Every week, my students had to complete an average of five videos (interpreting between English and Spanish) and a discussion forum (usually related to a reading assignment). Five videos of around 5 min each, multiplied by 32 students, sums up to over 13 hours of videos every week. Watching and providing feedback on 13 hours of videos every week is impossible. I tried watching around 10 videos per week and rotating who I give feedback to every week. The problem is that they don’t always complete the videos on time and end up not getting feedback. Also, I think the platform (we use GoReact) doesn’t notify them when they get a comment, so I fear they sometimes don’t see (or rather listen to, I leave a voice message) my feedback. For other assignments, I give completion points, if they completed the activity (similar to participation points in face-to-face classes), they get the points. If you have ideas about this, send help! 🆘

  • Group assignments

Next semester (or rather, this summer), I’ll spend some time thinking about how to improve group synchronous assignments. The first time I implemented synchronous group assignments in an online class (back in 2014, when few people knew Zoom and I had to start by teaching them how to use it), it was the highlight of the course. Both for the students, who loved getting to know each other, and for me, because I got to see their progress. I would tell them they had to talk for 5 min (this was a beginner Spanish course) and, to my surprise, they would send me 20 min videos. They sometimes would complete the assignment, but then kept going by sharing doubts, or just chitchatting (in Spanish!). Ensuring this type of connection will be a key point when preparing for my next online course.

Putting all these ideas together made me realize that it is all about human connection. What distinguishes online teaching (for credit) from MOOCs (massive open online courses) is the presence of the instructor. There is something about being in the same room with someone that cannot be reproduced online. For this reason, carefully thinking about how you are going to be present in the course is key to ensuring the best possible learning experience. For many students, doing an online course feels like homework. If all they have to do is complete assignments on their own, it’s like taking a class that is exclusively made up of homework. It doesn’t sound like a fun class to take.

I am very curious about your online teaching experiences. How did this past year go for you? What were your main issues? Did something work particularly well? Let me know!

Cristina Lozano Argüelles
Cristina Lozano Argüelles
Assistant Professor

My research interests include bilingualism, second language acquisition, interpreting.

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