Once or twice a year, we're supposed to go to the dentist. Once a year, we need to pay taxes, get our flu shots, clean off the desk in our office. The level of anticipation with which I became an online instructor was similar to these rites. Perhaps this was due to my limited experience as a (poor) online student.
One of my courses in undergrad, "Art, Pornography, Blasphemy, Propaganda", offered online lecture recordings for anyone who couldn't attend in person. Even in such a titillating subject, which was engrossing in person, online lectures hit me like the sad trombone of a Charlie Brown instructor. In graduate school, with a bit more scholastic maturity, I did pursue a handful of online seminars in teaching offered by the fantastic Center for Research in Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan. And? More sad trombone noises. By the time Covid-19 was first replicating in China, I was 100% anti-online learning and hoped never to hear the words "online degree" ever again.
Well, with the hindsight of 2020, we can all see how that passionate dislike worked out for instructors like me. I was unprepared, daunted, and hoisted on my own metaphorical petard. But I am also stubborn and I care about my students. More than anything, I want to inspire my students with new ways of looking at the world. This was in some ways an End Boss to the first phase of my pedagogy quest.
I took online teaching seminars from the Elbogen Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wyoming. I read all that I could find on different blogs and online outlets, like Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. I talked to my faculty colleagues in formal and informal settings about their approaches to online teaching. During my first year review, one of my colleagues asked me why I was spending so much time on something that, pending a return to "normal", I might never use again.
In fact, I have learned a lot that is useful beyond the online space. I have learned how to teach a hyflex online/in person course. I have learned how to deliver lectures, assignments, quizzes, and even exams online. This has also given me an opportunity to reflect on what aspects of traditional in person courses are important and how they can be improved.
I may never give a traditional lecture. I have always enjoyed including active elements in my larger courses, like Think-Pair-Shares and classroom polls. With the transition to online, I had read that students' attention span for online content tops out at about 6 minutes. Six. Minutes. For my large Intro to Archaeology course, I began to give 15-20 minute "lightning lectures". These are fast paced and allow students to rewatch the lecture and look at the slides as many times as they like. While I don't think a 50 minute lecture is too much for students in person, I know have the content core that I can design active learning opportunities around in my next in person iteration of this course.
Quizzes and Exams
Two words: open book. We are teaching students how to learn, how to think, and how to ask questions. Why wouldn't we encourage them to learn how to research? Do I have a rotating rolodex of memorized citations in my head of every publication on the subject of archaeology since 1850? No. I have the library, my Zotero bibliographies, and GoogleScholar. Why wouldn't I teach my students how to be better researchers by offering them the opportunity to apply this skill on exams?
I arrived at this strategy as a solution to ethical issues associated with using Respondus or LockDown software to keep students from cheating. I don't want to be the police. I want to be an educator. Students are still time-limited on my exams and my questions are a little more creative to elicit good critical thinking (and not just Ctrl-F). My quizzes give students two tries, without revealing what they got incorrect, to provide an opportunity for safe failures. I will certainly bring these reading quizzes into my future teaching.
I have always tried to get to know my students and accommodate students who come to me for help. As an online instructor, this has become more challenging but also more urgent. Students don't need to find my office to see me, but they do need to remember what day and time it is, which can be challenging in a fluid online learning environment. I'm also less approachable as a head in a Zoom square. I have tried to become even more available through Canvas messages and email to make up for the distance that online education artificially causes.
Students tend to be scared of their instructors. It's my job to show them that there is no imaginary barrier between us. That, indeed, their presence on campus (and yes, tuition dollars) entitle them to conversations with me and to my understanding when things in their life take unexpected turns. It is harder to do this online. That has only prepared me to be that much better next semester.
Bree is an Alaskan Archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming.