The Covid-19 lockdown didn’t have a disruptive impact on my teaching; it was transformative. I felt more than prepared and confident. I have been teaching online courses, using learning management systems and videoconferencing, at the college level for about ten years. I also taught New York State teachers in a Masters of Instructional Technology program for 8 of those ten years.
Online learning provides access to students who can not go to campus, and it can be a very effective way to teach when face-to-face settings are not possible. Online or virtual learning is not better or a replacement for in-person learning. It is a new alternative for students and teachers that requires independence, self-discipline, comfort with technology, and imagination. If you’ve had an inexperienced instructor or your expectations for being in person are not shifted, you will be very disappointed in a virtual classroom.
Like many educators, I miss being in the classroom with my students. I miss using direct observation as part of my assessment toolkit. I was surprised this semester when the vast majority of my undergraduates in a freshman Foundations of Inquiry course chose not to turn their cameras on during class when they realized I didn’t insist on it. Although I was unwilling to compel students to turn on the cameras, I wanted to re-create a real-time feedback mechanism to guide instruction. I could not get a sense of connection in virtual classrooms with 26-28 students. Interacting with 2 or 3 students didn’t feel like not enough. So after the midterm assessment, I decided to make some changes.
The undergraduate Foundations of Inquiry classes that I currently teach require students to choose a topic to research and design a project. The project can be a research paper or some other presentation demonstrating some research and applied course concepts. The midterm is an open book assessment where students demonstrate how well they can provide detailed answers about their topic and the course concepts. My feedback on the midterms highlights the strengths and weaknesses and poses additional questions. I realized I felt better about how things were going after having been in dialogue with students through reading the midterms and providing the written online comments. I wanted this dialogue to happen in real-time, and the conditions in our virtual classroom didn’t seem to be conducive to that type of interaction.
I look at teaching as a social, emotional, and cognitive activity that creates new learning possibilities. I use performance-based strategies such as improvisation, imaginative play, and technology in my approach to teaching. I was searching for a different model of interaction. I realized that talk radio and podcast hosts constantly work to connect with listeners without having direct feedback, so I decided to turn our virtual classroom into a performance of a call-in radio show. I turned my lecture into a performance of an opening monologue and abandoned my slideshow. Before starting each show, I invited students to talk about their projects as my guests on the radio show. I asked students that I knew had well-developed projects. I made my guests look good by drawing them into conversations about what they discovered in their project work. In written reflections at the end of the semester, guests reported that being on the show helped them see their projects from different angles and recognize that more work was needed.
During the interviews, I connected with the students. I could guide students toward aspects of their projects that might be of interest to listeners. A critical difference in the performance of a radio interview with students from traditional instruction is I’m not trying to expose shortcomings. However, if that happens, my goal is to guide the student out of the “you should know this” trap into a research activity (asking questions) focused on learning more about an area of interest. My students became co-creators of course content and participants in an ensemble that creates a radio show with their projects and interests. Student projects included digital magazine articles posted on social media, a podcast, and traditional short research papers.
The end-of-semester feedback from the students about “the show” was positive. The written assessments revealed that even though listeners were silent, they were engaged. In addition, many students reported that the words and projects of other students helped them think about their projects. The radio show wasn’t the only activity that students participated in; there were also team projects where students had opportunities during class time to work together in breakout rooms. By the end of the semester, we had done enough to develop a sense of connection in the classroom. I joked that when we returned to the campus, they should stop by my office, i wouldn’t recognize them, but I would remember their names. Next fall, when we return to the classrooms, I’ll do the live studio audience version of the show and maybe a daytime talk show panel. There’s no reason not to try new performances and approaches to interaction in face-to-face settings.