Future Tense

Professors, Don’t Be Scared. Teaching Online Is Great.

A man at a table in front of a laptop
NESA by Makers/Unsplash

When I was invited to teach an online reporting class for New York University’s online master’s in journalism program last fall, I had a few concerns. Though I’d taught in university classrooms before, I had no experience teaching online. This was the cornerstone class for a new, online-only program with 21 students logging in live from all over the world for three hours at a time. How would I connect with them, lead class discussion, and facilitate collaboration? How would I handle office hours without an office?

I’ve been thinking about that experience as a number of universities—the University of Washington, the University of Southern California, Harvard, Ohio State, and many more—have announced that they will be moving to online instruction to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Across the country, instructors who, like me, struggle with turning on the class projector will need to jump in and quickly master the much-needed skill of online teaching.

Twitter is full of critics as classes move online.  As one tweeted: “These teachers really think these online classes gonna work? Half the time they not even tech savvy enough to log into their gmails.”

But teaching online wasn’t that different from the classroom experience I was accustomed to. It was often more fun than standing at a lectern working through a well-worn set of PowerPoint slides. The trick was making it as personal as possible and accepting that sometimes, the technology fails and you figure it out. In fact, instructors should look at this as valuable practice: Even without a communicable disease making the rounds, the online college experience is likely to become more common with lower overhead for universities and greater flexibility for students.

My class included students across the U.S. with a few international students including one who dialed in from India, sipping her morning coffee as I drank a diet soda. In the first class, a student from the Bahamas was logging in just days after Hurricane Dorian had ravaged the islands. Once, as part of her weekly pyrrhic quest for decent Wi-Fi, she joined us from the parking lot of a Dunkin Donuts. While students whose lives get in the way often struggle with in-person classes, the online nature allowed for flexibility. Another student lost his work visa on a trip home and continued the class from Canada.

I had worried that teaching online would get in the way of the classroom camaraderie that is so important for projects and discussion. But as the weeks wore on, the students got to know one another, perhaps better than if they simply filed in for class and left. As one student observed, in his regular classes, he was usually just staring at a lot of “backs of heads.”

Despite my initial concerns, I found the experience to be invigorating. Instead of the usual exhaustion after an eight-hour workday and a three-hour class, I was energized. Even the challenges ended up being rewarding. For instance, it was initially tough with introverted students—we didn’t have eye contact or opportunities for them to walk up to talk to me after class. So I looked for ways to connect with all of the students on personal level—and it paid off. One student who was not feeling connection early in class wrote me a note to say she appreciated the one-on-one attention and encouragement she received from me in a breakout room. (More on those in a minute.) From then on, she spoke more in class—maybe even more than she would have in an in-person course.

An odd feature on online communication is the number of exclamation points required to relay a simple message: “Nice work! Can’t wait to see the final version!” All those exclamation points paid off, and after the class, more students stayed in touch with me than usual, and one even sent a charming holiday card—in the mail.

I ran the class from a laptop in a conference room at the Atlantic in D.C., where I worked at the time, and sometimes from my second bedroom, a less attractive option given my dog’s habit of barking insistently during conference calls. (A peanut butter–filled bone and two doors between us helped.) I had students with dogs who would jump into laps and cats that would sashay over keyboards and once, two small children jumping gleefully on a hotel bed behind their mom as she discussed her work. This made for a relaxed experience and a deeper sense of who my students were outside of class.

To run the class, I used a version of Zoom video conferencing software customized for NYU users. Zoom staff were available via chat and email to troubleshoot problems, like having the right version of the software appear when I logged on. (Zoom is about to experience a major influx of users, but the CEO seems to be using this as a dare-to-be-great moment.) I worked with a talented co-instructor who helped lead and teach the class, an administrator and a full-time “educational technologist” who helped craft our online curriculum. We conducted three surveys during the semester to be sure that NYU’s online students were mastering the material as if they were live in a classroom. I’m pleased to report they were.

Even with the support, teaching online had its challenges. I quickly learned never to ask the sort of general question that works with a live audience.  “How’s everyone doing?” will fall flat every time. Instead, ask targeted questions, like, “Belinda, great story. How did you get the police chief to talk to you?”

I also found that I couldn’t lecture uninterrupted for more than 15 minutes. Those eager eyes peering into the video camera will fall away and you can feel yourself losing the room, same as you might in person at the lectern after 45 minutes.

One of my favorite parts of teaching online was that it was still possible to break into small groups for a portion of the class. Digital “breakout rooms” allowed me to run a virtual newsroom, publishing stories for our class website. Other instructors might find this useful for labs or breakout discussions to mix things up.

I also recommend setting aside time for students to share their work during class.
This breaks up the monotony and lets the students exchange information—in my case, it let classmates ask one another which podcast software they used for a project or how they found a source.

Teaching online makes it really easy, and important, to invite guest speakers. This adds variety, and guests are easier to secure when you aren’t asking them to travel to the university on a rainy Tuesday night. Just send them a video conference link and tell them when to log on.

For all of the positives, there is one undeniable problem. Lewis Bush, who teaches at London College of Communication, tweeted seven reasons to be skeptical about the switch, including: “You need to be as much tech troubleshooter as educator.” He’s not wrong.

Technology will inevitably fail. Your computer will self-mute, your Wi-Fi will drop out, students will be ejected from the breakout room with no way to put them back in. As lead instructor, if something goes wrong, it’s on you. But I also found I had 21 students functioning as IT support when a classmate needed help finding the poll or fixing their audio. Don’t be afraid to laugh and try again if it all goes to hell.

Moving whole universities online on short notice won’t be easy. Even though I’m optimistic as an instructor, as the parent of a college sophomore whose classes may soon move online, I admit I’m concerned.  Will her education suffer for the change as instructors who have never taught online are asked to digitize their courses in a matter of days? Will she maintain interest in her classes? Will she drop out to become a ski instructor?

But despite the disruptions, teachers and students have an opportunity to continue learning through the COVID-19 scare of 2020. In another era, students would have to drop out of school or move on and maybe never return. Technology allows us to chart a different course and learn something new along the way—as long as Zoom can handle the server load.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.