Advice & News

April 2, 2020

Old Dog Learns New Tricks: From the Classroom to Remote Teaching


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Until two weeks ago, I had never used Zoom. I do use FaceTime, but my grandchildren are always reminding me to take my finger off of my phone's camera. After 45 years in academia, as a faculty member, dean, and university president, I was leery of "remote teaching." Three weeks ago, when we were instructed to transition our teaching from the classroom to online, I was both horrified and daunted.

The irony, however, was not lost on me that the topic of my undergraduate course was leadership, specifically "The Mythology and Reality of Leadership." The COVID-19 crisis offered an in vivo exercise in the reality of leadership. While my initial response was to view the move to remote teaching as an annoyance, I needed to "walk the talk" with my students i.e. to model the thinking and behavior I was trying to instill in them, namely that real leaders approach a crisis as an opportunity to learn and grow.

How would I continue to engage my large class, utilizing the Socratic method on which my teaching depends? I managed to log into Zoom on my own, but beyond that, I am very fortunate to have two talented professor daughters, several young colleagues, and a few former students who brought me up to speed. I eventually learned how to use all the Zoom functions, including hand-raising, polling, sending questions in chat, and moving into breakout rooms (to the amusement of my students, I sometimes slip and call them "breakup rooms").

There are two themes that have emerged in the last few weeks as experts in online teaching weigh in: First, it is too early to assess the effectiveness of what is occurring "on the fly" as faculty transition from the classroom to remote platforms; and second, the hasty on-screen teaching that faculty across the country are cobbling together is not "true" online teaching, which would, in contrast, be teaching designed at the outset for an online platform and with an optimal range of instructional tools. I suspect the experts are correct in their assessments. Expert assessment aside, my hope is to give comfort to those who are struggling during this transition, wondering about the long-term value of this grand experiment, or just want to be assured they are not alone in this technology wilderness.

The first thing I noticed in my initial remote class was that there was a significant increase in student involvement. In the classroom, I rely on cold calling and raised student hands to foster an ongoing dialogue. Nonetheless, there always remain student voices that are not heard for one reason or another -- because students are either too shy to speak out in class, or don't get cold-called frequently enough owing to the size of the class. In contrast, the multiple options for student participation on the online platform offer a wider range of opportunities for more substantive student engagement. My hope is that over time this will result in enhanced student learning and course satisfaction.

Even more surprising to me is that during and after my remote-taught class I feel more connected to my students than in the context of the physical classroom. Remote teaching, strange to say, has been a more personal experience. I am able to see the students in their own environment -- everything from sitting poolside to attending class in bed. Seeing their names on the screen makes it easier for me to remember individual students and to do cold calling. I am easily able to break students into smaller groups when needed and to speedily bring them back together. Clearly, the technology created more flexibility for me because I could leverage a larger toolkit of teaching and learning options than is possible in the physical classroom given the size of my class and my teaching method.

Perhaps the most important lesson I am learning is that it is possible to totally reimagine how I teach and engage with my students, both during course time and in after-class casual meetings in the future. I may be an "old dog," but the last few weeks have made me think more creatively and substantially about how I can enhance student learning, satisfaction, and most importantly student success through the use of technology.

My course on leadership has become an unexpected learning exercise for me on that very topic. In other semesters, I talk to my students about how real leadership entails identifying silver linings out of crises. This particular semester, amid a global health tragedy, I live out that dictum -- even if imperfectly and awkwardly at times. That is part of the lesson of change, what it means to "learn new tricks." It has taken the COVID-19 crisis to move many of us to change our ways of teaching and learning. In the midst of this public health tragedy, let us as educators work so that something positive results from it for our students and the future of higher education.