Rethinking Online Instruction

In the last two weeks, I have been forced into doing a lot of thinking about online/remote/virtual instruction in a COVID-19 world. As a network administrator for a community college, I have found myself on the front line as I and the rest of the IT department struggle to get all of the equipment necessary for our faculty to move all of the school’s curriculum online. As an electrical instructor, I find myself giving a lot of thought to effective methods of delivering classes.

One thing that has become obvious is that the definition of online instruction varies greatly from person to person. While everything was “normal,” online instruction was largely seen as supplying resources for a self-paced, and if we are honest, self-taught course — the modern equivalent of the old mail-order course. This thinking has been perpetuated, to a certain degree, by companies that try to develop software that can “augment” live teaching, giving us the idea that teaching is nothing more than repeating a set of facts until some of them soak in.

While I will acknowledge that basic self-paced courses have their place, I will also say that they present serious limitations when compared to a well-executed live course (yes, I too have sat in classes that could easily have been replaced by a good journal article, but that is a failure in instruction, not class format). Furthermore, while I love technology, I also recognize that nice tools can’t build a house by themselves and software cannot replace human interaction.

What I am talking about is not really new. Those with more experience in “distance learning” already differentiate between simple “online” classes and “virtual live instruction.” Unfortunately, these individuals do not make up the majority of the educational community. Now everyone is forced to take a hard look at how to leverage technology to reach students.

Some teachers seem to have given up on the idea that they can be anything more than content providers. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone talk about doing something like Khan Academy. Khan has done a great job and is an awesome supplementary resource, but in the end, we have nothing more than another video to watch and a quiz to see if we remember any of it.

We now have an opportunity to try some new things. Tools like Zoom allow for the possibility of conducting live instruction, complete with classroom interactions. It is possible to hold virtual office hours, do one-on-one tutoring, classes, student workgroups and use many of the traditional classroom methods while still sheltering in place. What is more, the virtual format lends itself well to blending together diverse resources into a more effective whole.

I acknowledge that there are some things that we really can’t replicate in a virtual space. These mostly involve hands-on activities — anything from oil painting to welding — which demand an opportunity to actually practice a physical skill or to be able to experiment with real devices. In fact, while I am better positioned than most to take my live class to the cloud, I have no way to replace the experience my students would get in a transformer or motor control lab.

What I hope will come from all of this is greater experience with a wide variety of technologies that will make future online learning more robust, but will also find their way into the live classroom. What I am certain of is that nothing will be quite the same when we return to our classrooms. It will be up to educators to determine if that means things will be better or worse. Personally, I’m optimistic.

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