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“Lessons from First Online Teaching Experience after COVID-19 Regulations”

Abdullah Aydogan, who teaches in the political science department here, wrote a short report of his recent online teaching experience:

Here are four lessons I [Aydogan] derived from my first online education experience for my “Research Design: Data Analysis” course at Columbia University.

To begin with, contrary to in-class education, it is extremely hard to catch the attention of the students through web-based instruction, hence instructors must find ways to increase their attention. Students will more easily get bored, and if they are bored, they will more easily get distracted by external factors in the environment they are in during lectures. One way to deal with this issue is bringing more real-world examples into the class discussions.

What did I do in this regard?

My first day of online instruction happened to be the same day as the planned midterm. Due to the uncertainties from COVID-19, I needed to postpone it. Since I disagree with the idea of starting a new topic prior to a midterm exam, I decided to come up with a new idea for content for the first online lecture. Given the fact that online lecture will be a new setting for students, I thought I should find a topic that would maximize students’ interest and teach them new concepts/methods that build on what they have learned so far. Considering all these factors, I decided to cover some data analysis on the latest corona virus dataset.

I showed them where they can find and download the latest COVID-19 datasets, how to clean data and transform it (from a country region format to a country format, for example), how to merge pandemic data with a global time series political science dataset (e.g., Quality of Government), how to analyze the combined dataset to compare countries in terms of the density of corona virus cases, how to examine the mortality rates across the world, and visualizing the results. I greatly enjoyed discussing such a timely topic and trying to help students attain data analysis skills on a real-world dataset. Students also liked learning how to examine COVID-19 data.

Second, students found the online lecture material slightly more difficult than the regular in-class lecture material. This was a surprise for me, as prior to the online lecture, I thought that the content I prepared was much shorter and easier than our regular class material. It seems that some students faced technical issues, including difficulty installing an R package, while others had internet connection problems. Some students had hard time to simultaneously follow the online teaching screen and work on the statistical software screen. In the upcoming online lectures, I will consider these factors and try to make the material relatively less sophisticated.

Third, my teaching assistants were always attending my lectures in the classroom, but this time they played a vital role in the teaching. Online teaching of course prevents us from keeping eye contact with students. It is something I highly value in method related classes in which students may need to ask lots of questions but may shy away. Without eye contact, it is hard to get a feel for if they are able to follow the content. The good thing was that my two teaching assistants were in constant contact with the students via a chat window while I was going over the material. In fact, at the beginning of the lecture I coordinated with them and encouraged students to direct their questions to the teaching assistants via the chatroom. Then, the assistants would alert me if they thought a clarification should be made to the entire class. This made it a more interactive platform. Next time, I will ask my teaching assistants to go over my lecture content in advance so that they can answer even more student questions.

Finally, my interaction with the students suggested that we, as instructors, need to carefully think about the structure of midterm exams that we originally designed to administer in-class but that now need to take place online. One possible strategy is replacing midterm exams with a homework assignment that students can complete over an extended period of time, versus on one given date and time. But this is not ideal for many classes, including mine, considering the existence of such similar assignments in the syllabus. In such a case, a timed online midterm exam may become a necessity. The issue then becomes academic integrity, namely preventing cheating. This is a critical issue, however, the precaution we develop should not hurt students who tend not to cheat even the setting is online. Given the level of anxiety and stress students potentially have, we should be even more clear, yet flexible, in our expectations about the new tests we employ during this transition period. Instructors should also note that students may be asked to sign academic integrity pledges prior to tests.

Additionally, instructors may think we should ask more difficult questions when the test is online, and hence, open book, rather than in-class closed book test. At this time, I believe students do not deserve any more difficulty, as they are already overwhelmed with many outside factors. In this regard, I am glad to see that Columbia University decided to transition from letter grade system into pass/fail grade system for Spring 2020.

To sum up, as we abruptly transition into online education, we should more frequently put ourselves into our students’ shoes. In this respect, we should try to find better ways to attract their attention, consider the technical difficulties they may face during an online session, develop ways to make the teaching more interactive, adjust our academic expectations from students under these extraordinary circumstances, and get their feedback about our teaching more frequently.

In the long run, this whole process will have a serious impact on higher education, most importantly on the academic job market, as the top research universities experience distance education systems more and more. If this new system succeeds, even such top schools will consider incorporating online learning to their existing systems. . . .

My co-teachers and I have now taught our class online a few times. It’s not nearly as good as an in-person class. Things are improving—there’s lots of room for improvement—but there’s lots of room for improvements of our in-person classes as well. On the whole, I’d say the online class is much worse and I think there will always be a big drop in quality of learning compared to an in-person class.

In a non-epidemic setting, the big advantage of online learning is accessibility: people can take a class without having to come into campus, so you can reach distance learners, people with major disabilities, and people whose schedules make it difficult to come into class on a regular schedule. And you’re not constrained by the physical size of the classroom. Similarly, online conferences and webinars can reach larger audiences and also are much better for the environment than having people fly in on planes. That all makes sense. But I don’t see online learning as a good replacement for in-person learning for those cases were in-person learning is possible. I would not want future Columbia University to cut back on classrooms and have students attend classes at home.

13 Comments

  1. Gerald Belton says:

    My experience has been quite different from yours, but there are many factors at play in creating that difference.

    1) I teach in a community college. Every semester I may have one or two students in the 18-22 age range, but most of my students are older and have been in the work force for a while. Many have an employer reimbursing their tuition, and those payments have a grade requirement attached.

    2) I teach two courses, an Intro to SAS programming and Data Analytics using SAS. The first is purely a programming course, the second introduces some basic Statistics as part of the data modeling process. I think the nature of computer programming lends itself to self-study.

    I can compare online to F2F. I have taught both of these in a purely online format, and also in a hybrid format where all of the course materials are available online, but we also meet in the classroom once a week.

    It may be relevant that I also completed the coursework for my Master’s online, and had some excellent instructors at NC State who modeled best practices (and a few who were examples of what not to do). One observation based on that experience is that using video, either live or recorded, to deliver the same lecture you would give in a classroom, is not an effective way to teach online. I had one professor who made video recordings of his classroom lectures and posted them in the LMS for the online section. I survived that class but it was pretty hard. As you observed, it is hard to maintain focus for a 90 minute video lecture.

    The better online faculty would use short (15 to 20 minute) videos, interspersed with student activities. Watch a video, do an exercise using the material just covered, repeat.

    My online students do just as well in the course, and learn just as much, as the face to face students in the same course. I’m sure that is largely because I have older, more experienced, and more motivated students. I also have the benefit of course materials provided by the school that are optimized for online classes; I don’t have to create them myself.

  2. Dale Lehman says:

    Your description is much too narrow and I think this makes your conclusions lack in generality. I’ve done a considerable amount of online teaching, although I have usually used a hybrid format where the students come to class for short periods of intense group work. For the online part, however, there are many variations, ranging from completely asynchronous to completely synchronous with video, audio, and screen-sharing. I do find the visual connection important, so I always use multiway video (although it certainly is not as important as audio). What I think is short-sighted in this post is the idea that if online learning is used, classrooms need to disappear.

    From my experience, I found that the only thing that does not work is to try to do online exactly what I used to do in a physical classroom (of course, I started that way). In fact, it made me realize that it didn’t really work in a physical classroom either. Lecturing is a pretty ineffective means for learning. What I realized is that if I know ahead of time what I want to say, then it is better to prerecord that material and use the synchronous online environment to work with students on discussion and problem solving. It also took me a few years before I got used to using breakout rooms – they are essential, since the biggest loss in the online environment is the ability of students to interact with each other (interaction with me is not that difficult). Some things do not fit well into an online environment – significant group projects would be one such area. That is what I use the physical classroom for.

    So, I think a more nuanced view of online teaching is that some things are more appropriate to each setting – online synchronous, asynchronous (can be video or not), and classroom-based. I do believe that if you think about which mode is most appropriate for what material that the online dimension adds considerably to what we used to do in totally physical classroom space.

    I should note that I found this to work well with working adult students – not so much with traditionally aged undergraduates. I believe the latter group can find hybrid approaches to be better, but it takes a considerable amount of re-learning, or perhaps I should say, un-learning past patterns they have been exposed to for years.

  3. Andrew says:

    Gerald, Dale:

    Just to clarify: When I teach, I try not to do much lecturing. I do some demonstrations and answer some questions, and I want the students to spend a lot of time working in pairs or small groups.

    • Dale Lehman says:

      Try the breakout rooms – I think you will be pleasantly surprised. This does not mean that all material will work just as well online as in person – indeed, I really value the classroom for particular things I do in my class. But my point is that some material and activities are better suited to one environment rather than another, so generalizing whether online or classroom is better is, to use a faulty metaphor, like deciding whether a particular result is statistically significant or not.

      • Andrew says:

        Dale:

        I’ve done breakout rooms, and they work well—I have another post coming on this. I still find it hard to get good participation, compared to a live class.

        But, sure, I’m generalizing only from my own experience here. That’s one reason I shared Abdullah’s post—it’s more data!

  4. I don’t like the phrase “online learning”. It’s online teaching. The learning will continue to happen at home, in so far as it does. The classroom lockdown should remind us that higher education consists mainly in an serious reading list and a series of challenging assignments. We have made ourselves needlessly vulnerable by moving too much of our pedagogy into the classroom. We’ve become too dependent (i.e., made our students too dependent) on instruction.

  5. jim says:

    I strongly encourage people who teach on line and give video lectures to record a few sessions and review them critically. Bad speaking habits and mannerisms will be magnified 100 fold on video and be much more distracting than in a live setting. The best way to recognize how distracting your habits are is to watch yourself do them.

    I suggest that you be very well organized and keep up the pace. That will help keep people’s attention.

    I discovered this video a while back about presenting on line. Excellent advice. I recently watched an on-line seminar and was thinking the person was a good speaker. Then it occurred to me that the person was following all the advice in the linked vid regarding lighting, body position, camera position, background etc.

    IMO the right body/camera position will actually make your on-line lectures *more* personal and could *improve* your connection with students. No one will be in the back of the class. Everyone will see your glorious mug as if they were conversing with you. Your authentic and conversational mannerisms and facial expressions will be visible to everyone and make you more human than if you’re 50ft away, and thus improve your communication.

    good luck to everyone!

    • jim says:

      I don’t agree with the sentiment that “it’s not nearly as good as an in-person class”. I don’t see any reason why it can’t be better than live. It has lots of advantages that live doesn’t have. There are some pitfalls, for sure – but as Dale noted, many of them are just the magnified pitfalls of lecturing anyway.

  6. digithead says:

    It’s 2 am and I can’t sleep. Given that it’s now after midnight, yesterday was the singularly my worst day as a faculty member but not because of the technology.

    No, Zoom, D2L, audio, video; it all worked fine. It was the 7 straight hours meeting individually one after the other with my senior seminar students to discuss their capstone project for their degree. We spent very little time on that.

    Instead, I listened to these kids’ stories of how Covid-19 has upended their lives in irrevocable ways. Internships gone. Studies abroad cancelled. Jobs and job opportunities lost. Commencement canceled. Grad school delayed.

    Worries that Covid-19 is going to kill their dad with cancer, their mom with M.S. or their 85-year-old grandma. Having to move back home to a NYCHA two-bed apartment with their mom and 4 siblings after finally getting a single dorm room to themselves this year. Worried that their moms are nurses or that their dad is an EMT and they might not see them again. That their parents can’t afford to shelter at home because they’ll be homeless without the paycheck.

    I spent the majority of my screen time reassuring them that we’ll get through this; that they’ll be able to tell stories 30-40 years from now to their grand kids like my grandparents used to tell me about the Great Depression and WWII. Trying to be that adult voice we all need to hear sometimes telling us that everything is going to be alright.

    I’ve had students endure tragedy, victimization, illness, et al. But nothing on this scale and there’s nothing in the faculty handbook that can prepare you for something like this.

    After I got done, I called my 82-year-old father in Florida just to hear an adult voice telling me it was going to be alright.

    Sigh…

  7. Anonymous says:

    Andrew. Did you and Bob ever get your Coursera courses done it did that all fallthrough? (Or do i recall that announcement wrong?)

  8. Mbn says:

    Regarding the options for online testing, there is a webinar coming up soon that seems helpful for those conversant with R.
    https://www.r-bloggers.com/why-r-webinars/

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