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In February 2020, if anyone had asked me to teach a class online, I would have flatly refused. Nope. Never. No way, San José! Plato and Socrates taught in person, and so did I.
Why? Because the best part of teaching is interacting with students and inspiring them to learn. Yet, thanks to fate and the pandemic, today, online lectures, virtual meetings and Zoom rooms have become second nature to me.
I bet If Socrates had Zoom he would have used it, too.
To be sure, meeting face to face in the classroom has its merits.
Students who attend class are typically more engaged. I get to know them, they get to know each other. As a professor, I prefer to be able to see my students’ faces as I present a lecture, and gauge the atmosphere in class. Are they listening with interest? Are they bored? Is it time for a break? It is hard to answer these questions in virtual lecture sessions. In fact, the niggling questions during a virtual lecture session go farther: Are students multitasking while ostensibly logged into class? Are they listening at all?
On the other hand, virtual classes have their merits, too.
Online courses mean saving on commuting costs and time, they allow us to avoid getting stuck in traffic and searching for parking on campus. Zoom meetings enable lectures and presentations to be easily recorded and reviewed later. They inform the instructor when each student joined class and how long they stayed in a Zoom session.
Students could be living in San Jose, Costa Rica, and take a class being offered in San Jose, California. In the case of virtual classes held synchronously, professors can assign students to join breakout rooms on Zoom with a click of a button. Professors and students can easily meet one-on-one via Zoom.
Moreover, online classes have allowed us to dispense with the need to ever change out of our sweatpants. Each of us can make ourselves a nice cup of coffee 10 minutes before class and still be ready to join the class on time. No longer do I need to carry my laptop, books and bags from the house to the car to my office to the classroom, then carry everything back home.
Some challenges of Zoom rooms can be addressed by creating and sharing guidelines on class etiquette norms and using alternative teaching techniques. For instance, professors could require all students to turn on their cameras during class, or at least at the start and end of each class. They could seek frequent student feedback during synchronous lectures, via the chat feature or online polls, to make classes more interactive and ensure students are engaged. Another option is to completely do away with PowerPoint lecture presentations, and instead encourage students to present the class material or to meet in smaller groups to brainstorm a problem and share their thoughts. After all, to paraphrase the Roman philosopher Seneca, the best way to learn is to teach others.
Online classes have other benefits to consider.
It’s possible to leverage being virtual, by inviting experts located in other cities, countries and time zones to give guest lectures in class. For me, Zoom classes have been a savior. My 90-year-old father lives in India and fell critically ill during the past year. I rushed to be with him in India while continuing to teach all my classes over Zoom. The synchronous classes meant I had to be up at odd hours, but other than that inconvenience, things worked out fine.
As we gradually move back to a post-Covid19 pandemic world, those of us in academia need to seriously consider the pros and cons of on-campus versus online classes for our students. The decision may vary by subject or year (e.g., freshmen versus seniors) and may require us to be open-minded about allowing hybrid classes that draw on the best aspects of face-to-face and online modes of learning.
Two years ago, I would never have considered learning how to effectively teach online. Today, I can’t imagine not teaching online in addition to in-person classes. Honestly, I’ll bet Socrates would have taught online, too, had he been given the technology.
Anuradha Basu is a professor of entrepreneurship at San José State University. She is also a fellow at the OpEd Project.
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