I really don’t want to write one of those “One year ago today was the last time I …” posts I’m seeing on social media. Mourning what and who we have lost is important. But instead, I want to think about ways in which teaching and learning in higher education have changed in those 12 months, and what these developments mean for us now.
A widely circulated EduCause article from the end of last March pointed out ways that emergency remote teaching was different from sustainable, planned online teaching. The article holds up remarkably well a year on. The authors, Hodges et al., anticipated that the sudden transition to online learning would be rocky and that classes would be less effective when conducted remotely than in person because faculty lacked the time and training to design robust online courses. Their concern was that a negative experience with emergency remote teaching would turn faculty, students, and administrators off from effective online education.
So, what happened?
Here’s what I’ve seen in my little world of university ESL teaching. Bear in mind that we weren’t unprepared for online teaching simply out of ignorance or resistance: international students on language-training and pathways visas in the US were not allowed to take online classes until March, 2020. While a small number of intensive English programs had tested the international market for online classes and even developed some MOOCs, most of us just hadn’t seen the need. So we learned on the job and with a lot of help from our friends in Academic Technology Services and the Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning.
1. Remote Teaching Became Online Teaching
Remember when we thought we’d be back in the classrooms in a few weeks? A few months? In September? In January? Although some of our classes and teachers are still operating in emergency mode and would happily go back to the classroom and never open Canvas or Zoom again, most of us have seen a shift it in the way we view online teaching. We’re not talking about “remote” teaching any more. We’re simply online, and we’re doing pretty well. As a result, the wholesale backlash against remote/online learning that Hodges et al. feared hasn’t really come to pass. There are students and teachers who hate it, but but rather more who have learned to appreciate at least some aspects of online education. As a result, the “grand experiment” in remote learning that the Chronicle grandly proclaimed has changed online teaching and learning.
2. Synchronous Online Teaching Increased in Value
One of the principles of online teaching used to be that synchronous instruction should be kept to a minimum and approached with caution. As the EduCause authors wrote: “adult learners require more flexibility, so asynchronous is usually best, perhaps with optional synchronous sessions.” And that’s often true in contexts where students choose online over on-campus classes and degrees. I admit that I was kept up at night by the fear of Zoom crashing at the end of the March when every school and university went online. But it didn’t. In fact, Zoom and Teams quickly became the default for online teaching, pre-K to graduate schools, so much so that Zoom became genericized as a verb and a count noun (we’re having a Zoom, you know). Synchronous classes were not only effective for teaching, they were a vital source of human contact for isolated students and faculty. Zoom is also one of very few legal ways to talk to students behind the Great Firewall in China. For us, it turned out that synchronous is usually best, perhaps with optional asynchronous components, when they are appropriate for the course. Such a statement was unthinkable just a few years ago because the technology and infrastructure didn’t exist to support widespread synchronous classes, so it’s not surprising that pre-2020 guides to online learning presume a dominant asynchronous mode. A year of remote learning has shifted the default.
3. We Talked More About Pedagogy
Hodges et al. correctly predicted that we’d have very little time to plan our online classes. In fact, in my department, we’d already restarted classes by the time their article was published! They wrote, “the need to ‘just get it online’ is in direct contradiction to the time and effort normally dedicated to developing a quality course.” That was true to a degree, but something funny happened along the way. My colleagues and I care deeply about teaching well, so we weren’t satisfied with “just get it online,” even while we were in emergency remote mode. We wanted to do it right. And this meant talking about pedagogy more and more. In fact, I’ve had more conversations in the past year about effective ESL teaching than any time in my career.
4. The Dog Is Starting to Wag its Tail
We say “the tail wags the dog” when something that is supposed to support our teaching ends up directing it: a new grading system, classroom scheduling, the day of the week that Christmas falls, etc. And at first, I think the technology did shape and limit how we taught remotely. But increasingly, we’re taking back control of the tail, err, the technology. We’re learning to find affordances even when they are not the default setting. As just a small but telling example, we’re not always organizing our Canvas courses around modules. We’ve been frustrated many times that the platforms we use are built around a conception of teaching/learning that is poorly aligned with the needs of our language classes: We don’t lecture. Our outcomes relate to skills and strategies more than content and knowledge. Our assessments are continuous, our rubrics look different, and our students get lost in both synchronous and asynchronous modes. Nothing we use was designed for English learners, so we’re forcing it to work for us. We’re changing online teaching to work for us.
5. The Future is (and isn’t) Online.
I’m not predicting when classroom instruction will fully resume. I’m not ready to teach in person yet or attend a faculty meeting in a building yet. At some point, Delaware might figure out if higher-education faculty and staff are “educators” for the purpose of vaccination, but I’m not holding my breath. And I don’t know when international students will feel comfortable coming to the US, especially from countries where there are fewer cases and deaths. I wouldn’t buy a plane ticket yet. So, online is here to stay a bit longer. What will happen when the pandemic is controlled, students are willing and able to travel again, and consular offices reopen? Will we revert to the previous visa restrictions on online classes? Probably, but we don’t know for certain.
The EduCause article ended on this note of optimism: “Hopefully the COVID-19 threat will soon be a memory. When it is, we should not simply return to our teaching and learning practices prior to the virus, forgetting about [Emergency Remote Teaching].” In fact, it’s going to be a long time before COVID-19 is just a memory, and even then it will be a traumatic one. And it’s clear we’re facing a changed landscape in higher education and ESL. I’m not optimistic that international student numbers will quickly bounce back, but I do see opportunities for students to start programs online and then come to the US, as well as for fully online courses that we can offer effectively and economically to groups who never set foot in this country.
I also see real hope that the conversations we’ve been forced to have about teaching, about the role and value of face-to-face instruction (online or in person), and about learner autonomy, agency, and privacy will have a positive effect.