How remote learning changed online learning

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.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

4 thoughts on “How remote learning changed online learning”

  1. Thank you. This is very helpful for thinking and reflecting on what we’re experiencing. Especially in terms of how Canvas has caused us to conform to a certain approach and thinking about ways to push out of that. On the Zoom front, I’ve recently discovered Gather.Town as I think others have started to do as well. But Canvas seems like it may be a little harder to push out of the way or circumvent.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Stephen. Gather.Town looks interesting (although we probably won’t be able to use it out of concerns for privacy and accessibility, especially in China). I’m less interested in circumventing Canvas than in making it work for us (not the other way around!).

  2. That’s a good distinction. And one I’ll do well to keep in mind as my current work is entirely intertwined with Canvas. One thing I’ve been trying to play around with is the apps that I can access within Canvas. I recently noticed that my university has added Perusall as an option we can use. It enables me to give students a text to read and then collaboratively comment on it. I’ve also managed to incorporate Flipgrid into my course. I’m hoping these types of options increase as I continue to notice things I’d like to be able to do that Canvas doesn’t allow or doesn’t do in the way I’d like. For example, I was glad to find Perusall because I’ve noticed that when I create a Discussion page, students will make a comment but usually not look back at other students’ comments. I can incentivize them to do that, but Canvas doesn’t seem to make it easy to know when a new Discussion post has been added. But Perusall does seem to make that process easier and also allow comments right on the page next to the text. I think this is a little bit different than what you’re talking about, but I am curious to know if other schools and other professors are using these and other apps in Canvas with any sort of frequency.

    1. We use both Perusall and Flipgrid — and yes, this is exactly what I mean by changing the default. You can set up a discussion board for recordings in Canvas, but Flipgrid is so much easier! We’ve had success in some courses with Perusall — not in the way the creators always intended, but that’s even better! My other tip is Padlet, which is very flexible and literally opens to a blank slate, so there’s not much of a default position that you have to change. Good luck with your teaching and thanks for stopping by!

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