I know two faculty members who are top-of-the-line teachers. I’ve seen them teach and interviewed students in their courses. They are two of the best. Even so, both struggled mightily with online teaching during the pandemic. “For me,” one of them reported, “online teaching demands everything I do poorly and nothing that I do well.” The other one noted, “My students put up with some of the worst teaching I’ve ever done. I owe each and every one of them an apology.”
I also know several equally outstanding online teachers, and we’ve published accounts of others who found new ways to excellence while teaching remotely. I can’t think of another event that has caused this much instructional discovery, challenge, and reflection. Have we learned all we can or need to from this pandemic? Are we considering or still avoiding tough questions, such as who should be teaching online?
Before the pandemic, online courses were mostly taught by faculty who chose to teach them, although pressure was exerted in some departments and programs. Given higher education’s ongoing financial struggles, working adults’ preferences for online instruction, and institutional perceptions of widespread successful use during the pandemic, incentives to increase the amount of online instruction are strong. Should institutions do so assuming that anyone can teach online, even though many faculty were teaching synchronous courses remotely? Are we talking about the kinds of teaching skills needed to make online instruction effective? Are they different from skills needed to teach remotely? Can we list them? Are they skills any teacher can acquire? What if those skills don’t play to a teacher’s strengths?
Our conversation can start with online courses, but it goes beyond them. We staff our departments and programs with a team and regularly defer to each other’s areas of content expertise. Do we practice similar deference when deciding who should teach the required intro courses and first courses in the major, provide internship supervision, and facilitate capstones and senior seminars? When who should teach what courses is a consideration, the criteria used to make that determination aren’t always impressive. They boil down to who “likes” to teach first-year seminars and who “doesn’t like” to teach online. Should we be using criteria related to the skills involved in teaching these different kinds of courses? It’s a question to address individually as well. How many of us know the reasons we’re so good in those senior seminars and so decidedly average when there are more than 75 students in a course?
Who should teach online courses links to the question of what content works well online. Last year we couldn’t explore that question; either the content was online or it wasn’t offered. We did learn that an impressive collection of diverse topics can be delivered online. Did they all deliver equally well? It seems to me that what we teach has different features, and those characteristics have implications for how that material is best organized, explained, and practiced. Is that what some teachers struggled with? Trying make their content work virtually? Many teachers have had a hard time coming to grips with online discussion—which has a whole array of features that make it so different from face-to-face exchanges that the descriptor “discussion” hardly applies. Do some programs work better online than others? Are some courses in a major better taught in classrooms? Do we know which programs and courses and what criteria we’re using to make that differentiation?
All kinds of students—whether young or old; working or not; attending part or full time; or taking required, elective, or lower- or upper-division classes—have done well in online courses. Equally true and especially evident last year, some students experience sizeable challenges in online courses. Institutions have set rules about what courses and how many a student may take. Do we need to regulate who takes online courses? If not regulate, should some students be advised against enrolling in them. Which students—those at the front end of a college career, first-generation students, those needing developmental courses, those not yet skilled at self-directed learning, those with a history of doing poorly in them? When a teacher ably handles course content for students who are ready to learn, all manner of good things happen. Is it magic? Maybe a bit of it, but more of it results from matching instructional strengths with content and students. Too often that happens by chance or not at all. If anything, the pandemic has given us the experience we need to talk more pointedly about who should teach, what should be learned, and which students should take courses online.