In one of the many, many virtual town halls between campus administrators and campus constituents this year—students, staff, faculty, families, alumni, board members—I was asked a seemingly simple question by a student about spring semester instruction:
“Can students choose to take their in-person course online?”
Luckily for me, the anonymous student typed the question in the chat. And since the chat was a fast-moving vertical ticker of scrolling questions, I was unable to answer the question in real time. Good thing—because the more I thought about this question, the less obvious the answer seemed to me.
My immediate inclination was to respond to the question—“Can students choose to take their in-person course online?”—with a simple no. An in-person class is predicated on face-to-face instruction and interaction. It’s the kind of instruction whose virtues most colleges and universities, mine included, extol: high-contact faculty-student interactions, intense class discussion, and small group projects with peers. Our recitation of these virtues is bolstered by the belief that in-person instruction (market successes of some large institutions notwithstanding) is, in fact, more effective than instruction that’s mediated through thin sheets of glass. And no, an in-person class that is only streamed live so a distant student can tune in to the class as one would a TV broadcast, as was the case with the emergency remote teaching of the past year, would miss all the nuanced interactions that make an in-person classroom such a dynamic place.
But, of course, the answer to this question is also yes, though perhaps not in the way that the student, wishing, perhaps to remain in the comfort of presumed coronavirus-free solitude rather than venture into the shared airspace of a classroom, had hoped. What much of higher education just proved in the past year is that students can, in fact, take courses remotely that historically have been in-person. And in fact, in many ways, these remote classes were in-person classes—synchronous with the faculty member directing the class meetings, students engaging with other students in real time, a regularized set of meeting times, readings, exams, before- and after-class small talk, and syllabi that look remarkably similar to their in-person versions. In fact, given the extraordinary efforts faculty made in shifting their in-person classes to be remote, it’s no surprise that students responded so much more positively to remote teaching and learning than many of us would have imagined. So yes, students actually can take an in-person class “online” if “in-person” means that the educational experience still has the components of what makes effective in-person teaching and learning, well, effective.
What this forced bout with emergency remote courses has taught many of us at residential in-person academic institutions is that, perhaps, we’ve misconstrued opposing sides and, whether because of will or ignorance, allowed that misunderstanding to take hold. Routine online courses and emergency remote teaching are not the enemy of in-person courses. Rather, as this quickly implemented moment of teaching through a computer screen has laid bare, the real difference is between the attitudes and pedagogies of effective teaching and learning, and the attitudes and pedagogies of ineffective teaching and learning, whether occurring in a physical classroom space or in a virtual environment.
The student’s simple question in the chat unearthed a remarkably profound response. But in this world-turned-upside-down year, the response actually preceded her question—evident in countless classrooms and labs and studios—that actually made the student’s question possible and reasonable.
As any of us who have sat through a lecture know, not all lecturers are staid and dull, demanding nothing more than present passivity from the students in the class. And as any of us who have sat through discussion-based seminars know, not all of these such classes are lively, dynamic, deeply engaging places for independent critical thinking to be on display. Instead, what we come to know is that the class is as good as the people in it, teachers and students, and as good as their practices, attitudes, and pedagogies of effective teaching and effective learning.
It’s likely that all of us recognized, even before the pandemic, that a lecture might be staid and dull or lively and dynamic whether it’s delivered remotely or in person. Likewise, as any of us who have sat through in-person, discussion-based seminars know, not all such classes are deeply engaging places for independent critical thinking to be on display. What I think many of us who have primary experience with in-person instruction have never experienced prior to the need for emergency remote teaching is that teaching and learning effectiveness relies on many of the same practices and values.
Over the last year, I’ve heard stories, as have all who have been engaged in higher education, of innovative high- and low-tech-based assignments, the use of social media to enhance learning, the importance of wait-time and invitations to contribute to class discussion and clear outlines for lesson topics each class day. The positive difference that being available for students makes, as does flexibility, empathy, forgiveness, and expressed confidence that students can succeed. The advantages that fewer reading assignments or more focused tests can offer. How vital enthusiasm and passion for learning is for learning. The need—and then benefit—to really get to know students, even if sometimes that means experiencing the discomfort of learning about students’ family lives and environments—and then reflecting, rethinking, adjusting, respecting. These are, of course, lessons that colleagues who have long offered fully online courses or degree program have learned. Yet for those of us for whom the pandemic abruptly shifted us away from in-person teaching, these ideas are only recent realizations.
Still . . . such effective teaching does not simply occur by logging in to a virtual space and beginning the class. Individual faculty, department chairs, deans and provosts are well-served to identify those components of an “in-person online” class that are effective in promoting and supporting student engagement—and to identify those that are not. Faculty development programs and instructional developers provide key expertise, and faculty themselves can lead conversations to assess the effectiveness of both long-standing online teaching and emergency remote teaching. Leadership also can assist campuses and faculty in keeping the focus on effective pedagogies and best practices on engaging and supporting students, rather than on mode of instruction. Seminars on “What did we learn and what will keep from pandemic remote teaching?” or new conversations with technology services on how to make accessibility a priority could keep that focus. It’s not surprising that comments now heard on college campuses that had to make a quick change to emergency remote teaching are about what components of technologically mediated teaching will persist when instruction is in-person because those components are elements of effective teaching.
“Can students choose to take their in-person course online?" Yes, and students can even imagine that’s possible because of teachers who engage all their pedagogical acumen, then learn new ideas and practices, and ask their students to do the same. This ensures that classes were not pixelated 15-week exercises that fall into the same bedeviling traps that can be witnessed in face-to-face teaching, traps of ineffective pedagogy, lackluster participation and preparation, and a learning opportunity squandered.
“Can students choose to take their in-person class online?” Yes, and I would suggest that implicit in the question is the fact that this year, they already did, recognizing, and experiencing, that if attitudes and pedagogies of effective teaching and learning are embedded into a class, then sitting in a classroom or sitting in a bedroom was, perhaps at this moment, the least important variable in their learning.
Laura L. Behling, PhD, is the provost at the University of Puget Sound and a professor of English. Her scholarly works include two monographs: The Masculine Woman in America, 1890–1935 (Illinois UP, 2001) and Gross Anatomies: Fictions of the Physical in American Literature and Culture (Susquehanna UP, 2008).