Teaching Online: My Biggest Takeaway

When it came to teaching online, I was a skeptic. Could it be an effective way of teaching and learning? Maaaaaybe. But could the experience be as good—as joyful and meaningful and warmly human—as a face-to-face class? I doubted it. I was convinced that, for me, all the joy was in the classroom experience and in conferences with students. In person, in other words.

But last year I thought I should give it a try. It was 2017, after all. Plus, sometimes I like to see if I’m wrong.

This past year, I taught two classes that were fully online, as well as a hybrid class, and I’m happy to report that I was wrong: these experiences have been just as interesting and fulfilling—for me, and, I think, for my students—as my face-to-face classes.

What was the key? Instead of using written forums, I used voice and/or video to make the experience more personal and human.

Let’s be honest: forums suck. Nobody wants to make posts, and nobody wants to read them (including the teacher). So you have a bunch of posts with the bloodless quality of all perfunctory writing. When you set up forums, you’re more likely to get student compliance instead of engagement. As a result, learning lags and the class starts to feel like a slog.

But when you and your students communicate through voice memos or videos, something different happens. Everything feels less distant, less detached. More personal, more immediate. Everyone becomes more . . . human. You all get to know one another and actual engagement—with each other and with the material—becomes possible.

Want to try it? For voice memos, try poking around your learning management system (Moodle and Canvas both have a voice recorder baked into their feedback studios, I know). Alternatively, you can just use a free app on your phone. The one that comes with the iPhone is solid and simple: you just record, type in an email address, and off it goes with a swoopy sound.

image from flipgrid.com

For videos, check out Flipgrid, which is now free for educators. Flipgrid is basically a video version of forums: Students can post short videos, and they can reply to each other’s videos in a thread. This might sound complicated, but it’s actually intuitive and easy. I’ve used Flipgrid now for several different classes, and all my students have been able to figure it out within a couple of minutes.

So count me as a convert. I’ll wrap up with a sentence that I would not have imagined writing a year ago: Teaching online can not only be as effective as face-to-face education, but it can be every bit as personal and interesting and satisfying.