Read part 1, part 2, and part 3.

A fascinating experiment …

For all the trepidation many faculty felt moving their classes online, many can also see at least a few positives in the current situation, and some can even celebrate tiny triumphs.

Psychology professor Erin Crockett ’05, for instance, expresses a deep appreciation for Director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship Julie Sievers, Instructional Technologist Melanie Hoag, and their team of Ed-Tech Wizards, especially considering she had never taught online before. “The single most shocking thing was how quickly Julie and Melanie got those professional-development resources together. They did a really fantastic, amazing job, and I could not envision teaching myself these things without them.” 

She also sees even stronger bonds developing between her colleagues across campus. “There is a sense that we all have to come together and figure all this out: how to help students transition to being at home and learning online, how to get our seniors to graduate, how to help students who need internships,” Crockett recounts. “I’ve really appreciated how we’ve been able to problem-solve and troubleshoot some of these things through team-building.”

“I’ve really appreciated how we’ve been able to problem-solve and troubleshoot some of these things through team-building.”

Technology can be used to facilitate similar connections between community members, such as supporting students during significant events in their college educations. Associate Professor of German Erika Berroth observes that when three of her “amazing students” presented their capstone projects one evening recently, the audience included “parents, grandparents, friends, alumni, [and] teachers—an audience that would never have been able to come together like this in person.” She adds that her “students did a stellar job engaging the audience and sharing their excitement about their projects,” even through the mediated experience of online videoconferencing. But the ability to preserve that evening is an additional reward. “Google Meet lets me have a recording,” she says happily. “What a treasure.”

Improved student engagement in certain classes has been another interesting benefit during remote learning. Granted, participation has varied from class to class, which is no different from any normal semester of in-class instruction. In Kim Guiler’s political science seminar on the EU and Turkey, for example, students who had already earned high participation grades in the nine weeks prior to going remote are still the ones attending and interacting the most in her synchronous discussions. However, several faculty report that the quietest students in their brick-and-mortar classes have blossomed in the online environment, contributing more frequently to both synchronous and asynchronous conversations—perhaps because those students aren’t feeling the pressure of thinking through and articulating their ideas while on the spot in the classroom.

Several faculty report that the quietest students in their brick-and-mortar classes have blossomed in the online environment, contributing more frequently to both synchronous and asynchronous conversations.

“One thing that really surprised me is I thought the discussion would be really hard online, but we’ve had better discussions online than we did in class!” says Ben Pierce, professor of biology and holder of the Lillian Nelson Pratt Chair. Before spring break, Pierce’s students were reading David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives. “We would take 10–15 minutes every class to discuss it before, but now it’s 30–40 minutes.” He says that it took a few sessions to encourage the more hesitant students to break out of their shells, but sending students discussion questions before class met on Google Hangouts helped immensely. “But I also think there’s something about the different dynamic of doing this online. There are students who hardly ever spoke in class who now speak up all the time and have really insightful things to say. They were definitely thinking about it before, but they just didn’t speak up. Now, everyone is contributing to discussion.”

Although that level of discussion is at the heart of the education happening at smaller universities, where faculty and students develop and enjoy lifelong mentoring relationships, many SU professors are learning even more about their students’ lives than they did pre-COVID-19. Sometimes, it’s because parents or siblings will make appearances while students are in class or office hours. Other times, it’s because students are sharing more about the difficulties they’re facing while learning from home. “It’s creating a unique relationship that I will have with this set of students and advisees,” says Crockett. Professor of Chemistry Maha Zewail-Foote, too, observes that “without the hectic daily schedule we are used to, students have had some more time to engage and talk to me about their lives and their goals. I feel like I have gotten to know some of my students better.”

Or a brave new world? 

Despite these silver linings, making the switch to online teaching has not been without significant challenges. One of the difficulties, of course, has been the extraordinary amount of time and effort required to research best practices, test different digital tools, conduct trial runs, troubleshoot a variety of issues, and distribute digital materials. “Most teaching activities—including presenting material, facilitating discussion, and providing feedback to students—take more time online, which has really hit many faculty quite hard,” Sievers explains. Instructors who are using videos, for example, find themselves creating new visuals, outlining notes, rehearsing, filming, re-recording (an unavoidable chore for especially the perfectionists), and editing—all of which takes more time than the normally time-consuming tasks of writing lectures, preparing discussion questions, and then delivering information and facilitating dialogue in class. Just waiting for brief videos to upload to YouTube requires some amount of babysitting, after all. And if you factor in all the sound lags, the accidental but inevitable moments of participants talking over one another, the consequent apologies, the multiple scraps with that dastardly mute button, and the extra seconds required to scan multiple miniature windows for facial conversation cues, even online discussions take longer—or, more likely, not as much dialogue can take place in the same amount of time as an in-person conversation—and that, in turn, entails an additional drain of emotional and mental energy. 

Even evaluating student work has become more intensive. Pierce can usually grade his weekly five-question quizzes in 30 minutes flat. But online, that same task takes three times as long. “That’s the biggest challenge for me,” he admits. “I’m not as tech savvy, but you also have to be much more intentional. I feel if I did this again, I’d be better, but it would still take more time. Right now, I’m just staying one day ahead of my students.”

Guiler confirms that online course preparation takes far more time than that for face-to-face classes, but the amount of time required is even greater for instructors who are teaching seminars they’ve never taught before, which is the norm for visiting and first- or second-year faculty. And having to adapt to a new way of teaching at breakneck speed, all while trying to maintain the quality and rigor of education that Southwestern professors are known for, has been stressful if not outright overwhelming for many.

“But still, they’re doing their best,” Sievers adds.

Another significant challenge is that many SU faculty are not just teaching their college students; they’re now also homeschooling and watching over their younger children—a situation evidenced by the multiple times adorably inquisitive moppets would interrupt the interviews I was conducting for this story. Crockett’s husband, for example, is “fantastic,” she says lovingly, but he also works in an essential profession. So although he supervises their little ones during her three-hour teaching blocks, when he has to go to the office, she has to balance helping her young children understand their schoolwork assignments with grading for her own classes. It’s hard to feel like you can do all of these things well,” she confesses. “It’s super fun to see how [my kids] learn and to do these activities with them, but it is challenging. Southwestern provided me with professional-development sessions to take my classes online, but nobody taught me how to homeschool!” she adds with a laugh. 

“I miss being in the classroom, talking to students in person, and teaching students how to do experiments in the laboratory.”

But when reflecting on the most challenging aspects of the transition to remote learning, the consistent and resounding response from each faculty member has been, as Zewail-Foote says, “not interacting with the students as we do in the classroom—being able to witness them light up when they get something right or watching them go through the learning process. Online, I can still assess where students are in their understanding of the material by doing an online poll, having them answer questions through the chat, or merely giving me a virtual thumbs up or down. It is not the same… . I miss being in the classroom, talking to students in person, and teaching students how to do experiments in the laboratory.”

Pierce and Crockett, too, miss their students and their fellow professors. Having been classified as “essential personnel” because his Internet at home is not conducive to remote teaching, Pierce is often the only person in the Fondren–Jones Science Center each weekday, and he often doesn’t “see a single person all day.” He misses “the interaction with everybody—the students, my colleagues. It’s the people for sure.” Crockett echoes that sentiment. “I miss those informal conversations in the hallways,” she says. “We are experiencing all of this together, but it’s different; there’s an isolation to it. Not having that real-time community is hard, and that’s something that Southwestern faculty do really well—with students and with each other.”

Berroth reflects that although her online interactions have gone smoothly overall, those synchronous class meetings are still “no replacement for the multiple subtle dynamics at play when learners and teachers interact in class: picking up on movements, facial expressions, how people shift in their chairs, a giggle, a sigh—what makes communication happen beyond the exchange of words.” She misses being able to walk around the room, dipping into and out of conversations, guiding and nudging students, and, of course, “promoting moments of discovery.” 

Jess Hower could not agree more—not least because the History Department will soon be graduating its largest group of majors in the seven years she’s taught at Southwestern, so not getting to properly celebrate capstone and honors thesis presentations is a particularly difficult sacrifice. “I miss them as scholars, as historians, and as people,” she shares. She also can’t wait to exchange the one-way teaching format of prerecorded lectures for the much-preferred interactivity of in-class minilectures, in which students can interject with questions and she can pivot on the spot.

But more broadly, it’s all those “intangibles, the hard-to-qualify-or-quantify things that happen when you’re on campus” that Hower longs for most: the excitement of a dynamic discussion, the interactivity of in-class minilectures, the conversations after class and during office hours, the happy run-ins and catch-ups in the hallways. “You choose very purposely a small residential liberal-arts college because it feeds on the palpable energy of the campus environment,” she explains. “Every single one of us felt something by being there and being in that atmosphere and environment. As soon as you start to shift away from that, you lose some of that spark, that energy, that enthusiasm. So the result is that if you’re not living and learning in that place, something is lost. It’s just not the same.”

“The result is that if you’re not living and learning in that place, something is lost. It’s just not the same.”

The future of distance learning at Southwestern

As faculty look forward to returning to face-to-face learning sometime this fall, one tool that many will be happy to leave behind is online asynchronous discussion boards, which have been repeatedly described as awkward. “Students just don’t know what to do with them. I noticed that they prefer to participate in different ways,” Guiler shares. Hower is no fan either. In her seminars, students have been sharing their responses to scholarly books, chapters, and articles in Moodle forums, but she’s noticed that they tend to just share their insights piecemeal, one assigned reading at a time. By contrast, when her students gather for synchronous online discussion or, better yet, when they used to meet as a class on campus, she and her students could synthesize the readings much more readily and in greater depth, making connections between articles and engaging in a conversation that is, she describes, “much more flexible and fluid.” 

However, given some of the benefits Southwestern faculty have seen in remote teaching these past two months, it’s no surprise that some of them envision incorporating certain tools or strategies into their teaching once the university returns to the physical classroom. Indeed, as Zewail-Foote deftly predicts, “This experience will encourage us to broaden our teaching methods… . Personally, I have had the opportunity to really reflect on my teaching that I think will make me a better educator.”

For Assistant Professor of Art Ron Geibel, it’s the content that he’s discovered that will find its way into his future art seminars and studios. He shares, “One benefit to all this is I’ve compiled a whole new list of materials that I will end up incorporating into my classes in the future.”

Crockett, Pierce, and Zewail-Foote, meanwhile, can imagine using digital tools to promote access and flexibility, such as switching some of their weekly office hours to Google Hangouts so that students can get help on course material or projects in the evenings or while they’re away at conferences or athletic events. Berroth says she will be using all the tools she’s implemented this semester—“just not all the time.” Because she travels to attend academic conferences frequently throughout the school year, she’ll now feel comfortable integrating and connecting with her students back at SU through Google Meet and Docs during those trips.

Guiler goes even further, commenting that this experience has made her “feel much more comfortable with online teaching in the future”—even though it was something she initially dreaded. “For certain student populations, this is a method of teaching that really makes sense, and I value that.” She, too, may continue implementing certain remote-learning strategies, such as recording her classes for students who cannot attend or adding a few more minilectures to convey particularly hard-to-grasp political concepts. Still, she’ll always prefer discussion-based classes. I love developing relationships with my students. I know their backgrounds from meeting with them during office hours, and I understand who they are as people,” she says. “It’s really important to cultivate a culture in the class and that students learn from each other.” 

Similarly for Pierce, distance learning has opened his eyes to potentially incorporating more video lectures that students can rewatch however often and whenever they need to. This, in turn, would free up class time for “more problem-solving and class discussion,” he says. In other words, Pierce can see how the so-called flipped-classroom model, which is often the norm of non-STEM courses, might benefit some of his young biologists. But perhaps one of the greatest lessons he’s learned, he says, is “to be more flexible with students”—relaxing certain deadlines and other expectations to accommodate students confronting unexpected difficulties, not just those experienced during a global epidemic.

Hower hopes to find ways to carry forward certain characteristics of her synchronous online discussions. For instance, she’s noticed that in one of her seminars, students have been using the chat function of videoconferencing to cheerlead their classmates, supporting one another with praise such as “That’s brilliant!” or “That’s amazing!” or “How did you come up with that?” Says Hower, “It’s the most uplifting thing that I think I’ve ever seen, and it goes beyond the head nods that they can do in class. It’s immediate feedback that’s coming not just from me, and that’s been super powerful.” 

Like most colleges in the U.S., Southwestern University has not yet announced when or how the institution will return in the fall. Possibilities include returning to campus later than usual, after the pandemic has subsided; beginning the semester online but then returning to campus when public-health officials recommend doing so; beginning the fall on campus but then moving online if/when COVID-19 resurges; or, out of an abundance of caution, moving the entire semester online. Whatever community health and safety require, however, SU community members will remain adaptable and resilient in the face of challenges. And they will, promises Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Political Science Alisa Gaunder, ultimately return to the close-knit personalized environment that students, faculty, and staff hold dear to their hearts. “Southwestern continues to value the face-to-face interactions with students and the close mentoring that a small residential liberal-arts campus can support,” she asserts. “It is our faculty’s passion for teaching and learning that has allowed them to adapt so quickly to the imperative to move remote. Although we will surely use some of the new technology to enhance courses in the future … , we remain committed to working with students in person as soon as the situation allows.”