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Let it be what it is: A former student reflects on online learning

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Illustration of woman learning at computer

Before joining the University of Windsor as Archivist a year ago, I taught History at six Canadian universities as a TA (2001-2007) and adjunct professor (2007-2016). As part of a career shift, I returned to school in January 2017 to do a Master’s of Library & Information Science. During this time, I took two fully online courses and one hybrid course. As my teaching colleagues past and present head into a fully online autumn semester, I am sharing my personal reflections on my own recent online learning experiences, in the form of three personal takeaways and a bit of advice. This is a student’s-eye view, but one informed by my previous pedagogical training and experience.

Personal Takeaway No. 1

Recorded lectures (with or without slides attached) were difficult to sit through, and the longer they were, the more difficult it was to force myself to listen to them.

The hybrid course I took used our scheduled class time for hands-on activities and student presentations, with the informational content delivered through a combination of readings and audio-recorded lectures tied to Powerpoint slides. I did the readings and attended every in-class meeting, but after the first two weeks did not listen to a single lecture for the rest of the semester. (And this as someone who, decades earlier, never missed a single in-person lecture through a 4-year undergraduate degree.) The professor did a perfectly acceptable job of lecturing, but without the “chemistry” of being physically present as the lecture was happening, and the sense that this was the only time I could get the information, I could not motivate myself to sit at my computer and listen each week. A few of my classmates appreciated having the lectures recorded because they could pause and rewind to take notes, but the overwhelming majority, like me, stopped tuning in after the first couple of weeks.

Perhaps for this reason, the two fully online courses I took did not include any recorded lectures. Instead, they provided short texts (3-7 pages typed single-spaced), often containing hyperlinks to relevant webpages, videos, or other resources, that functioned as a boiled-down version of what might have been presented in a lecture. I found these concise summaries well worth my time, read (and kept) all of them, followed the additional links as my interests or need to know dictated, and appreciated the flexibility of being able to read them as my schedule dictated. These “lecture-texts” were accompanied by assigned readings for the week, which I also read.

I know some former colleagues who have spent the summer crafting 10-minute-maximum “mini-lectures,” and (if well-done) this strikes me as something I would listen to regularly, as a student. And I would probably try it as a professor, too, if I were still teaching – but (in terms of conveying content) I would use them as side dishes, rather than the main course. I might share a particularly notable and engaging anecdote, offer some kind of personal reflection on the topic as a discussion starter, or explain and demonstrate a core concept in a way that emphasizes its importance.

Personal Takeaway No. 2

An asynchronous format left me with no sense of being part of a class community in the traditional way, but because I did not expect sustained interaction with my peers this did not detract from my enjoyment of the course or what I learned in it. I preferred this to my professors’ attempts to force an online equivalent of discussion.

One of the fully online courses I took automatically released all of the week’s materials (lecture-text, discussion points for the message board, videos, etc.) on a set date and we were to do certain things by specific points – for instance, post a comment by Wednesday and respond to other students’ comments by Friday. In an in-class setting I would have cheerfully attended class twice a week and done the preparatory work beforehand, but in the online setting I resented what I felt was an intrusion on my ability to schedule my own time and follow the course material at my own pace. Keeping tabs on many minor deadlines (such as the multiple message board comments) continually annoyed me. I felt the sacrifice of in-person class interaction should entitle me to schedule my own worktime more freely than this model allowed.

The other fully online course I took also released materials automatically at a set time each week, but we were then free to read, watch, etc. at our own pace, with no message board posting requirement. It meant that many students (myself included, at certain points in the semester) did not do the readings for a week or two, and then caught up in a rush later on, but this did not harm my learning in any way: I did well and learned a lot. I valued the flexibility of this model, especially in light of the usual crush of assignments due at certain points in the semester. This approach seemed to take advantage of what an online format has to offer, whereas the other course often felt as though it was awkwardly and unsuccessfully trying to reproduce what an in-person class does naturally.

With the benefit of subsequent reflection, I do think it is possible to build community in an online course. A few award-winning professors of my acquaintance are leaning heavily into  synchronous small-group classes this autumn, in hopes of creating the kind of classroom community for which they are renowned. All of my above comments notwithstanding, I think they will succeed… because they are already exceptional creators of community, they teach at a small liberal arts college where they will be able to fit all their students’ faces onto one Zoom screen, and they are well-known to the students in their department. Unfortunately, not everyone has these advantages to work with.

Personal Takeaway No. 3

In the absence of a sense of community with my classmates, the degree to which I felt connected to the professor was paramount in determining how I felt about the course overall.

Of the two fully-online courses I took, both were perfectly fine but one was better designed in a pedagogical sense: the lecture-texts contained more meaningful content, the assignments were creative, enjoyable, and appealed to diverse strengths and learning styles, and even the message boards (which I disliked) had thought-provoking questions for us to respond to. The professor had put an enormous amount of care into preparing the course, and as a former teacher I recognized and respected that effort. Nevertheless, for me, the course as a whole was a poor learning experience because the professor did not engage with it (or us) as it unfolded. They put in all the work up front and then walked away – wound it up and let it go, so to speak. Not once did they comment on the message boards or send an email to the class with a deadline reminder. They also failed to return any assignments until after three-quarters of the way through the semester, which meant that more than half the students had not received feedback on the first essay before submitting the second. We received no substantive feedback on either assignment. A couple of friends (who I already knew from in-class courses) and I came to think of this as a “ghost course” in which a group of disembodied students were going through the motions of a course whose supposed professor had ceased to exist.

We wanted to know that the professor was out there somewhere, engaging in the material along with us and aware of what we were saying on the message boards (not to mention helping to keep it on track and/or move it along, at times). In other words, we wanted to know that this was more than just a paint-by-numbers experience. Personally, I was actively looking for some sign that the professor was real/human/engaged, and that they knew I was out there, too. I did not receive it, and it created a hostility in me against the whole learning experience that I recognized but could not counteract.

By contrast, the less-well designed other fully online course I took was run by a lively professor who sent us little email updates each week (sometimes as simple as “It’s the wild world of X, this week – shoot me any questions, if you’ve got ‘em!”), graded our assignments in a timely manner, responded to email/chat questions in a personable and helpful way – the sorts of things a good professor would do in an in-person environment anyway. I felt far more positive about that (less thoughtfully designed) course than the other.

The Bottom Line

If I were to boil these reflections down to a few pieces of advice, they would be these:  

  1. Don’t knock yourself out trying to perfectly recreate the in-class experience. It cannot be fully replicated in an online format.
  2. Don’t kill yourself trying to artificially create community among the students. Instead, try a few things and then let it be what it is.
  3. Embrace what online learning does best (asynchronous, flexible learning), and similarly embrace your role as the one true point of connection between the students and the course.
  4. Be present. Be responsive. Be human. It will more than make up for a multitude of sins in other areas of your course design and delivery.

For the skeptics, I will just add that of course the above experiences are filtered through the eyes of a diligent and dedicated mature student and a former professor. That said, it took no time at all for me to slip back into full-on student mode, with all the irrational prejudices and inflated expectations that entails, so I don’t think you need to take my impressions with too many grains of salt. Most of my classmates were early twentysomethings, and they responded very similarly. Pedagogically-speaking, it may still be worthwhile to use some of the approaches I did not like…   but it never hurts to know upfront what may frustrate or annoy some of your students. Good luck.

As the Archivist for Leddy Library’s Archives and Special Collections, Sarah Glassford works to preserve the documentary heritage of the University of Windsor, and of the Southwestern Ontario region. After earning her PhD from York University in 2007, she taught Canadian History at the University of Ottawa (where she won a Faculty of Arts Distinguished Teaching Award in 2012), Carleton University, the University of Prince Edward Island, and the University of New Brunswick. In 2017 she earned her Master’s of Library and Information Science and began a second career in the archival field. She is the author of Mobilizing Mercy: A History of the Canadian Red Cross (MQUP, 2017), and co-editor with Amy Shaw of A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War (UBC, 2012) and Making the Best of It: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the Second World War (UBC, 2020).

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