In Their Own Words: Here’s What Professors, Chairs, and Deans Learned From Remote Courses This Spring
There’s plenty of evidence that higher education is relieved to have its emergency pivot to online learning safely behind it. But a repeat performance of remote instruction in the fall will be happening partially at some institutions, and full scale at others. That means taking a look at the lessons learned in the spring is in order.
A Chronicle survey — conducted in May for “Online 2.0: Managing a Large-Scale Move to Online Learning,” a new special report that explores how institutions can take remote learning to the next level — provides a look at some of those lessons through the eyes of faculty members and academic administrators. In particular they were asked to identify, in a free-response question, the most important or significant lesson they learned from their experiences in the spring.
Comments from faculty members painted a picture of professors who learned that teaching remotely without proper training is tough, and engaging students online is even tougher. Indeed, many declared that — as they thought — face-to-face instruction was superior. They also wrote about the shortcomings of Zoom and the eye-opening window they had into the lack of internet access that their students faced.
Among the responses from academic administrators — whose titles included provost, dean, and department chair — were revelations that the faculty weren’t as tech savvy as administrators thought they would be. Administrators also wrote about the importance of communicating frequently with professors and providing them with the support they need to succeed while online teaching.
The Chronicle analyzed 712 responses from faculty members and 457 from administrators to see what terms were among those that occurred most commonly (variants of the same word were grouped). Here’s what we found, edited for brevity and clarity:
What the Faculty Said
(mentioned 582 times)
This word showed up the most — and with good reason, as many professors discovered that some of their students were grappling with issues that made focusing on their coursework difficult. Another lesson learned: Connecting with students online was challenging; faculty members used variations of the word "engage" 71 times to describe how hard it was to do so.
“We need to have a greater understanding of the diversity of our students. Many/most undergraduates simply went home to parents' house (a few quite affluent) and really had no great difficulties. Others lost jobs or parents lost jobs. A small number didn't have any internet access and others didn't have home computers and tried to do everything on their phones. The few nontraditional age students I have also had varying issues.”
“I know the online version of my course could have been better, and that I have a lot to learn about engaging students online, but I got through, and the students did learn something. But I also found that they needed to learn how to cope with being online. We think they know how to do that, but they needed a lot of support and guidance and videoconferences to get through this.”
(mentioned 72 times)
The transition to online learning underscored, for some faculty members, just how necessary it is to be flexible or embrace flexibility in a fast-moving situation where both students and professors are trying to adapt.
“Be extremely flexible. Don't expect complete guidance from the administrators; make your best guess as to what is going to be. Most importantly: By adopting many online-learning concepts and best practices in advance, I was prepared to go online at a moment's notice. This helped immensely.
“Flexibility was key in the transition. I chose to be more lenient with students than I am in a traditional classroom. If we stay online I will once again become more rigid, but I feel this semester was exceptional for everyone, and it was critical to be understanding.”
“You have to be willing to learn to teach virtually and have compassion and empathy with your students. Learn to be flexible and challenge your teaching skills. Covid-19 has changed how we will teach in the future.”
(mentioned 83 times)
This phrase was overwhelmingly used to highlight the perceived deficiencies of learning online. Longtime professors who built their careers as in-person instructors were adamant that online learning wasn’t a good fit for them — or their students.
“I learned that, despite the hype about increased access and "enhanced delivery of teaching," the process of teaching online is three times harder than face-to-face teaching. It is also at least an order of magnitude lower quality than face-to-face teaching. Anybody who says otherwise is trying to sell you something.”
“Most instructors care deeply about students, and most students who select a face-to-face school want to continue. They made it through as best they could (as did I) but nearly all expressed wanting to be back in the classroom. Me too.”
“There is nothing better than face-to-face!!!!!!”
(mentioned 45 times)
The message to administrators was clear: Faculty members said their leaders didn’t understand what it was like to teach and the lack of support received from them was disappointing.
“Our administration will take everything that we are willing to give them, but will not show any real support in return. We are just cogs in a machine to them; our experience and expertise is neither valued nor rewarded.”
“My administrators had no, or no recent, experience teaching, and thus had no idea what was going on. Fortunately I had a co-teacher who was a big help.
“The issue brought to the forefront the fact that administrators who haven't taught in years have never taught online, or have little understanding of digital technologies, make pedagogical decisions on the fly, top down, and based solely on economic expediencies at the expense of educating students. The policies set are ‘blanket’ ones, made by those at a flagship university and foisted upon campuses with a different set of circumstances and without consideration of the instructional differences among disciplines. It is disheartening.”
(mentioned 51 times)
Faculty members referred to Zoom largely the same way that many other people do now — wearily and skeptical of its benefits. There were a few outliers: “I enjoy connecting with the students via Zoom, and I prefer departmental meetings on Zoom over in person,” one respondent said.
“Being on Zoom for seven hours a day is really bad for you and exhausting. You have to privilege self-care even when things like traffic jams and travel aren't getting in the way of what you do. It's easy to work ALL. THE. TIME. And that's not good for anyone.”
“Fatigue and Zoom fatigue were big for me with having to teach all of my classes online. One or two is fine, but not all of them.”
What Administrators Said
(mentioned 176 times)
This term was overwhelmingly used by administrators describing how well faculty members carried out their teaching duties — or not. Administrators recognized that some of the challenges professors faced were unavoidable, but others — like their unfamiliarity with learning-management systems — were unexpected.
“It is utterly unreasonable to expect the same quality of teaching from faculty, and quality of work and engagement from students, in this student move to online instruction. Everyone did really well in these circumstances, but it has worn everyone out, and many have to already start planning for these new online courses in the fall without break.”
“Many faculty have resisted true development in pedagogy, but that’s unavoidable now.”
“As a faculty, we should have been more proficient in distance education before the move to online. This was a wake-up call for all of our faculty that we did not make this a priority.”
“I was very impressed that our faculty who already teach online were willing to step up and help their colleagues who were unfamiliar with this modality.”
(mentioned 166 times)
“Students really missed being in class and with the professor.”
“Students seemed unprepared for the loss of a clear structure to their days and unable to figure out how to create their own structure. They felt unmotivated to work and less able to break tasks down and complete longer assignments.”
“Many of our students struggled with connectivity or lacked adequate tech, but they somehow managed. They are a resilient group; however, the spring was a relatively short-term response. I'm not sure how many will be able to sustain the effort over a whole semester.”
(mentioned 54 times)
Comments about technology almost always centered around some faculty members’ inability to navigate the tools needed to teach.
“Some faculty were really unprepared to work with technology.”
“Faculty and students all have varying degrees of comfort with and access to technology.”
“I learned that faculty who hate computer technology, and so had little access to it, were forced over the course of 2.5 days to teach with Zoom.”
Some administrators learned firsthand how a lack of communication hindered the emergency shift to online learning.
“We do not have effective channels for communication and decision-making in emergency situations. Some information was communicated to students but not faculty, but that directly affected faculty. Some decisions were made unilaterally and then changed after more than 48 hours of intense work that was then wasted. Faculty were not consulted in most decisions. Students felt really abandoned with move-out decisions.”
“There was a far greater need for communication between staff and between and among faculty members. While everyone seemed technically capable of moving to online delivery, there were extensive requests for both formal and informal community virtual gatherings, online discussions, discussion boards, and phone calls to maintain working and colleague relationships.”
“Administrative communication is key and, if not very carefully handled, can complicate situations.”
(mentioned 49 times)
This term was mostly used in connection with faculty, whose various levels of need for support caught some administrators off guard.
“Providing informed psychosocial support and leadership for faculty was essential to a successful remote transition, superseding technological support and resources.”
“Regular and substantial communication, especially early on, was critical. Checking in on individual faculty members was important. Acknowledging that faculty too need some emotional and collegial support was important. Easing up on deadlines for faculty was important.”
“Giving faculty self-directed learning resources to help them pivot was NOT effective, in part because we underestimated exactly how basic we needed to make training to support many faculty members.”