Publication Date

August 17, 2020

Perspectives Section

From the President


Almost every educator reading this column has perforce had their own experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly—with remote teaching. COVID-19 transformed the pedagogical world and required almost all of us to develop means of teaching our students remotely, often with little preparation. We did this in an atmosphere of crisis, fear, and general economic and social upheaval. After months of “going remote,” I felt it might be time to ask: is this remote teaching or just remotely teaching?

Before I go any further, I should lay out my own prejudices and experiences. First, if I thought teaching remotely (not the same as online instruction) was my new normal, I would retire fast. I like being with students and face-to-face interaction. In short, I enjoy teaching in a traditional classroom. As much as I prefer that relationship with students, I realize the traditional classroom does not work, or work well, for everyone. One of the great advantages of online instruction is that, at least in its best forms and in principle, it can democratize education. Many students gathered under the rubric of “nontraditional” can profit significantly from online teaching. Older students, students with disabilities, parents, caregivers, or students who work full-time rarely have the opportunity to benefit from traditional classroom settings. It is shortsighted (and cruel) to frustrate their desire for education. Of course, as has become glaringly obvious over the course of several months, these students also tend to experience the greatest difficulties with remote learning, often the result of a lack of proper equipment, technical assistance, or privacy.

Second, my experiences with teaching remotely or online are limited. This spring, I taught just one small graduate seminar by Zoom, and it worked reasonably well. Many historians, especially teachers in part-time positions, have developed expertise in online history education that has yielded impressive results.

In order to get some idea of what remote teaching was like “in the trenches,” I asked a few colleagues to share their experiences with me and to be candid in evaluating the pros and cons. Unlike the Chronicle of Higher Education study, published under the headline “Screen Test: Was Remote Learning a Success?” on June 12, my informal poll hardly counts as a statistically valid sample; it is a very small (n=10), nonrepresentative group made up of colleagues at smaller liberal arts colleges and R-1 and R-2 universities, both public and private. It has the distinct advantage, however, of focusing on the experiences of historians and not a general group of instructors and administrators. I solicited comments from faculty at different stages in their careers, including two contingent or non-tenure-track faculty, and with varying levels of experience with online teaching. My colleagues were, without exception, honest and forthcoming, writing thoughtful and lengthy emails to me, weighing carefully what they had discovered.

COVID-19 required almost all of us to develop means of teaching our students remotely, often with little preparation.

Unsurprisingly, the results were mixed. No one was totally negative, and no one entirely positive, although the level of enthusiasm varied a great deal. I took away four key points from their experiences with remote teaching.

First, with perhaps only one exception, everyone who responded praised their colleagues and their departments for moving quickly to support faculty. Representative of this feeling were comments like, “Overall . . . my colleagues were flexible and exhibited a generosity of spirit in demanding circumstances.” Some faculty members organized their own online help sessions, independent of any assistance provided institutionally. In one person’s words, these sessions were “a huge help and a positive community experience.” Several colleges identified “power users” or point-people for the frustrated and confused to consult. The technical services staff members who assisted faculty and students also received high praise. Their work purchasing mobile hotspots, loaning computers and headsets, providing simple online instructions on how to deal with Zoom, record classes, and teach either synchronously or asynchronously was invaluable.

Second, my colleagues proved especially inventive in creating new assignments that allowed rich pedagogical experiences. Two respondents turned to their schools’ archives and asked students to explore material objects available online. Another expanded a course that was already “image heavy.” For these faculty members, remote teaching enabled new instructional methods and suggested subjects that would work just as well in an in-person classroom. One person commented that his own historical interpretations benefited while working with students on archivally based materials. He was quite grateful for the new insights and, for that matter, for the new kind of knowledge he had acquired.

Third, my colleagues praised students’ willingness to cope with unexpected situations but felt nervous that students were moving too rapidly or superficially through materials. One instructor observed that assignments she expected to take about two hours to complete were done too quickly. She wondered if “students had found a way to hack the system to get their full credit because I could see that they generally only spent twenty minutes on each chapter.” Others felt that although students read the assignments and responded thoughtfully to the questions, the deficits due to the lack of the give-and-take of in-person discussion were sorely evident. Several people I spoke to worried that their students’ success online this spring depended on the rapport they had built up before COVID-19 hit. Starting with remote teaching “from scratch,” where the faculty and students never meet except on screen (as will be the case for many of us this fall), might not produce comparable results.

I was impressed by my peers’ ability to do more than just “make it work.”

Finally, although I did not find overwhelming enthusiasm for remote teaching, I was impressed by my peers’ ability to do more than just “make it work.” The semester was not “lost.” However, we should not shy away from the negative assessments. To my surprise, complaints about cheating and plagiarism were infrequent. More often, my peers worried that the students were being cheated and that the level of learning had been significantly reduced. Moreover, and especially in the larger classes, “students got a lot less feedback than normally would have been the case.” The response by some leaders to faculty and student concerns boiled down to “make do” and “release yourself from high expectations.” My colleagues felt that neither should become a pedagogical goal.

My colleagues’ experiences reflected a kind of “learn as you go” attitude to online teaching last spring. I hope that, for the many institutions that will be teaching remotely in the fall, and perhaps for the entire 2020–21 academic year, things will run more smoothly now that instructors and students have gained more familiarity with the medium and now that institutions have done more work to make the technical side of remote teaching function better. In addition, a vast amount of advice now exists about “how to teach remotely.” A series of Perspectives Daily articles this spring and summer addressed various issues regarding remote teaching, with more to come this fall. Additionally, with the support of an NEH CARES Grant, the AHA is compiling several resources to support online teaching. The Online Teaching Forum is a series of virtual events, from webinars to workshops, on pedagogical moves and digital content to enhance the teaching of history online and in hybrid environments.

It will be interesting to see if remote teaching will become the “new normal.” Or will it, like much teleworking, rapidly lose its appeal once (hopefully) we emerge from the shadow of COVID-19—a recovery that is looking ever more remote.

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Mary Lindemann
Mary Lindemann

University of Miami