A sociology professor shares key pedagogical lessons about online learning and online teaching learned during COVID-19.

What’s so great about online teaching?

A sociology professor shares key pedagogical lessons learned during COVID-19

Had I been asked what I thought about online teaching two years ago, I would probably have given you quite an earful of the many known shortcomings of virtual teaching modalities, including the challenges to student engagement and community building. Ask me now and my answer could not be more different. Amid the latest push for a return to in-person teaching, many instructors have been adamant about the advantages of digital classrooms and look forward to continuing teaching online in a post-pandemic world. I am one of them.

I teach sociology at CUNY, the largest urban university in the U.S., which serves a very diverse student body of mostly first-generation college students. By the time the COVID-19 outbreak officially struck in mid-March 2020, I, along with millions of instructors around the globe, had to figure out how to move my in-person classes to virtual platforms. Many of us were caught off guard during the initial phase of “emergency remote teaching” and had no choice but to invest, learn, and experiment with technology by trial and error.

With incentives from the administration, we hurried to get online certifications and took summer workshops widely offered by our teaching centers and IT departments. When we succeeded, it was often not by replacing the in-person teaching with virtual scenarios, but by combining the best of both worlds: the interpersonal dynamics of face-to-face interactions with key high-tech tools that enhanced our online classrooms. If it is true that practice makes perfect, the more we conducted our business remotely the more we tightened up our craft. In this piece, I will tell you how this happened.

Deconstructing Online Teaching: Terms such as “virtual,” “remote,” or “online instruction” involve a cornucopia of instructing modalities, including classes taught fully or partially online (i.e., hybrid) and HyFlex. The latter means having a professor simultaneously teach two different student groups—virtually and in-person—what I call the “double dipping” method, which forces instructors to teach two courses but get paid for just one.  Despite its many modalities, one huge criticism of online teaching is that it cannot replicate the face-to-face interactions that are vital for ensuring successful learning experiences.

To overcome this limitation, I have routinely used real-life video streaming drawn from digital platforms—mostly Canvas, Zoom, and Google Meet. My sessions seek to provide hands-on environments in which students engage with the instructor and their peers during class time (i.e., through team exercises and Q&As). After two pandemic years, active class and group work have become crucial ways for my students to regain trust in working with others while building closer relationships with their classmates.

Bringing the Classroom to Our Students: “If my classes had been in person, I wouldn’t have been able to finish my degree,” says Maria, one of my former Latina students who was working as a home health aide when the pandemic struck. For many students like her, virtual learning has been a blessing in disguise as they have been able to take classes from home or work—all while saving time and money usually spent on long commutes and eating out. Moreover, remote sessions have brought the world into our backyards, as we can now easily invite speakers from faraway places to join us, something that I could not have dreamt of before the pandemic.

Being Present as Accountability: My virtual classroom seeks to reproduce the best of face-to-face interactions. Therefore, I don’t tape my sessions nor give students recordings of my lectures. This encourages them to attend class regularly and engage with the reading materials. Although some students may request recordings in the belief that they will catch up with the materials later, in truth, they won’t. I am also a firm proponent of the Socratic method of lecturing, which has been shown to encourage critical thinking through continuous questioning about the class materials. Finally, I follow up my lectures with individual conversations with students who need extra help (either on Zoom or by phone). Believe me if I tell you that I have been in closer contact with my students during the pandemic than ever before. In fact, I still remember the days when my in-person office hours were just a formality, as most students would not show up due to their many conflicting obligations. Those days are long gone.

Teaching the Teacher and Leveling the Field: The pandemic taught us to be flexible, humble, and open-minded, and to let students teach us how to make our work more enjoyable and productive. Not surprisingly, several of the digital tools I now routinely use (such as the Zoom chat, polls, and Kahoot, among other game-based interactive platforms) were first introduced to me by my students during our group activities. Furthermore, solidarity and sympathy brought us closer during the pandemic, as many of us were overwhelmed by new caretaking responsibilities (as in the case of parents becoming their children’s teachers) all while dealing with anxiety, illness and hopelessness about the future. Although the atmosphere of real-life meetings cannot be truly replicated onscreen, I have brought into my virtual sessions some powerful mindfulness techniques (including pranayama yoga or breathing exercises) that help students feel connected while being “in the moment.” I often finish my online sessions reminding the class about the importance of staying focused and disciplined while, at the same time, practicing self-compassion and remaining hopeful about overcoming adversity.

The Future Ahead: Although it is still too soon to know what direction online teaching will take, I anticipate that real-time video streaming will eventually be integrated into the long-term curricula of those who, like me, have made it work to our students’ benefit. However, online instruction is not a panacea, nor should it ultimately replace in-person teaching. Certainly, the latter is essential for colleagues in the natural sciences who require labs. In a post-pandemic world, the big question is perhaps not how to fully return to real-life lecture halls, but how to best incorporate the best of virtual teaching technologies with a compassionate human touch.

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