Thursday, April 9, 2020

Online teaching

In case anybody is curious how I am teaching right now, it’s like this. When we were first informed we would be teaching online, I emailed my students whether they had any strong preference for video vs. written modes of presentation. Nobody responded, so I took it that there is no strong preference, and went with what was more convenient, namely written.

I recorded one video mini-lecture for each of my classes just to be friendly, but beyond that all my teaching works as follows. I break up a lecture into 3-6 pieces, and then post each piece on a discussion board as a separate thread. I require each student to comment at least once for each lecture (but not for each thread). The result is entirely asynchronous, and I hope easy on the students’ timetables (my students are scattered across multiple timezones now, I expect, and have various new responsibilities).

I am teaching two classes: Philosophy of Love and Sex (an intro-level class) and Metaphysics (an upper-level undergraduate class). Here is what I am finding so far:

  • the discussion is better in both quantity and quality than when we were meeting in person, and this is especially visible in the intro-level class; while all I require is a substantive comment/question of two sentences, most comments are a well thought-out paragraph

  • not everyone is participating, but more people are participating than were in person, probably as a result of the fact that the participation is required

  • my two video mini-lectures were also posted as threads, but one thread generated a single comment and the other none; I don’t think the quality or intrinsic interest of the topics for the two video ones was lower, so I have some evidence that written mini-lectures are at least as effective at generating discussion, and of they are more time-efficient for both production and consumption

  • it’s easier to just stand and talk than to write a careful mini-lecture, because in speech I was often sloppy in my formulations, while in writing I try not to be sloppy while at the same time aiming for accessibility, which is a difficult combination

  • the amount of time spent on teaching is greater, largely because there is more discussion

  • whereas previously I had my teaching concentrated on two days each week, I now participate in the online discussion forums for the classes five days a week

  • the amount of out-of-classroom interaction with students, which used to be office hours plus email and is now email only (I think I offered to teleconference if anyone wanted), is about the same as before (alas, it’s not much)

  • one class (metaphysics) has weekly papers; the quality of these is typically on par with the quality from when we were meeting in person, except in the case of a few papers that seem more rushed, perhaps because the students are struggling with family and personal hardship.

I am currently scheduled to teach intermediate logic in the second summer session, which is currently still planned to be online-only. If we get enough enrollment to make that go, I won’t be able to be asynchronous in that class, since logic requires much live back-and-forth demonstration.


Walter Van den Acker said...


Well, these are hard times for everyone, and I sincerely hope things will be more or less normal in the foreseeable future.
But I think, even after the Covid-crisis, online-teaching and online-meetings will become more common. Maybe that way, there will be a bit less travelling, which would be beneficial to the environment and the climate.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's my hope. In addition to environment and climate, I would also add the benefit of convenience, though obviously that's far from as important.