Changing the stereotype of online teaching: Face-to-face in a virtual classroom

Although online courses are carving out an increasing swath in college curriculums, there are still many faculty who shudder at the idea of teaching outside of a classroom. It’s not the content or rigor of online learning they object to; it’s the perceived lack of engagement with students. “Nothing replaces being in the classroom with them” is the mantra, even from faculty whose classes are primarily lecture driven. This is especially true in private colleges where classes are often small and faculty-student interaction is highly prized. Hard to argue that an online course could compete with that…or is it?

When I moved from Los Angeles to a riverside North Carolina town two years ago, I piloted two online art history courses for Otis College of Art and Design which does pride itself on small classes and a high level of faculty interaction. I designed courses—one a sophomore level History of Product Design and the other, a senior level elective– that I taught in a virtual classroom using Zoom, teleconferencing software that the college already owned. I meet with my students in real time (just in different time zones) each week.  

A zoom class is at the far spectrum of ‘low touch’ online courses where faculty interaction is typically confined to grading, course announcements, and comments on student work. I teach that kind of online class as well; it’s effective, the students are engaged with the material, but apart from office hours which take place through Zoom, I have relatively little contact with them.

My Zoom class is ‘high touch’: there is a lot of faculty-student interaction in real time  . . just like a face-to-face class. Students zoom in from their rooms and apartments ready for discussions, debates and group activities. No one wants to listen to me lecture on screen—that’s a killer. My lectures are part of their homework.

Teaching a course in a virtual classroom means designing activities that get students talking immediately. I email work sheets to the class prior to meeting. I base the questions/issues on their homework which is due 24 hours before class. That gives me time to grade, comment, and customize the worksheet questions and activities. Once everyone is online, students move to Zoom breakout rooms where they discuss and debate the issues, develop positions as a small group, and then return to the class to compare their ideas with those of the other groups and to argue their points. I function just like faculty in a face-to-face class:  I ask questions, help them expand on their positions, and help direct the discussion to that day’s learning objectives. Class usually ends with a survey or a one minute reflection on how the discussion/material has influenced their ideas and positions. That’s a quick and easy way to assess student learning weekly.

While I thought I had already “flipped” my class (see “Flipping the classroom without flipping out”), I didn’t fully master the approach until I began teaching in a virtual classroom. It’s probably not ideal for classes larger than 40 students, but it is an easy entry for faculty who want strong interaction and are thinking of online teaching, a practice which is only going to expand. There is no reason that faculty cannot take advantage of technology and pedagogy to make the virtual classroom just as vital a learning environment as the bricks and mortar one.

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