Select Page

Why I like online teaching so much

Engagement. Students writing into the text chat, unmuting themselves to ask questions or to give their own points of view, or just putting a virtual thumbs up to show that they’re listening. There’s nothing better, for me at least.

Speaking to colleagues who faced the challenge of having to instantly adapt to online teaching without much support or experience, oftentimes students haven’t responded particularly favourably.

I get that. I find that students have understandably high expectations for tertiary education and when it’s not met (at least in their eyes), they sometimes become upset about it.

The double-edged sword of online teaching

Students might communicate their distain in the form of anonymous and overly critical end-of-semester course feedback, and especially in voting with their feet. In the case of online teaching, this sometimes translates to students not engaging with course content during the semester itself.

This is quite a double-edged sword though. On one hand, the student is upset with the delivery of the course so won’t attend, and on the other hand, they’ve already paid (or at least accepted a loan/deferral of payment) for the course so only hurt themselves through their absence.

There is a feedback loop operating here too. If a professor knows, or at least has the gut feeling, that students aren’t engaging, it can be demoralising and they might not enjoy the teaching experience. Oftentimes this leads to a lesser educational experience for both the teacher and student.

Online live attendance rates in my Zoom classes

During my own teaching in the second half of 2020, I was surprised at the relatively high rate of online class attendance. For lectures in my first year course (Plant Earth: The Big Picture), I only ever taught live and regularly had around 30-40% of the students logon, peaking to around 80% for the online virtual fieldtrip. For my second year course (Palaeobiology), attendance was consistently around 60% (I note too that all classes were digitally recorded and made available to the students progressively throughout the semester).

For comparison to the pre-pandemic years with teaching in physical classrooms, I’d estimate that a typical first-year lecture would bring about 30% of students to my classroom. That’s not too bad considering the generally very low attendance rates across most other courses (usually <20%).

So this is what struck me: more students were prepared to come online live for my classes than would actually have come to the class in-person.

Most of the comments were students asking questions of me (which I’d try to answer at the time if I noticed them during the online lecture) or chatting and responding to each other.

But what surprised me even more was the overwhelming level of student engagement. For my first year course, the Zoom text chat would reach 150-200 comments by the end of a typical one hour lecture (around 60-70 students online or ca. 40% of the cohort), and a similar proportion for my second year class.

This was mind-blowing to me. A regular in-person lecture to a previous similarly-sized classes might attract no more than three or four questions/comments in a typical one hour session at most.

Why do some students love Zoom classes?

I spoke to the students at length through the semester trying to understand this pattern. They told me that they LOVED the opportunity to interact online during the class and felt less inhibited than if they were in a physical classroom and had to put their hands up.

This is what brought them to the digital classroom.

It was really astounding to me, but I loved that COVID-19 had inadvertently opened-up this opportunity to the class. The typically more vocal students still had an outlet to state their mind, but the Zoom chat meant that the more reserved students still felt that they could interact.

Even though the Zoom chat is not anonymous, I also used additional software (Mentimeter) that allowed all students to give feedback/chat completely anonymously (more about this later), so even the shyest students could still interact without their names being displayed online to the rest of the class.

So moving forward, I think that this is the model of teaching that I’d like to carry on with when we get past this global pandemic: online teaching, at least for theoretical aspects (such as lectures).

The live, online approach, coupled with the idea of encouraging student interaction by reassuring them that it’s ok to ask questions, is one of the best things I have experienced as a teacher and I’d recommend it to all and sundry.

About The Author

Dr Gilbert Price

...or Dr G to his students, is a multi-award winning lecturer at The University of Queensland, Australia. He teaches introductory Earth Science and second year Palaeobiology, as well as supports several other courses behind-the-scenes. He teaches by instinct and knows what works to inspire and engage students. Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, his teaching has thrived in the digital classroom and he is pleased to be able to share his experiences with other educators.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *