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In my opinion

How a Luddite learned to like teaching online

Looking back at the pitfalls and rewards of teaching on Zoom four years after the pandemic.


When the pandemic hit in March 2020, universities were as puzzled and paralyzed as all national institutions. Forced to cancel in-person teaching in the final weeks of class, they had to scramble to save the term. But how?

The answer was the virtual world. It was new, mysterious, forbidding, and ultimately, our salvation.

I was wary of teaching remotely. I was always a late responder to technology; I am medievally suspicious of gadgetry, wizardry and gimcrackery. But I adapted.

Four years after the COVID-19 curtain came down around the Ides of March, this is the story of how a Luddite learned to like teaching online.

At first, I knew nothing about videoconferencing beyond FaceTime, which had allowed me to appear on live national television beyond the studio. I knew Skype, as well, for the occasional overseas interview with media in Asia or Europe.

For the most part I favour the telephone (even as I miss the crystal-clear conversations that landlines once offered). Truth be told, over the last 35 years, I was late to the laptop, late to the cellphone, late to the iPhone, late to email, late to texting. In time, though, I embraced them all.

(I was so enamoured of my first portable computer, the Zenith SupersPort, I wouldn’t let it go. That was until my children and I were visiting the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2004. There, in a glass case in the museum, was a curious display on the life of a freshman cadet circa 1988. It featured the standard-issue uniform, books and laptop – my laptop – which was discontinued in 1993.)

When the pandemic came, I had never heard of Big Blue Button, which we adopted at Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication. Nor had I heard of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex or any other similar platforms.

Things were uncertain as we gathered hastily online the week after the lockdowns started. Yet the students ably carried off their group presentations. They soon learned how to present charts, maps and videos, much as they would have in the flesh. They learned how to master whiteboards, chatrooms and breakout rooms, as I learned hosting and screensharing. We got through the term.

And since? Courses have returned to the classroom (though universities are continuing online programs while some offer a hybrid of Zoom and in-person instruction, which doesn’t work well). We have rediscovered intimacy and casual chats with students after class. We have returned to commuting and office hours in the office.

In my last two years before retirement, though, I continued to teach online. It was no longer terra incognita. I came to see the advantages of teaching remotely. But that required an understanding of its limitations as well as its possibilities, and doing things differently.

To begin, I required students to attend every class. If they weren’t ill or didn’t have a compelling personal reason, I expected them to show up and stay the whole time.

Second, I asked them to leave their cameras on. It’s wearying to speak to a screen of dark, empty boxes. It deprives the teacher of the class and students of their classmates.

Third, I set classes at two hours rather than the usual three hours. Classes would be shorter but more intense and engaging, I hoped.

There were dangers. Some students left their cameras off. Once a blank box remained on my screen long after class was over, while I remained online. The box was there, the student was not.

Some students, enjoying the comforts of home, got too comfortable; there were those who sprawled on a couch or lay in bed, duvets drawn up their chin. I wondered: was class now a slumber party? Was it a variety show?

Some dressed even more casually than in class; some dressed hardly at all. Fewer took notes virtually than in the classroom, where my stern eye might have fallen upon their idle hands, which usually became idle no more.

Some students, emboldened by the screen, spoke more often. One advantage is that I didn’t have to remember their names, which remained at the base of their screens like virtual name badges. I was grateful.

No one could hide. No disappearing behind a pillar in the back of a cavernous classroom. No purse the size of a gladiator’s shield straddling the desk, masking a busy entrepreneur whispering into her phone while typing on her laptop, as if she were filling orders or triangulating the evening’s social plans.

The benefits of the technology outside class were unexpected. Students were now conducting interviews online, which were better than their cellphones, and almost as good as being there. This is now common practice.

Discussion online was harder when voices were muted or faces faded. Professorial humour was a challenge; irony and subtlety didn’t always travel across the virtual world. Words could take an eternity to reach their destination – like a seven-second delay used by live call-in shows – before conjuring a ripple of laughter.

Often, though, they did, a modest reward of the miraculous medium that saved teaching in the worst public health crisis of our lives – and taught me something about myself.

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, broadcaster and author. He taught at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University for almost 23 years.

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