The chances and challenges of online teaching

Two Norwegian scholars offer their perspectives on a new academic experience

Photo: Berit Road / NTB scanpix
In a online learning situation, some students find it difficult to get motivated in the absence of the live interaction that an in-person classroom offers, a synergy also missed by instructors.

University of Washington, Seattle

Photo courtesy of Olivia Gunn
Dr. Olivia Gunn is assistant professor of Norwegian at the University of Washington.

Dr. Olivia Gunn is assistant professor and the Sverre Arestad Endowed Chair in Norwegian Studies in the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Dr. Andy Meyer is assistant editor at The Norwegian American and lecturer of Norwegian at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Olivia Gunn: Alongside our teaching colleagues across the country, we in the Scandinavian Studies faculty at the University of Washington had to move all courses online at the end of winter quarter in March, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us are new to online teaching, which generally requires both new expertise and a support team, especially where technology is concerned. I had little time to read about what the experts were recommending before jumping in the water and attempting to swim.

Photp courtesy of Andy Meyer
Dr. Andy Meyer is our assistant editor and lecturer of Norwegian at the University of Washington.

Andy Meyer: Agreed. It all happened so quickly; we had little choice but to leap in and learn as we go!

OG: Teaching online has also meant learning a new vocabulary. Some of the first terms  I learned were “synchronous” versus “asynchronous” teaching, which basically means teaching live in real time together versus non-live, where students and teachers do most of the work on their own time. Teaching a synchronous course often means holding class at the scheduled time, live on Zoom (or other video technologies).

During spring quarter, I tried this method with the six students in my advanced Norwegian course. The students prepared by completing assigned readings, taking notes, selecting passages for discussion, and formulating questions. We then came together as a group to read aloud and discuss Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, along with some TV and novel adaptations.

All in all, I think this was a successful course, which replicated the in-person experience in many ways. One big difference, though, was “Zoom fatigue.” After two hours of hosting discussion online, encouraging students to speak up, watching the clock, and answering questions, I generally felt very tired.

AM: Exactly. Teaching can be tiring, but I get a lot of energy from the students in the room, which is much harder to do on a computer screen. Keeping up the interest level over Zoom takes a different approach. Synchronous teaching is, however, best for language teaching, especially because it’s so important to use the language in conversation as often as possible.

But I found it challenging to get motivated in the same way meeting online (though the commute was easier!). However, my small second-year Norwegian class of seven students was a tight-knit group before the pandemic hit, which helped keep the attitude positive. We’ll see how it goes starting this fall with a new group online.

OG: Yes. On the other side, an asynchronous course means allowing students to plan their own study time—reading, listening to lecture videos, and engaging in online discussions—with much more schedule flexibility. Most of the experts I consulted recommended asynchronous teaching for greater equity. They asked teachers to recognize that, especially during this crisis, students might share just one computer with several family members, or suddenly have more responsibilities for caring for children or younger siblings, or have insufficient broadband at home.

Importantly, asynchronous doesn’t mean there’s no structure and rhythm. There are still regular deadlines, lecture videos that can be dropped at the same time every week, and a specific order for completing coursework. I tried this method with my large lecture course, “Sexuality in Scandinavia.” I used Canvas (a common online learning management system for universities) to create modules for each unit, providing students with a clear list of tasks for each week. Because 110 students were enrolled in the course, including some who had to return home to families in different time zones, I thought an asynchronous schedule would be best.

Some students hated the experience of online learning or were sorry not to have more live interaction (only a small minority of students were able to attend my weekly Zoom “office hours”), but the majority were grateful for the flexibility and the ability to control the timing of their studying.

AM: I had a similar experience with my course on Arctic Norwegian literature. With 75 students learning from home across the country, it made much more sense to set up an asynchronous course. I posted a lecture each week, trying to keep it as close to 30 minutes as possible in an attempt to minimize screen time, and corresponding with readings, films, videos, and assignments throughout the week.

One challenge with recording lectures, though, is resisting the temptation to re-record and try to get it just right—fixing inelegant phrases or “ums” and “uhs” or tweaking the lighting and timing. I learned that I had to let go of any perfectionism and trust myself and my students. Another challenge is generating the same kind of enthusiasm when you’re lecturing to a cold, soulless laptop camera.

OG: Absolutely. The biggest learning curve for me involved figuring out how to use new technology, such as Panopto, a video recording platform that advertises itself with the phrase “no experience needed” (!). Although it didn’t take very long to develop the basic skills, gaining that small amount of experience was definitely painful.

After a few weeks, however, I was able to produce video lectures without shedding too many tears. I found that I had to script entire lectures, whereas in the classroom, I talk extemporaneously about our readings and a few major concepts, guided in part by student questions and body language.

Moreover, if you know that every word you say is being recorded and can be played back, precision suddenly becomes very, very important. To encourage student engagement, I began experimenting with “to-be-continued” endings in lecture videos, asking students to re-engage with sections of readings or films before watching subsequent videos in which I shared my own.

As I look forward to teaching another large lecture course online, I will integrate discussion posts into these breaks between lecture videos. The next lecture video will then develop the issue further, engaging also with their ideas and claims from the posts.

AM: That’s a great idea. There’s a critically important piece of teaching—building students’ ideas into the flow of the course—that online teaching makes more difficult. That, combined with group work, can be very challenging. At the same time, some technologies, like video editing software, have become so accessible that students can use them more easily than they could a couple decades ago.

In my Norwegian language course, my students made a collaborative coronavirus-themed “public service announcement,” recorded from the safety of their own homes and mashed together into one continuous video. I was quite impressed by the quality of work they were able to produce, even in these unusual circumstances.

OG: Definitely. This fall, I will stick with the asynchronous model for one of my large lecture courses, because of the flexibility and equity that it allows. This time, however, I will add a biweekly synchronous meeting, because I really miss the engagement with students that in-person learning allows.

AM: I entirely agree. There is value in the novelty and challenge of developing new techniques and methods, along with the equity that online teaching can provide for many students, but to be in the room with a group of interested, inquisitive human beings is something that online teaching can’t replace.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.