If someone would have told me after my first online class that eventually I would be venturing into the world of online instruction, I would never have believed it...
My first online class was impersonal. I needed one class to complete an endorsement on my teaching certificate and I figured that taking it online over the summer was my best option. I quickly learned that it was not for me. I had little to no contact whatsoever with my instructor or peers, and the conversations didn't feel authentic in the way that face-to-face discussions generally do. I missed the collaboration and the community that I felt when I sat in the physical presence of peers. I ended the class feeling disillusioned with online classes.
My other online classes after that initial one weren't much better. During my Doctorate program, I attended live Zoom meetings with about 50 other Ed.D. students pursuing various areas of interest. These were 3-hour lecture sessions with minimal student participation and when students did participate, I felt that it was the same handful out of 50 who led the conversations every week. I also pondered that while I didn't enjoy being lectured for 3 hours, I definitely could never imagine myself as the teacher having to deliver a 3-hour lecture to my computer camera.
My perception of what it means to teach virtually drastically changed during the Spring of 2019. I was teaching full-time at a high school and part-time as an adjunct faculty member at the local community college when the entire country shut down what seemed like overnight (or so it seemed) due to the COVID 19 pandemic. Without much warning, I was faced with transitioning from a traditional face-to-face classroom that I had built to foster community, collaboration, and excitement about learning, into an exclusively online format.
If there is one thing that I've learned about online teaching, it's that all instruction begins with people and relationships. To me, this is the most challenging part of teaching online: building and maintaining the sense of connection, even when we're physically separated. Luckily, my passion for technology gave me a starting point (a teaching "bag of tricks" that not all teachers had), but I also knew that I could not teach online the way that I had been taught. Instead, I would still need to use my empathy and authenticity to reach learners on a more personal level and to create a welcoming environment for all students.
I also try to find ways to develop rapport with my students, despite the physical distance: I want them to know that they are communicating with a realy person who genuinely cares about them and their education, not a computer screen. I make time for genuine conversations through digital platforms, including emails, synchronous meetings, and use of my learning management system. I also make intentional decisions about the activities that I use to engage students, carefully selecting those that I think will allow for me to learn more about my students and will give learners more ownership over their learning. I also make sure that I provide specific and timely feedback, praising students when appropriate and offering guidance when necessary.
Overall, teaching online means that the mode of communication has changed, but the need for community and connection has not. I may be using new Chrome extensions to record verbal feedback instead of conducting student conferences, but I'm still putting my students first because once your students know that you care about them and their success, that's when the learning really takes off.
Dr. Jessica Pilgreen, Ed.D.