Teaching online: it’s hard, even for old hands, as is staying engaged

Having surveyed thousands of instructors on their lockdown experiences, James T. Walker discusses two key findings and their practical implications

January 11, 2021
Online lecture
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There have long been arguments that virtual delivery is “the future” for higher education. However, most of us had not expected that future to arrive quite so quickly.

As such, we have been rapidly developing our experience of teaching, and subsequently marking, online, while knowing from the outset − from a swathe of research − that online teaching can achieve the same learning outcomes as face-to-face delivery.

We also know that we, as lecturers, have a critical role to play in bringing learning “to life” by making educational experiences compelling and inspiring our students, young and old.

In other words, we know that we, as instructors, matter. But while there are enormous volumes of work looking at how virtual courses relate to student outcomes and experience, there is a lot less concerning those who are delivering that experience.

We don’t know how well academics coped with shifting to online delivery en masse. Nor do we know how easy it was to remain engaged with what, for most, was a brave new world of being tied to our new “home offices”.

Rather than lay bare my personal experience, I wanted to share the voices of thousands of lecturers that I and a team of researchers spoke to, or surveyed, for a recent working paper in the period following the initial lockdown, highlighting two key findings and their practical implications.

The first is to appreciate that you are not alone − the vast majority agreed that online teaching was a lot more time-consuming to prepare. However, the bad news is that instructors who were engaged in online delivery before the crisis were much more likely to argue that online teaching preparation was more time-consuming than those for whom online teaching was a novel experience.

Steps universities should take to support staff with digital teaching

So it appears that this is not an issue that will go away as lecturers get used to working online. And while many of those we spoke to were putting in substantial efforts because it was a pandemic, it was certainly not going to be feasible for a substantial minority to continue to do so into the future.

Instructors pointed to the need to work with their department heads to try to reduce major pinch points, but also to bring in more resources or move resources around, as well as work collaboratively to identify solutions under the premise that a shift to the online world has ongoing consequences that require considered, permanent solutions. A band-aid won’t cut it.

The second key point relates to the ability of instructors to remain engaged. We found that academics exhibited the same dedication to their work and suffered the same tendency to work long hours as they always have – we are a profession that works very hard. But where the real problem lies is that many really struggled to sustain the levels of mental resilience and energy required to put in their best performance.

Again, this is not an issue that will go away as lecturers get used to it, so we need to develop coping mechanisms. For some, this was as straightforward as taking regular breaks, getting exercise, explicitly building all those things that we know are good for us into our schedule – and often using our online diaries to do so. For others, it was collaborating with colleagues, such as by developing teaching materials as “subject teams”, reviewing colleagues’ work, getting some interaction and human connection, as well as some appreciation of work done − or advice on how to improve that work.

Building peer support networks to help staff navigate digital teaching

We must be willing to acknowledge that when things are not working, we need to seek input from colleagues, as well as recognise when we need professional support. And we must be looking out for our colleagues.

Again, remember that you are most definitely not alone. We all need to take stock and consider strategies to navigate the virtual teaching world, as well as clarify with managers and colleagues what this change is going to mean for your working life and future career.

James T. Walker is the director of research at Henley Business School at the University of Reading.

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