November/December 2020Vol. XXXIII No. 2
Teach Talk

Moving Abruptly Online: What it was like for Faculty and for Students

Shigeru Miyagawa Meghan Perdue

Like so many institutions around the world, MIT made the abrupt transition to online teaching in the midst of the pandemic, thrusting all 1,251 of its spring 2020 courses online in late March. To try to understand what this experience was like for the faculty and the students, we sifted through faculty and student surveys conducted at the end of the spring semester by the Office of Institutional Research and interviewed over 30 faculty members. We will touch on three areas – faculty’s experience with online teaching, teaching remotely from home, and student reactions to learning online.

Teaching online

Faculty reaction to transitioning online ran the gamut from seeing it as an opportunity to treating it as a burden, although a large portion of the faculty expressed enthusiasm. When describing the online transition as an opportunity, faculty noted, “It turned out better than I thought” and “I encourage more remote teaching in the future.” Some were noncommittal about its value: “it is reasonable but definitely not ideal,” and when describing it as a burden one person noted, “It just doesn’t work.”

Adapting courses for remote teaching
Transitioning the courses online proved to be an enormous task. One faculty member noted, “this is an entirely new method of teaching for us and we have very little experience of what works and what doesn’t.” Some had difficulty covering all of their content. “Everything got scaled down and back,” reported one faculty member, while another noted “the nature of my hands-on class just doesn’t work remotely” and that “I’m mourning the lost learning outcomes.” Others reported that they were able to transition their course without much loss, noting, “the course had minimal deviation from the format used in the prior ten years” of teaching.

While many found the transition to online teaching overwhelming at first, most were up to the challenge.

The Institutional Research survey and the interviews we conducted revealed a picture of instructors engaging creatively and energetically not only to teach online, but to do so with a fresh attitude towards teaching. One instructor said that before the pandemic, his department had monthly faculty meetings that were not always well attended, but once they began teaching online, a weekly faculty meeting was attended regularly by the majority of the faculty. The conversation at these weekly meetings inevitably turned to teaching – from how to use a tablet to draw equations to how best to utilize the Zoom breakout rooms. The discussions were engaging and animated, and reinforced the broader sense of responsibility that the faculty have to students and the importance of interacting with them.

When asked why there was such a key interest in teaching once the shift was made to online, the answer was revealing. According to one instructor, in a face-to-face classroom, we know – at least we think we know – how to teach because we were taught that way as students. With the switch to online teaching, there was no prior experience to fall back on, so that they had to think through even the most basic steps in ways they had never had to do before.

Many spoke enthusiastically about the online teaching experience, seeing it as an opportunity to try new ways of teaching. One observed that “my teaching is always changing, this will accelerate it, push it in new directions,” while another said “I grew a lot as a teacher by being forced to think outside the box; pedagogically it was an exciting time.” Many faculty restructured the class to emphasize small and large group discussion and experiential exercises, rather than spending the majority of the class time lecturing. In describing the overall experience, one observed, “This semester was easily the most rewarding teaching experience I ever had. The challenges we faced require innovation, nimble thinking, and a willingness to try things that might fail. We as educators must rise to that challenge and overcome it in order to help our students grow and continue their intellectual and professional journeys.” In all, the majority of MIT faculty found that teaching online was indeed possible, with 89% agreeing that it would be reasonable to continue to teach their subject remotely if needed.

Pass no record grading
When the spring semester was abruptly shifted online, MIT decided to enact the “pass no record” grading policy to reduce the burden on students and faculty. Faculty reacted to this policy in different ways. Some were frustrated that there was “no way to hold students accountable” and that “emergency grading greatly lowered the performance of the majority of students in the class.” Others did not feel impeded by the grading policy, holding that the students are “young adults who should be held responsible for their learning.” Still other faculty found the grading policy liberating, feeling that it allowed them to focus more on teaching and less on tests and grades.

Discovering new opportunities
Some were surprised to learn that teaching online worked fine, or even better for particular topics, with one instructor noting, “I discovered that a particular component of a course I was teaching worked so effectively that I would continue to offer it in an online format in the future, even when we’re back to 100% on campus teaching.” Others were excited about the opportunities that teaching online could bring, such as allowing for guest lecturers to join the class from anywhere, or even collaborating with professors teaching similar courses at other institutions to create mixed group assignments and give students an opportunity to work with colleagues from around the world. When we exit this remote learning experience and return to the physical classroom, we’re hopeful that some of these innovations will be maintained, such as asynchronous online learning to add to the face-to-face classroom teaching, as noted in Sarma 2020.

Engaging with students online called for an entirely different set of skills, and many voiced concern about their ability to manage the technology and maintain a sense of community, although some discovered ways to connect with students even more effectively once online. “I think the learning was a little bit deeper than when we’re in the classroom,” observed one. Similarly, some faculty found a surprising boon to the level of engagement once online, observing that “it felt much more relaxed than a usual classroom, things became a little bit more informal.” Many faculty reported that office hours online were much more successful than in person, and others found that holding office hours immediately after the class allowed for a lively informal discussion that rarely occurred on campus.

This sudden change allowed for a re-evaluation of the teaching practices that were previously unquestioned. Said one instructor, “Having to change the course so dramatically did give me more focus on what was meaningful and important. For instance, a midterm exam and formal lectures became much less important, whereas student mentoring . . . and finding ways to support group interaction were more important.” Across the campus, there was a significant interest in making classes more interactive, to spend more class time working in groups, solving problems, and discussing issues and less time lecturing.

The satisfaction of the faculty is shown in the survey, to which 830 instructors responded (56% response rate). Nearly 80% said that they were pleased or very pleased with the student learning achieved, and 75% were pleased or very pleased with the quality of instruction they were able to offer.  

While many instructors found positive elements to transitioning to online teaching, there were many challenges as well. Some didn’t find it as fulfilling as teaching in person. One bluntly remarked, “This is not the kind of teaching I want to do.” The frustration with online teaching was particularly pronounced in hands-on or lab-based courses, which had to shift focus away from learning technical skills to experiment design and analysis. Others lamented, “This semester was terrible. I had to lower my standards.” Most agreed that “teaching via Zoom is exhausting.”

Teaching from home

Housing and family circumstances posed challenges for many faculty and students. Some noted that their home internet or computer equipment was not up to the task of teaching online, and in some cases that problem was exacerbated by their partner also working remotely or their children learning remotely at the same time. Some younger faculty members live in accommodations that are not conducive to teaching online. Said one, “I have no office space in my home because housing in the area is expensive for a junior faculty member. I chose to balance nearness to MIT campus against square footage in my home intending to use my office at MIT for most teaching activities.” An instructor who lives alone spoke of having to spend all day in a small, cluttered apartment that led to a feeling of isolation.

Taking care of children while teaching at home posed a particularly challenging situation. A single mother found herself having to homeschool her children and take care of them throughout the day while teaching online. Another single parent of a young child noted, “some kind of child care would have made an enormous difference.” Although providing childcare at home while teaching was difficult, one faculty member said, “No way I could have been a parent and a professor had I been required to be on campus in person. It would have forced me to take leave if I could not have taught remotely.”

Students

The IR student survey had a 30% response rate, with 3,342 students responding out of the 11,010 who were invited. Undergraduates had the highest response rate (39%), followed by Master’s students (29%), and Doctoral students (22%).

Students generally were appreciative of the efforts MIT made to create online communities for learning and other activities, with 73% somewhat or strongly agreeing with the statement, “I feel like part of the MIT community.”

Administrators are also seen in a positive light, with over two-thirds (67%) of students somewhat or strongly agreeing with the statement, “MIT administrators are genuinely concerned about my welfare,” although 16% somewhat or strongly disagreed with the statement. Undergraduates reported lower levels of agreement, with 61% somewhat or strongly agreeing.

Although 84% agreed that they were supported by their family and friends, understandably, around 85% of the students reported that their engagement with fellow students in their major or program and with friends had become worse or much worse with the pandemic.

Most students had adequate hardware, software, and internet access for online classes. They were split on their reaction to the Zoom lectures, with 42% of respondents agreeing (somewhat or strongly) with the statement, “Generally, class sessions held on Zoom or similar technology were effective for my learning” while 45% disagreed with that statement. (The other 14% chose Neither agree nor disagree.)

Seventy-seven percent of the students agreed that the amount of content covered in remote learning was reasonable, and 88% agreed that the Emergency Grading policy eased the stress of the second half of the semester.

On the other hand, there were clear dissatisfactions with online learning itself, with students’ views diverging from that of the faculty. When asked about the statement, “I was able to focus during online sessions as well as I do in in-person classes,” 79% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Furthermore, 70% agreed with the statement, “I had a difficult time learning in this new, self-directed environment,” which contrasts sharply with the faculty survey in which 80% were pleased or very pleased with the student learning achieved.

We attribute the difficulty the students had to a number of factors. The largest reported impact on their ability to learn was general stress related to Covid-19, with 71% of respondents agreeing that this stress made it difficult to learn.

Also, just as the faculty had to learn to teach online, students had to learn to learn online; but unlike the faculty, who had access to workshops and informal sessions with colleagues in which they exchanged tips for online teaching, students were mostly left to themselves to figure out how to learn in this new environment. Forty-four percent agreed that lack of access to campus support services made it difficult to learn. Learning while being at home was also a factor, as 64% of the respondents agreed that distractions in their living arrangement made it difficult for them to learn.  

There was sufficient dissatisfaction that 53% of the students felt that they would rather take a semester off than do it via remote learning.

In closing

The sudden transition to online teaching has spurred the faculty to undertake innovations and to question practices long taken for granted, such as noninteractive lectures and high-stakes exams. As an instructor remarked, “In the long run, it’s been absolutely great for our teaching.” Although the majority expressed enthusiasm, others did not feel that it worked so well. Teaching effectively online not only requires innovation and creativity, but the place for teaching – the home – also must meet certain basic requirements. This has exposed vulnerabilities among those who don’t have the necessary housing, and family situations that forced already overextended faculty members to take on additional burden. The students appreciated the nimbleness with which MIT moved to make it possible for them to learn online, as well as the care that the Institute leadership and the faculty showed. However, having to learn online brought challenges caused by being outside the safe learning environment of the classroom, with some struggling with home situations that impeded learning, and many inadequately prepared to learn online, all the while living under the stress of the pandemic.

Shigeru Miyagawa is Senior Associate Dean for Open Learning and Professor of Linguistics. Meghan Perdue is Digital Learning Fellow in SHASS. This work was in part supported by a generous grant from the Michelson 20MM Foundation. Parts of this article are excerpted from an article in Inside Higher Ed by Miyagawa and Perdue.