Teaching Class Online A Different Animal

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I have been teaching a photography class online for nearly a month now, meeting via Microsoft Teams with my students every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. As always, my LeTourneau University students are intelligent and engaged. But there are definitely challenges to this type of teaching.

Two words often bandied about in education quarters this pandemic season are synchronous and asynchronous. The former means “at the same time.” The latter means the opposite. There has been quite a debate in public education about which method to use for teaching online. I am teaching synchronously, meaning the students have to join the Teams meeting at the times the class was originally scheduled to be taught in person.

When the weather cools to tolerable levels, I’ll hold a few classes outside where we can safely socially distance. But with more than 20 students enrolled, online synchronous teaching is the safest approach for me. The same goes for my Beautiful Mystery Companion, who teaches full-time. As worn out as I am teaching a single course in this fashion, I can only imagine the toll it takes on her. But we both consider ourselves fortunate to work for a university that has provided such flexibility to both its faculty and students.

Since most of my students are majoring in engineering, computer science or aviation, the technical aspects of both learning online and figuring out the functions of the digital camera they’re using — no smart phones allowed for this course — are easily mastered. Not so much for their instructor. The first few classes were a challenge. I use a lot of PowerPoint presentations to show them photographs, composition techniques, the principles of aperture, shutter speed and depth of field. To do so, I must share my screen, then switch back when I want them to see me. I would either forget to share the screen, which means I was talking while they couldn’t see what I was referring to, or I would forget to stop sharing, and they could only see me as a tiny thumbnail in the corner.

Another challenge is that in Teams, one can only see nine faces at a time. I have 21 students, so the rest appear as tiny dots at the bottom of the screen. Naturally, few students are willing to unmute their microphones and talk when I ask a question, which is relatively easy to control in a physical classroom. After a few classes with lots of dead air, I learned to require them to talk about their photo submissions. It’s still not perfect but it’s better.

I teach from my study, in a swivel chair that is beginning to show wear-and-tear since I’ve been sitting in it at least eight hours a day since mid-March. The background is a wall of books. I put on a work shirt as I would wear in person, grab one of my fedoras and add extra lighting. Below the desk, I’m wearing shorts and no shoes, since they only see my upper body.

There are outside interruptions, of course. Sam and Rosie continue to bark ferociously whenever a UPS or FedEx truck rounds the curve of our cul-de-sac, which cracks the students up. I can only tell from their ghostly grins, since they’re muted, as I yell at the mutts to hush. Sometimes, in the students’ images, a dormmate will dash across the background, forgetting the camera is on, or a dog or cat will suddenly pop up in the screen. That’s just part of it.

I am looking forward to meeting these fine young people outside in person in a few weeks. We’ll get to know each other a little better, even while still wearing masks as required by the university.

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