Remote — But Not Alone

The Pandemic has upset virtually every element of human culture today, and none more severely as the education establishment. As an Adjunct Professor of Marketing, I found that my well-honed (ahem) course in Business-to-Business Marketing , prepared and refined over six years of in-the-classroom experience, was summarily switched to an online, synchronous Zoom class, with 13 students, 7 of whom needed only my class to complete their MBA. No pressure! Class starts on May 12.

On the other hand, as a tutor, I’ve been able to view the changes from the students’ perspective. The lockdown forced our tutoring interaction online overnight. Fortunately for me (and, maybe, them), I had been conducting online lessons for some time, as a way to expand my reach. Working with students who had been forced out of the classroom provided a window into what the lockdown was doing to the school administrators and their teachers. The results varied all over the map. Some schools and teachers moved smoothly to online learning. Students had homework , assignments delivered and submitted electronically; some classes had Zoom-based lectures or videos that supported and TAUGHT the concepts drilled by the homeworks ; and the expected outcomes were understood by the students and reflected in the Spring grades. Others were not so well prepared. One school told parents and students that online work would not be accepted for credit because “some students don’t have access to the Internet at home”. I’m not sure how grades were administered — one proposal was to award every student with an A. (My thoughts turned immediately to some of my old classmates from high school, who would have framed that A and paraded it through the streets!)

It appears that many schools, from kindergarten through college will start the next semester either fully or partially online. If that happens, there’s a strong likelihood that tutoring services like mine will remain predominantly online as well. As an instructor and a tutor, I have the opportunity to compare and contrast the teaching experience in both of these modes.

Let’s look at an online classroom first. A typical Zoom session looks like this to an instructor: a patchwork grid of video panels, each showing a single student not quite staring at the camera. It’s not quite static either — as students speak, or drop off momentarily, the grid changes and the pictures migrate around the big screen. Holding the interest of this melange is quite unlike the classroom experience, where body language and facial expressions can convey interest level, confusion, understanding, etc., without the need for the verbal clues and prompts we need online. Worse, many college-level courses rely heavily on visual aids, e.g., Powerpoint slides. Presenting them in an online format puts the instructor in the position of lecturing to his/her slides on a shared screen, rather than lecturing to an audience with a shared screen behind the instructor. A small point? Not really. The art of successful online teaching is more and more focused on creating a shared VERBAL experience in which every student is almost required to participate and where the questions posed by the instructor and the students’ participation in the answers overshadows the lecture and the visual aids become more important as a review tool rather than vehicle of first exposure. The best instructors will embrace these changes and the best students will respond in kind.

Switching gears to the tutoring experience, let’s look at the differences in the modes of instruction. As I sought ways to grow my own business, expanding geographically required that I learn an online platform and figure out how to work in a 1–1 setting. I found that the routine was similar — a binary discussion, usually using some sort of shared resource, such as, a textbook, study guide, or worksheet. In person, the student and I normally sit side-by-side, and most of the interaction is verbal. Of course there are face-to-face interactions, but body language and facial expressions give way to grunts, or “wow”s or some other verbalization of emotion. If demonstration or “teaching” is required, a trusty notebook takes the place of a whiteboard.

Online, the mode is similar: a shared resource, usually screen-shared, or texted prior to the call. Discussion is two-way, as we both look at the resource. If teaching is needed, a rich set of tools is available depending on the platform selected. A serious challenge is coaching the student to not only write down what they are learning, but to talk the processes through verbally. Editing written assignments on the fly is facilitated by online collaboration sites like Google Docs.

There are some inferences to be drawn here. Going online for both instructors and tutors involves a change of venue. A new set of communication tools are presented to each of them, and learning to use them is a necessity. Beyond that, the biggest adjustment lies with the instructor. She must downplay the “lecture” part of the class in favor of a steep increase in joint, and inclusive, activities. The tutor on the other hand, needs to quickly build an online repertoire of visual tools that can be deployed at will.

It is indeed a new world. Instructors who don’t adapt face a difficult task in justifying their role. Of course, those challenges may well create more opportunities for tutors to display their wares. Students, I think, will be be the players in this drama who adapt first, and put pressure on the rest of us to follow along.