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Making the Most of Online: Insights from an Experienced Educator and Former Dean at American University

Written by Molly Forman on May 12, 2020

Related content: University, Digital Education

For educators around the world, the COVID-19 crisis has brought massive disruption. But it’s also brought something else, something unexpected: creativity.

“For professors who have taught the same course the same way for 25 years,” says Jim Goldgeier, Ph.D., Robert Bosch Senior Visiting Fellow at The Brookings Institution and professor of International Relations at American University, “the move to online means changing that. It means transforming long lectures into something that students learning from home—students who are scared and anxious—can engage with.”

Jim was dean of American University’s School of International Service for six years. During that time, he worked with 2U, Inc. to roll out AU’s Online International Relations program, and subsequently taught online as a faculty member. This spring, Jim was teaching first-year undergraduate students on campus, and after two months, he was back to where he was two years ago—teaching online.

Given his experienced perspective, we asked Jim what advice he has for educators transitioning to online for the first time. Here are the highlights of our interview.

As a professor who had experience and training in teaching online, you’re at an advantage now. What are the core pillars of that training that are coming in handy?

Building asynchronous materials, such as pre-recorded sessions, and mixing in live discussions is really important. My current course was originally scheduled to meet for three hours on campus, but I’ve cut down the live sessions to two hours and am filling in the remaining time with materials the students can engage with on their own. I learned early in my training that when planning live sessions, you need to plan in 10-minute increments. Be proactive, come up with a plan, and make sure that it works—minute by minute. Constantly keeping the class moving is key.

How would you suggest a teacher at any level, who is entirely new to online teaching, strengthen their skills and approach?

Think about how to be flexible and how to be creative. I hope that teachers aren’t just recording long lectures and expecting their students to listen. Your students aren’t sitting in a lecture hall, they’re sitting on their couches. When you’re building materials, keep that in mind. The most important thing is to be interactive—use breakout groups, conduct polls, and try other new techniques. There are a ton of online communities and resources to turn to for ideas.

You recently tweeted that you’d love to see educators move away from a discussion about whether online or in-person is better, and focus instead on how we can deliver material most effectively. What advice would you give teachers to teach more effectively today?

Which format is better is an ongoing debate in academia, and the truth is, both can be great, and both can be bad. The bigger question is what do the students need? Delivering material in the format that works best for their circumstances is what matters most. In our current environment, online has been thrust upon us, and nobody has a choice. The most important thing is for professors not to bemoan this, and instead make it as great of an experience as possible.

Before I started teaching online, I was told it’s more intimate because you’re constantly looking at each other, focusing on each other, and you’re in each other's homes. Immediately, that struck me—how much we really were in each other's homes. I urge teachers to embrace that. Look at the posters on the walls of your students’ rooms at home, get to know the bands they like, learn which sports teams they root for, and ask to meet their pets—I met a student’s cat yesterday that was aptly named “The Cat.” Faculty will be best off when they embrace these opportunities.

How can teachers capitalize on the opportunity to instruct in new and innovative ways?

Firstly, even under normal circumstances, students have a lot going on. Now, their anxiety is higher—they’re worried about their parents' employment and their loved ones getting sick. Ask your students if there’s anything you can do to help, and cut each other slack. Don’t pile on more work. It’s hard for students to express their anxieties, so it’s incumbent on faculty members to bring support into their virtual classrooms.

In terms of teaching in new ways, in addition to tactics like breakout groups, everybody has the opportunity to have guest speakers join their classes. While this was already feasible for professors like me teaching international affairs in a place like D.C., doing it digitally opens the opportunity up to teachers no matter where they are. I’ve been having a lot of virtual visitors, and it’s been great—especially since most speakers are more than willing to join given that they aren’t traveling right now. I hope the teachers who are finding the online format difficult take a deep breath, take advantage of the opportunity, and come out of this recognizing the benefits it has for students.

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