The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These Washington University faculty had rejected online classes — until coronavirus. Here’s how they made the switch.

Washington University in St. Louis history department chair Peter Kastor (top row, second from left) leading an online class in April. (Image by Peter Kastor and used with permission.)

At Washington University in St. Louis, the arts and sciences school had long rejected online learning even while other parts of the school had embraced it. Then the novel coronavirus hit the United States, and schools at every level have been closed with unprecedented speed, forcing educators who could move their lessons online to do so.

So how is it going at Wash U?

This post looks at how the History Department of 26 faculty members made the switch to online education. It was written by department chairman Peter Kastor. The department’s geographic range extends across the globe; subjects taught range from the Middle Ages to the age of Trump, from politics and policymaking to gender and popular culture, from the built environment of cities to the environmental history of deserts.

Kastor, who teaches in the department he heads as well as the American Culture Studies Program, makes it clear right from the start that he — like many educators — had no idea how to teach online even when he began doing it.

Read his story about what he and his colleagues have learned along the way as they navigate through the world of online education.

By Peter Kastor

I began teaching through online education last week … even though I don’t know how to do online education. I’m certainly not alone. Thousands of educators around the country are making this transition from the intensity and intimacy of the classroom to the unknown territory of distance learning.

This is not the story of how online education — by now a well-established system — is finally taking over the traditional classroom. Rather, it’s a story of how faculty members and administrators are struggling to adapt their courses to an online medium.

The response is both individual (as faculty members adjust their courses and students respond to their new circumstances) and institutional (as universities scramble to provide resources and create new policies). And to understand what is happening at so many universities across America begins by looking at those three phenomena: faculty members who are using online education without actually becoming online educators, students who must suddenly take classes online, and universities finding a way to shut down most of their daily campus activities without destroying all that they do.

People observing this situation imagined a wide range of outcomes. Ideally, this would be the product of innovation, but it was just as likely to come from necessity and even from panic. And as my own students sailed into these uncharted waters, they found that their courses took one of two forms, that little had changed, and that their courses embodied all of the predictions about the possibilities and limitations of online learning.

Online education has taken this form because it happened so quickly.

On Friday, March 6, many at Washington University (or Wash U as we call it) were breathing a sigh of relief. Spring break had arrived, students were eager to depart, and faculty members welcomed the break from classes and the uninterrupted time to grade papers, conduct research, or attend to administrative matters. This all got upended on Monday, March 9, when department chairs like me received an ominous message informing us that we needed to prepare for the likelihood that classes would be canceled and we would be moving to online education.

Forty-eight hours later, on Wednesday, classes were indeed canceled for the rest of the semester and we were all rushing to develop a way forward online. A week after that, we learned that Wash U would soon be vacant. All on-campus meetings were canceled. Staff were preparing to work remotely, and indeed the three people who support my department were working from home the next day.

Washington University did not close reactively in the face of a growing number of covid-19 cases; we closed preemptively, with a process the began before a single case had been diagnosed in Missouri. When the first covid-19 death in St. Louis was announced on April 2, the university was already empty, its students, faculty and staff removed — ideally — to safety.

So what does it mean for a campus to shut down and for classes to move online?

First, it means remembering that most universities are not one institution but several. Our chancellor, the head of the entire university, had to make his own set of decisions. Meanwhile, each school of the university had to respond to the crisis, and for me that meant watching the leadership of the school of arts and sciences, known as Arts & Sciences, prepare for one of the most jarring changes in its history. We had no infrastructure for large-scale online learning. We have numerous students studying abroad. We have laboratories running complex, potentially dangerous experiments. All of this had to change.

The response was nothing short of extraordinary. The chancellor managed the move to online learning while employees transitioned to a work-at-home arrangement despite the profound differences between the different schools of the university. I marveled as our dean and those around her orchestrated the changes to Arts & Sciences. Within 10 days, the overseas students were accounted for, the science departments had plans for their laboratories, and Arts & Sciences was rolling out a host of training sessions to prepare us for a new technology landscape.

Changes within my department were no less dramatic. Twenty-six faculty members had to reconfigure their courses, and the graduate students who lead discussion sections for our larger classes had to prepare for an unexpected teaching challenge. Meanwhile, the three people in the department staff suddenly had to learn the technologies we would use for online learning and help teach the faculty who would use them.

All of that preparation still hadn’t answered the fundamental question. What would it mean for faculty members who’ve never studied online education to conduct classes online? And what does it mean for students to suddenly find themselves taking classes online?

Those questions are all the more perplexing because Arts & Sciences expressly rejected distance learning. The medical school and the business school at the university have their own distance learning programs, but Arts & Sciences does not. After all, Washington University’s strength lay in the close connection that occurred in the classroom and on campus. We were committed to the notion that every student would “be known by name and story,” and most of us believed that we could do so best through direct contact in the classroom and face-to-face meetings with students outside of class.

Our decision to reject online learning in Arts & Sciences was part of the university’s engagement in a battle that’s been underway for over a decade. Two parallel industries have competed with each other: the traditional college and universities, which have prided themselves on the interaction between instructor and students that occurs in the classroom; and the upstart online universities, which vastly expanded who could receive a college education by offering greater convenience and accessibility, usually at a substantially lower price. Some universities are now somewhere in between, maintaining their on-campus core while offering a growing number of online courses. Washington University had remained committed to the principal that students — especially undergraduates — would be taught in person.

The prospect of online education was truly frightening for me. And I’m no technophobe.

As a graduate student in the 1990s, my work-study job was to teach the faculty in my department how to navigate the move from DOS to Windows and how to use the newfangled World Wide Web. I did so at the University of Virginia, where I worked at a number of campus centers that were creating what is now called digital humanities. At Washington University, I’ve joined a cohort of other digital humanists.

In other words, for a quarter-century I was developing the technological skills that would be so necessary at this moment, but I was not developing the pedagogical skills that are necessary for distance learning.

Everyone in Washington University’s History Department has been hard at work adjusting their classes to the new environment. They’re doing an extraordinary job, and I’ve been intrigued to learn what they decide to do. They are joining educators throughout the country who are getting very familiar with two words: synchronous and asynchronous education.

In other words, do you have your class meet at its usual time and use video to reconstruct the intimacy and immediacy of the classroom (synchronous), or do you record lectures that students can watch when their schedules permit (asynchronous). Distance learning has advertised the virtues of the latter, while most college professors have always cherished the former.

At my home, I’m watching the results of both synchronous and asynchronous education. My older son found his freshman year of college in New York come to an abrupt end, and his online education has already begun. His professors have all moved to synchronous education. My younger son is continuing fourth grade from home. His work is more asynchronous, which appears to be the case for most elementary schools in St. Louis. The great loss for him has been the disruption of contact with teachers and classmates It’s certainly been a big adjustment for all of us. As I’m learning from friends and neighbors, we are not alone.

One thing is clear: all three of us will be spending a lot of time on Zoom (the video platform that seems to now be the standard for online education in this crisis) and Canvas (the learning software that all three of our schools are using). I only hope there’s enough bandwidth left for my wife, who is also working from home.

In the end, I opted for continuity of format and for change of content. I am teaching a senior seminar in our American Culture Studies Program, and we will meet via Zoom at our usual time. But many of the original plans for the course have gone out the window.

This class was supposed to study the meaning of the 2016 election and the Trump presidency for Washington University and for St. Louis. Students were supposed to complete collaborative projects rooted on campus. Suddenly, many of those projects are logistically impossible, and canceling a week of classes has disrupted the assignments designed to build those projects. But most importantly, students have concluded (and rightly so, I believe), that any research on the university and the Trump administration must examine covid-19.

My decision was to re-create the seminar room on the computer screen. And that works for a seminar. But it won’t work for other classes. So I turned to my students to understand what was happening. They are an extraordinary group, and I trusted their astute perception to make sense of what was happening at the university.

What did my students encounter when classes resumed? Most striking to me was that most of their classes followed rather straightforward — and predictable — decisions about synchronous vs. asynchronous learning. The seminars remained synchronous, with students seeing each other and talking to each other via Zoom. The lecture classes were asynchronous, with students watching a series of recorded lectures at times that fit their own schedules. Assignments had changed, but not that much.

Many faculty members are keeping their exams, but they will be open note or untimed. Others decided to change exams into essays. One student surprised me by saying that his professor had switched a final assignment from an essay to an exam. I don’t know how that’s going to work, and he certainly didn’t seem pleased.

All the more interesting was the way my students confirmed every study about the challenges of video education. They observed that the discussions are awkward and stilted. They are also struggling to make it through long, recorded lectures. The one piece of advice that faculty members received on this matter was that viewers — young viewers especially — struggle to watch anything longer than 20 minutes. So if we were going to record lectures, we were encouraged to keep them short. My students agreed! And they are usually a very focused group. They all admitted that they tend to switch their attention other screens.

So it appears that education does indeed remain very much about space. Students found it far less difficult to make themselves focus when they were in the confines of a classroom. Of course, plenty of students who bring computers to lecture halls drift from taking notes to playing games or reading the news or chatting with friends. But many struggle to resist those distracting temptations. Doing so is far more difficult in the privacy of your room than in the lecture hall.

And that serves a reminder that the real question is how students will experience the transformation in their classes. They are struggling with the sudden challenge of watching online lectures. Meanwhile, they’re craving some semblance of the direct interpersonal interaction that brought them to Washington University in the first place. They had already rejected online education when they chose a traditional campus experience like ours.

Now, in their final semester of college, online education seems to have been imposed upon them. But at the end of day, it hasn’t. With only a week to prepare, and working in a culture founded on direct engagement with students, faculty members cannot produce the sort of elaborate systems that are the hallmark of the best examples of online education.

Instead, faculty members will spend the rest of the semester teaching online without truly becoming online educators.