WashU History Professor Describes Transition to Online Teaching

Peter Kastor, chairman of the History Department at Washington University in St. Louis, recently wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post describing how his department transitioned to online teaching. Twenty six faculty members had to make the switch, Kastor said, and the process was not easy.

“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,” Kastor said.

Kastor describes the steps faculty took to reconfigure their courses and the choices they faced as instructors. Many instructors are deciding between “synchronous and asynchronous education,” or having students continue to learn in a group setting virtually or watch videos and engage with educational materials on their own.

“(D)o 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,” Kastor said.

Kastor decided to hold a senior seminar via Zoom at its scheduled time. He continues to check in with his students about their adjustment to online education. Many of them reported frustration with video education, citing awkward and stilted discussions and long lectures that are difficult to digest. “(Students) 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,” Kastor said.

Short preparation times and a plethora of new technology can make the process daunting, even with institutional support. “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,” Kastor said.