S1:E6 Dr. Stephen Taysom – Remote and online classes are not the same thing

March 8, 2021 |  Remote Access, Students
27 min

Dr. Stephen Taysom is a professor at Cleveland State University who discusses the challenges with remote education.


Tyler Jacobson  0:01

Welcome to LabChats, a podcast from the team at LabStats. I’m Tyler Jacobson, your host for today’s episode. Each week, we’ll sit down with technology leaders in higher education to get the latest buzz and insights while we discuss current events, trends, problems and solutions. Now, let’s get into it. 

Joining with us today we have Dr. Stephen Taysom, who is a Professor of History at Cleveland State. You’ve been there for nearly 12 years, give me a little bit of your background and how you got into education. And then we could talk about online versus on site education and how important it is to get students back on campus.

Stephen Taysom  0:39

Yeah, so thanks for having me. My journey to this started, I was intentionally going after a law degree was my original intent. When I started college. And after I was on campus, for about 10 minutes, I decided I wanted to be a professor because I just thought college is awesome. What I didn’t realize was that being 18 on a college campus is not quite the same as being 45 on a college campus. But anyway, so, that’s what started it. And then I was a history major, decided I wanted to go to graduate school and got a PhD in a very specialized type of history. So the history of religion at Indiana University, and then I was good at it and got lucky, got a job, [which are] not easy to get. And like you said, I’ve been doing it now at Cleveland State for…it’ll be 13 years.

Tyler Jacobson  1:29

How much experience do you have in teaching in class? And then how much have you had for the online format?

Stephen Taysom  1:38

So in a classroom setting, I mean, going all the way back to 2001, so almost 20 years. When I was in graduate school, you would work for professors. They would teach the main lecture sections, and then they would have discussion sections. So the graduate student assistants would run those. So that was my first real college classroom experience, [that] was 20 years ago. And pretty much from then on…with [the exception of] one or two years after I got my PhD, where I didn’t have a job yet. I’ve taught a lot in the classroom. So 20 years worth. Online, basically none until last year. So I mean, I think I took a course once, like a professional development class at CSU, teaching us how to design online classes. And that was the only kind of online stuff I had done until last March.

Tyler Jacobson  2:36

So last March, what happened? And because I know that I’ve had a lot of feedback from the IT side of people that were very abruptly having to train instructors on surviving in an online environment. What resources were given to you, and what was the timeframe that you needed to make that transition?

Stephen Taysom  2:55

What resources were given to us? No…I was gonna say none, [but] that isn’t strictly true. So what happened was…this thing emerged early in the year and just happened that our spring break was in March. And going into spring break, there was some discussion about what was going to happen. Over spring break, the university decided that we were going to go fully remote except for…some classes that required people to actually be there, like some lab classes, etc. And then they send us on spring break for a week to let us get ready for that. It basically all it meant for us was we had to figure out a way to do what we would do in the classroom, but now do it remotely. And that’s and that might sound obvious. But that isn’t the same thing as an online class. So you know, online courses, and we can maybe talk about this a little bit later with online courses are different from just a class taught remotely. So all I did was get on Blackboard, which I was familiar with that platform, record the lectures using this technology, you could either do live classes with Zoom, or you could use Tegrity, which was what I started using to record the lectures and then upload them. And then once I learned that on my own, and they came back and said, “Oh, we’re not using that anymore our license is expiring.” So I had to switch everything to this other system called PanOpto, just basically the same thing. [Our IT team was] responsive to questions, but there was no positive control of training. So it wasn’t like they taught us how to do it. If we had questions we could ask the IT people. They were actually really good about responding, trying to help us get through it.

Tyler Jacobson  4:41

And that’s that’s the feedback that we get over and over again, your situation was actually very typical. Spring Break got extended, and they were trying to figure out how to make that transition. But it was so abrupt and so many schools started announcing that they were going to be going online, which put more pressure on other schools to go online. And a lot of the schools, the people that do online primarily taught online, and the instructors that taught on site primarily taught on site, so there was very little overlap there for opportunities for shared experience in training. And so that’s pretty typical. From what we hear, it was very abrupt. Some instructors did okay. Some struggle to the point of major problems. That’s pretty typical. So how’s it working? And what are the shortfalls? And what are the advantages?

Stephen Taysom  5:37

Well, so, to your point earlier about just really briefly about online classes versus these remote classes. When you design an online class, which I’ve never done, because it requires a whole specialized [approach]. You design your shell for the course. But then inside of that, there’s all kinds of discussion forums for the students to work with. And also the supplementary material [is a] completely different thing. So people who take an online class, it’s a totally different experience than taking this remote thing. There are no real advantages to a remote versus an in person style, pedagogically speaking. I mean, setting aside the health concerns, because I’m not addressing that, obviously. So there’s no advantage to me teaching it this way. Compared with the way that I would normally teach in the classroom, it doesn’t do anything better. If it were a true online course, then that may be different. But for me, there’s no advantage there. There are a number of disadvantages. Primarily just not being present in a classroom with those people makes the teaching less effective. It makes it harder for me to gauge whether or not they are understanding what I’m saying. I can’t pick up on the cues, of just watching them. Because even when we’re doing what I’m doing this semester, which is doing it, what they call synchronously, so you have options, to do it asynchronously, which is what I did last semester, which means that I taped the lecture, I put it up, they can watch it whenever they want. Synchronously means they are there at a specific time. And we when we do a Zoom class live, even then we’re not allowed to require them to have their cameras on. So I don’t know, I can’t see their face, I can’t see what’s going on. I don’t know if they’re even getting what I’m saying. The other thing that’s difficult about it is communication becomes very difficult, because instead of dealing with them face to face when they have a question, you’re dealing with emails. And so if you might have three or four students with questions in a class after class, they can [come] talk to you, that takes five or 10 minutes to deal with. But instead of that, I have emails coming in, and I have to respond to the emails, and maybe I missed them, maybe they get sent to my spam folder. So the time it takes to do everything gets expanded, because you don’t have any kind of face to face interactions with them. So there are no advantages to it. There are lots of disadvantages.

Tyler Jacobson  8:06

Well, and I can see that because in just general communication, not necessarily in an education environment, doing it through writing is infinitely less effective. So typing it out, you lose the tone, you lose the nonverbals. And also the way that it’s received and perceived is very, very different. I can see that providing a lot of challenges. As far as the resources [you] are using to teach with: have any of those changed? Have you been using the same texts? Are you sending them to different places to receive materials?

Stephen Taysom  8:45

Yeah, so this is one of the hardest [problems]. So, I’ve been using the same books. One of the classes I’ve taught while I was teaching before, so I’ve done it in person, and online. The other one I hadn’t done before. So I’m doing it online, or I’m doing it remotely, but yeah, I’ve used the same books that I normally would use, but I have added some stuff. So, sending them to see videos and stuff. Because normally I show films in class, I can’t do that. So some of the films that I normally show I don’t have access to because I can’t put, you know, there’s DVD players and stuff in the classroom [and I] don’t have access to that. So I have to find other things to substitute, which is not that hard, given the nature of the internet now, I mean, there’s most everything I can find a substitute for even on YouTube and…have them use that. I haven’t changed much as far as the design of the class is concerned. You know, they still take their exams, I just give it to them online. Which I had actually moved to anyway, even in person stuff. I’d have them just take their exams on their own time and upload them onto Blackboard. So that even that hasn’t changed that much.

Tyler Jacobson  10:00

You had brought up that when students have questions or things like that, in the past, you would do that or discuss it during class, or they would catch you for five minutes after class. Are you finding that students are more reluctant to seek help? How has that changed?

Stephen Taysom  10:17

So it’s interesting. When we first went to this, I got a lot of emails from students last year, around the time when we first made the switch. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot less so yeah, there, they are more reluctant. Because it just takes more effort. You know, when you’re actually talking to somebody…I explain every question and I answer it. They might not understand what I’ve said. And so they’ll say, “Oh, do you mean this?”, and then I can explain to them. In an email, if I send an email, they don’t understand that they have to then write me back and say, “I didn’t understand that”. They’re very, very unlikely to do something like that, even if they’ve reached out once. So they don’t even ask questions on the Zoom thing, because I think it’s just, they’re not comfortable with it. And so I think there’s a lot of things that are happening, there’s a lot of things going on in their heads that would have been verbalized, that aren’t now.

Tyler Jacobson  11:07

Well, I can see that whenever I have a meeting, if I’ve got more than three people in a meeting, the amount of dialogue substantially decreases, because people don’t have the opportunity to lean forward and raise their hand or, or interject because they’re trying to find the mute button and unmute themselves. And…there’s so many additional moving pieces that it really stifles the conversation aspect of it. Now I also see within my own household, if one of my kids has a question for a teacher, it’s exactly as you described it. They have to put together an email and they have to wait for a response and then assure that there’s no miscommunications in there. And it is extremely difficult to get through that process. So I guess the bottom line, the question is, how has that impacted the results that you’re getting from the students? Have test scores suffered? Has the quality of the assignments that you’re receiving suffered?

Stephen Taysom  12:07

Um…it’s hard to know, exactly. I suspect…you know, I, okay, well, let me be very careful about how I say this. So the impression that I got from the information that we were getting from, not the department, but from higher up in the administration was: “Be very careful about how you’re grading stuff.” Because the students are all in these difficult situations, and they’re not on campus. And communication is difficult. And basically, I did not abandon all my standards. But let’s just say that I became very flexible with what I expected of people, because I needed them to be flexible for what they expected of me, frankly. We just sort of got through it. So that was last year. Last fall, and especially this spring semester, has been better. Students have done better, but it’s…yes. I mean, there’s still there’s a larger percentage, I think of people who aren’t getting it, who aren’t getting the point of what we’re doing and who aren’t getting the kind of philosophical approach that we’re taking to the subject matter. And that I hadn’t really reflected on that until you asked that question. But yeah, I suppose there’s always some percentage of students who aren’t getting it. It’s a lot easier for students to kind of get lost in this, then normally there would be because, you know, when I’m in a classroom with people, if they’re coming to class, I can look at them and tell to a certain degree, are they paying attention? Are they totally lost? Are they confused? Like, I can see that on their face, and I can sort of slow down, back up, and they’re gonna have to say anything. But now, you know, if I have a class…I’ve got one class has 40 people in it, one class has 30 people in it. So this time, I’m only doing two last time I did three. If I have a class of 30 or 40 people, I might get four or five people that have their cameras on. Which means that I have no idea what most of the people in that class, you know, 80% of the people in that class, who are actually in the session, I have no idea what they are doing. If they’re actually listening, if they just have it sort of dialed in and they’re off doing something else. I don’t know what’s going on with them. So I’m not surprised that there are higher numbers of people who aren’t getting it because I strongly suspect that of the 30 people in a class and 25 of them are on Zoom. I would guess maybe 10 of them are actively paying attention to what I’m talking about. Now, in a classroom, that may be true too, but there are fewer distractions, right. So he would have to work harder at it and I would notice faster and be able to intervene.

Tyler Jacobson  14:43

Yeah, I can see that my perspective is from the parents with kids like high school age, and then we do have a couple of kids that are college level but they’re off kind of doing their own thing. If a kid falls behind, or if a student falls behind…it is very delayed to recognize that in order to be able to catch them up. And a lot of times, by the time you figure out that somebody is just not getting it, they’re not prepared for the exam, you don’t find out in time to fix it beforehand. And so by the time you realize that there is a problem, it’s really difficult to fix it before the end of the term.

Stephen Taysom  15:27

Right. So, you know, I’ve got two classes that are kind of at both ends of this spectrum. So I have a class, that’s a research writing class. And that one is really about the final paper. And so I’m trying to be actively involved and telling them, “Okay, this, you have to be working on this, you have to be talking to me, we have to be…”, you know, and so that one, I approach it very actively. But knowing that the incentives there are not as strong. 101, which is the class that I’m teaching, obviously, a 100 level class, normally, I would have exams, maybe three exams per semester, now I have an exam every other week. And the semester is 16 weeks long. So I think I might give them a couple of weeks off. So there’s something like six or eight exams, and they’re, they’re shorter. But what that does is it allows…even…so as a university professor, I don’t intervene as much as a high school or elementary school teacher would on the progress because this responsibility is shifting to them as adults to be on this. But what I’m doing is I’m giving them plenty of opportunities to see, “Okay, you know, am I getting [it]?” And each one doesn’t count as much. So it’s spread out over a longer period, they’re getting tested on less material, each time. [Each] exam is worth relatively less than if there were [just] three exams. And so it gives them an opportunity to figure out and decide if you know, if they want to fail the class or not. That’s a method of surveillance, that’s there are early warning signals or whatever that need to be in place if we’re doing it remotely. And I haven’t… I mean, the message message we got, in not so many words, was: “Don’t fail anybody, unless they absolutely aren’t doing anything.” And so that’s kind of where I’m at. So it’s really a good time to take a class because, for me, because it’s almost impossible to fail.

Tyler Jacobson  17:18

Well, I could see that there’s, you need to make sure that there’s accommodations and that students have a chance to succeed and everything is kind of turned upside down. So a return to normal, like everybody keeps talking about a return to normal. I keep warning people that it’s going to be a bigger mess to come back to campus than it was the exodus from. Because at least when people were leaving campus, they were all going in the same direction. Have they announced anything as far as what the return to campus plans are looking like? Or [are] they still in planning on that?

Stephen Taysom  17:53

I haven’t seen anything specific. I mean, it’s like you said before with the dominoes falling. So…when we all kind of ended up going remote, it started I think [at] Ohio State. Once Ohio State went, everybody in the Ohio State system, we knew we were going to be going. And I noticed I just saw today that Indiana University, where I did my PhD….they’re a large public institution. Much bigger than CSU. They announced that they’re going back completely. Completely in person in the fall. I was surprised they made that decision this early. We haven’t heard anything. I am pretty sure that barring some bizarre happening, we’re going to be back in person. Now is that back to normal? Who knows what that’s going to mean? About half the classes are being taught on campus right now at CSU. So it hasn’t gone totally remote. They can only have their teaching spread out because of, you know, social distancing. And so they’re teaching small classes in huge lecture halls. Everybody has to wear a mask, even the professors. Is that going to be how it is in the fall? Probably. I would think we’re going to be required to wear masks. Everybody has to fill out this temperature update thing, you know, health survey every day. Is that going to be there? Probably. Are people going to be able to just disappear for a length of time and we can’t hold them accountable for that? Probably. So if any of that stuff’s in place, then yeah, it’s not gonna be normal. You know, if we’re talking about how things were. And if somebody does get it, you know, what is it gonna mean in terms of canceling the classes or quarantining people from the class? I don’t know anything about how that’s gonna work out probably because nobody knows how it’s gonna go yet.

Tyler Jacobson  19:39

Well, and that’s exactly it…

Stephen Taysom  19:40

I do think, yes.

Tyler Jacobson  19:41

…because the other thing is, we had some schools that tried to go back last year, and it was this scenario where it’s “Well, we’re gonna be back on campus, but nope, we’re back off campus again!” And so nobody knew from day to day, what the scenario was going to be, and I don’t know that it’s going to be as dramatic as that. However, I think that instructors are probably going to need to have an attitude of flexibility. Because what they plan for next week could change before the end of business day to day. And that may be something to keep in mind as well.

Stephen Taysom  20:16

That’s what’s happened this semester. I mean, for the people who’ve been doing in person instruction, they’ve had to do their in person stuff, but then they’ve had to keep an online presence. Because if it were to go remote again, or if large numbers of students had to go be quarantined, they had to have access to all that stuff. I suspect that may be how it looks in the fall. It’s not gonna be easy. That’s clearly the case. However, it’s still better to be in person than it is to do this remote stuff. If it’s at all possible, if we can make it work logistically. And if the vaccines work, the way that they say that they will, if the numbers keep going down, then it shouldn’t be a problem. And I don’t think it’ll take more than a semester to get back. The problem will be if maybe students become more comfortable this way, and they want to keep doing it this way, then, what do we do?

Tyler Jacobson  21:13

I think that’s a really good point, because they’re going to be elements of this, the students are going to be happy to put by the wayside, and there’s going to be elements of it that they’re going to hold on to and expect or even demand. I think that’s essentially what we’re looking at, things are always going to be a little bit mixed. Especially for the next semester that some students will be off campus and the instructors are going to probably have to provide the instruction in two channels simultaneously, which is going to be very frustrating, and technologically taxing. And eventually, we will get back to something that is recognizable as a normal, but I think that the implications of it is going to [last] years down the road. The last thing that I wanted to ask you because I know that as a publishing professor, you do a lot of research. And one of the things that’s not related to in classroom instruction: has this pandemic changed the availability of primary resources and your ability to do research for your publications and things like that?

Stephen Taysom  22:22

It certainly has the potential to do that I mean, for so this is dependent heavily on what your field is…even [your] subfield, right? Even within the history of religion. So a lot of the stuff I study has already been digitized. So a lot of the archives