Georgia Tech faculty member: I didn’t think I connected with my students online. They disagreed.

Evaluations showed students felt they came to know instructor even without in-person classes
A Georgia Tech professor reflects on a semester teaching online. She felt disconnected from her students and thought they would feel the same way. Turns out, they didn't. (Pete Kiehart/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

A Georgia Tech professor reflects on a semester teaching online. She felt disconnected from her students and thought they would feel the same way. Turns out, they didn't. (Pete Kiehart/The New York Times)

This is a fascinating reflection on online teaching by Georgia Tech faculty member Jennifer Leavey.

Teaching virtually this fall, Leavey felt distant and removed from her students and assumed they, too, would feel they never connected with her.

Turns out the students had a different take on their experience.

Leavey is a principal academic professional in the School of Biological Sciences at Georgia Tech where she has taught cell biology since 2005. She also directs the Georgia Tech Urban Honey Bee Project, an interdisciplinary initiative designed to recruit and retain STEM students by studying how urban habitats affect honey bee health and how technology can be used to study bees. Leavey is also the faculty director of the College of Sciences Explore Living Learning Community at Tech.

By Jennifer Leavey

My students love not knowing me

The view from my virtual classroom is bleak. My desk -- a table salvaged from the basement -- sits in an unused corner of a spare bedroom that looks out over a radiator, a pull-out sofa, and the cat’s litter box. The curated science-themed bookshelf is behind me, a façade of normalcy. It is from here that I recorded dozens of videos for my cell biology course last semester. I spent my days alone with intracellular signaling pathways, motor proteins, and the cytoskeleton. I spoke to no one but my webcam. Each Sunday I sent the videos into the void and hoped some of the 60 students enrolled in my class would watch them.

Were my students even there?

Before the first exam, I held an online review session. One student showed up, connecting from the lodge at Yellowstone where she was vacationing with her family. She didn’t have any questions, but it was raining outside so she decided to log in and meet me. We spoke for about 10 minutes, and she told me she didn’t know anyone else in the class. I held other online office hours that no one attended. I held a review session for the final exam, and three people logged on. Within two weeks of the end of the semester, I forgot the names of everyone in the class.

Georgia Tech professor Jennifer Leavey

Credit: Christopher Moore

icon to expand image

Credit: Christopher Moore

For me, this unexpectedly online course was a disappointment. This course was supposed to be taught at a study abroad program in Lyon, France, where I have been part of the faculty for five years. Most years, the class is small. We have seminar-style discussions. We take field trips to local tech companies so students have a sense of what research looks like in an industrial setting. I invite groups of students to my rented apartment where we get to know each other over home cooked meals I create with ingredients from the daily fresh market down the street.

We have conversations about the students’ hopes and dreams, and I help connect them with research advisors who share their interests. On occasion, I write them letters of recommendation for things like medical school or the Fulbright scholars’ program.

This semester, I didn’t get to know anyone.

When my end-of-semester anonymous course evaluations arrived, I clicked the link with dread. Surely this semester would leave a stain, much like the rest of 2020. But as I started to read, it became clear that my students’ perception of our relationship was very different than my own. One student said, “Dr. Leavey was always incredibly helpful when I ran into any issues …I really appreciated her concern for us and our well-being!” Another said, “She respected her students and was very available for help.”

Yet another said, “She was very accessible and willing to go above and beyond to help students. She was very caring and considerate, especially as these are difficult and uncertain times for us all.” How could this be? Somehow, I must have been conveying compassion…digitally.

I looked through my weekly class announcements for signs that I cared. Some of my notes reflected my own fears, like “if you are in Georgia – be safe out there. COVID-19 is worse now than it ever has been” and “Please stay safe and protect others by staying socially distant and wearing a mask.” Other messages suggested I was available and accessible, and perhaps even desperate to connect: “feel free to email me or any the TAs any time” and “Let me know if you would like to get together and discuss the course (or anything).”

While I wasn’t hearing from very many students in any given week, they must have been hearing me loud and clear.

Is it possible that remote learning can feel even more personal for the student than in-person instruction does? In a normal semester, I would be at the front of the room. Depending on where my students sit, they may not be able to see or hear me very well. But my remote class was somehow intimate. I was arriving in my students’ inbox every day. My face was on a screen in their lap. My voice was in their earbuds. The unused corner of my spare bedroom was in their house, no matter where they were in the world. And maybe my students knew me better than they ever have before. If only I knew them.