For a few years now, the specter of online teaching had been encroaching into my classroom as the inevitable fate of higher education in the United States. Slowly but surely we, professors of all sorts, are enticed to design our syllabi as “online courses,” both as a way to recruit hard-to-reach students and to conform to our universities’ unavoidable e-teaching trajectory.
Meanwhile, many of us halfheartedly resisted such a fate, mostly by asserting the importance of “real-life” professor-student exchanges on the basis of experiential learning principles. Truth be told, online teaching somehow felt like the death knell of our role as educators. Some of us feared that we would be eventually substituted by computerized teaching proctors that would effectively deliver lectures on-demand, without asking for sick leave or retirement benefits in return. How long would it take before we were completely replaced by automated versions of ourselves? Would professors like me be deemed obsoleted once e-learning technologies were set to do our jobs faster and for a tenth of the price?
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Although these were the types of rhetorical questions that nobody dared ask out loud, they still remained in the back of the minds of many—me included—until now.
Let’s fast-forward to the COVID-19 crisis. For a month now, educators of all sorts have been forced to replace the classroom with a virtual version of itself. In a matter of hours, we all hurried to self-train on online teaching and remote learning technologies, and signed up for crash courses on how to successfully manage the virtual classroom.
A sense of urgency quickly made these technologies “the new normal,” and the ubiquitous need to comply with the academic calendar now seemed outdated. Without hesitation, we committed ourselves to learn how to prepare, upload, and mark online multiple-choice tests, design fieldwork e-guidelines that quickly replaced our hands-on geology scouting trips, and incorporate blackboard virtual conference rooms into our daily teaching practice.
Still, the transition to online learning has been marked by a stark feeling of anxiety, quite palpable in social media stories posted by educators of all sorts, many of whom have been dealing with unforeseen situations that require quick versions of a “new normal” in the ways we teach. As a professor in the City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban university system in the United States, here is what I have learned in the past few weeks.
Embrace the Imperfect: Many of us are just learning to use web-based teaching sites and have encountered multiple glitches along the way. There now exists a new layer of social distancing (mediated by the screen) between our students and us, as a sort of virtual reality that has a life of its own. Learning to adjust to this teaching modality takes time and things do not always work as expected. Keep in mind that even if your students know more about technology than you do, they may not all have the luxury of being connected to the internet during your class time, nor own a device with which to do their homework. Even if they do, they may have to share their computer or small phones with others. In fact, lack of digital equity may be the number one reason that keeps our students away from a computer during scheduled teaching times. Some ways to overcome this inequity include using phone-friendly apps to teach lessons and being flexible with class requirements and homework, as explained below.
Soften your Academic Expectations: One of my colleagues’ main concerns these days is that students are “missing in action.” They do not connect during live stream sessions, nor do they respond to follow-up emails.
A quick solution to this is to design both synchronic and asynchronic online teaching sessions. For instance, consider planning a remote learning module that can be accessed asynchronously by your students, so they can work independently and at their own pace. You may also record your live stream sessions, so your students will have the option to visit them once they have internet access. If you were originally planning to have online quizzes at a given time, try using open-book assignments instead, and allow these to be delivered to your email or virtual blackboard site within a generous timeline.
Many universities (including CUNY) are now offering a pass/fail option to ease students’ and instructors’ academic pressures for the rest of the spring semester. Even if your college does not provide this alternative, you may decide to reduce your class requirements to help students relieve their stress levels during these difficult times.
Connect with your students: If, like me, you teach in a public institution serving largely minority and underrepresented populations, many of your students have probably had their lives turned upside down during the COVID-19 crisis. Furthermore, many of them may not have the luxury of staying home to “flatten the curve,” as they are going out to work being worried about getting exposed to the virus and transmitting it to their love ones. Many of my students are presently concerned about how to pay their bills at the end of the month, and how to do their homework while taking care of their siblings and children who are quarantined at home.
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A proactive way to keep your students focused in your class is for you to stay in touch with them. In fact, the more we connect with what our students are experiencing—rather than trying to replicate an academic bubble—the more engaged they will be with the course materials. Think about conducting an informal survey to find out where they stand. Set aside some class time to discuss their most common worries and brainstorm about strategies to cope with anxiety and uncertainty. Some of my colleagues are offering a five-minute mindfulness session at the beginning of their online teaching sessions, while others assign time for writing down feelings that are collectively discussed during a later session.
Bring the World into Your (Virtual) Classroom: These days it is almost impossible to ignore the ever-changing news about COVID-19. Despite our best intentions to keep our heads up, many of us find ourselves compulsively browsing the news to find out the latest casualty figures and hospitalization rates. Rather than “conducting business as usual,” this pandemic has given us an opportunity to bring timely topics into the classroom. For instance, those in the social sciences may decide to examine societal responses to past infectious diseases and compare them to COVID-19; colleagues in the natural sciences may use the divergent morbidity and mortality COVID-19 models to understand patterns of disease causation and infection. And those in the liberal arts may choose to discuss the role of pandemic diseases as the setting of masterful literary pieces such as Camus’ The Plague or Love in the Time of Cholera by Garcia Marquez.
About a month ago, and right after the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of all my “real-life” classroom sessions, I jettisoned my reservations about online teaching and made swifts steps to embrace it. Still, many of us have a steep learning curve to deal with when it comes to teaching and working online effectively.
Rather than believing that we will be replaced by robot technologies any time soon, I am now convinced that—in due course—the technology capital that we have been accumulating during this crisis, will surely lead us to better ways of thinking creatively within and outside the classroom.