Going online

I’ve spent a lot of time staring at a blank page on this blog, wondering what was left to say. The job market is non-existent, the university where I adjuncted is downsizing due to lowered enrollment, and I’m facing the very real possibility of unemployment when my postdoc ends. I’ll admit that the idea of encouraging people to go through graduate school just kind of lost its lustre a bit.

That was depressing. Here’s a photo of a beach that I took this weekend in Holbox (an island about two hours away from Cancun).

Before I was allowed to check in at Cancun airport, I was questioned about my recent travel–specifically whether I had been to the People’s Republic of China or the Islamic Republic of Iran in the past 14 days.

South Korea and Italy, both of whom have higher numbers of cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) than Iran, were not on the list because, of course, the need for checks came out of the Oval Office, and we’re only concerned about countries we don’t like.

This brings me to the big topic of today’s post, which is that universities around the world are suddenly cancelling face-to-face classes and “going online,” and this is something that I know a little bit about.

There was, as you may be wondering, a tweetstorm about this earlier.

You’d think I’ve have learned my lesson the first time.

The problem with “just teaching online instead”

The problem with “just teaching online instead” is that you can’t take an in-person lecture course and teach it online. The entire dynamic of the course is shifted. Assignments and activities that work in person tend to work because you’re doing them in person — doing them remotely doesn’t have the same impact.

For two semesters, I was a TA for a large online class (in Texas, all undergraduate students, regardless of major, are required to take an American history course and Texas government).

Here’s the first thing to know about it: it worked, pretty well, in fact.

Here’s the second thing to know about it: there were at least 15 people helping with every class, over ten of whom were handling the technical aspect. (I don’t even know how many people were actually involved because they weren’t in the room with us).

The third thing is that our class only worked well because of the first two things combined.

Can you hear me now?

The first issue, as many, many people have recognized out there on the Twitter, is that the students need to have the requisite tech to go online from wherever they are in the first place. This means computers, access to internet with a high enough bandwidth. If students are going to need to speak to the professor they might need a webcam and/or microphone (and, in my experience, the earbuds-with-microphone that come with cellphones don’t tend to work well.)

Invariably, there will be students who have trouble getting their equipment to work–and, sometimes, this may happen in multiple class sessions. It is completely unreasonable to expect the professor to troubleshoot every student in their class who’s having problems, but will students know who to contact? Are there enough technical support people to deal with all the students who need help fast enough so that they don’t miss the class session?

There is also another issue which is…

How many fingers do you see?

Congratulations! You have a virtual classroom up and running. So, uh, now what?

Our class had four teaching assistants (one of whom was assigned to handle students who came to the studio in person, as the class wasn’t meant for remote attendance).

The first TA monitored the class chatroom. We had one of those so that the students could communicate with each other. The TA answered simple questions, and nudged the class back on topic if things got a little off. Again, if you’re the professor, this isn’t something you can do while lecturing.

The second TA monitored a feature called “Ask the Professor.” This could probably be replicated by e-mail (but, again, it’s a lot for someone handing the class on their own to do while also lecturing). It allowed students to directly pose a question to the prof; the TA would read the question out, and the professor would answer it on the livestream.

The third TA sent out “pings.” These were randomly timed questions meant to ensure that students were actually paying attention, and hadn’t just logged on and then wandered off so that their attendance would be recorded even though they weren’t really there. The questions were based on something that had just happened. “What did the professor say he did this weekend?” or “What did the professor just drop?” (Questions like “What color is the professor’s shirt?” are bad because of colorblindness.)

Transforming class time and assignments

Unfortunately, this one is the hardest.

Let’s look at the class I’m teaching this semester. I generally lecture for about 20-30 minutes, and then we turn to the topic of the article that we read for today’s class. Sometimes we have a large group discussion, sometimes I pose questions and have them talk to each other.

Large group discussions online are nearly impossible in a class the size of the one I’m teaching (30). If you turn on everyone’s mic, no one will be able to hear anyone else, and it’s a fair certainty that any discussion will be awkward chaos.

A number of platforms allow you to divide a large group up into smaller conversation groups and navigate between them, but depending on the size of the class, it may practically be very difficult to get to all of them before conversation starts to wander off.

Other issues arise if students are being discouraged from coming to campus (or, say, being told not to come back from spring break). If you have readings on reserve at the library, for example–sure, you can scan them … if you have the time, since your TA or RA will be one of the students impacted by the closure.

Similarly, my class involves a research assignment. Most of the grade comes from the research assignment–if my campus closes (and it is being discussed)–I’ll have to throw that out and come up with something else. My students won’t be able to do that kind of work at the public library (assuming those stay open).

At the same time, I designed this class to culminate in an independent research assignment, so this would mean a drastic restructuring of the second half of the course.

The research assignment makes up 40% of the student’s grade (or will, as the proposal is due this week and I’ll still count that.) Replacing it with a final essay based on the course readings that carries the same grade weight seems unfair, as does re-weighting assignments they’ve already turned in to make them worth a higher percentage. (I’m currently employing the technique I mastered as a very closeted teenager and not thinking about it until I need to.)

Other tactics

There are a number of other potential techniques that can be used online: asynchronous lecture (recording a lecture in advance for students to watch on their own time, and having shorter online meetings in which these are discussed), discussion boards, short writing assignments, etc., but–again–these need time to be planned out, and if you’re teaching multiple classes at a university that announces it’s going online today, it can be difficult to think them through all at once.

There’s some great ideas here:

None of this is to suggest that we shouldn’t be taking COVID-19 seriously. However, at the same time, universities that decide to shift their education online need to think beyond the mere question of what platform they’re going to use, but also provide guidance to faculty on how to teach effectively online.

Unfortunately, from what I can tell from colleagues and friends at various institutions, this doesn’t seem to be happening. A lot of instructors seem confused, anxious, and upset (heck, I’m all of those just thinking about it).

Hopefully the coming days will provide some clarity, both about how to better provide education online, as well as on how to deal with the outbreak more effectively so that we can safely resume normal life.

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