Teaching in the time of Coronavirus

Our spring semester ended a little bit ago and after having taught online for the second half of it and now planning for an online fall semester, I have some thoughts. First, a little bit about me and my position in all of this, so you can understand where my perspective is coming from. I am an assistant professor at a large public Midwestern university. I study learning and educational technologies. I am an old millennial and have seen first-hand how technology has dramatically changed during my schooling career (from early personal computers in elementary school to broadband internet in college to smart phones and social media now). I have a serious underlying medical condition (type 1 diabetes) that affects my everyday life in sometimes unpredictable ways and makes me much more vulnerable to adverse complications with Covid-19 but also has supplied me with coping mechanisms and resilience to deal with this physical distancing1 and uncertainty that we all now face. Alright, here are my thoughts on teaching (and just being in the world) in this time of crisis and how we can adapt and get through it safely.

Guiding principles during an uncertain time

My guiding principles around this transition to online were flexibility and empathy. Being flexible with myself in how I adapted the course and being ok with making changes week to week as we were figuring it out, and being flexible with my students in understanding what their needs were and how they were changing as the pandemic continued. Empathy is equally important because it’s more important than ever to create a supportive and nurturing classroom culture. And that is built on empathy and trust.

The other big thing that came up a lot was students asking for extensions on assignments. So yeah, just give them extensions. On everything. For no reason. It’s really fine. If you don’t think this is ok, I want you to consider deeply what the point of assignments are and what function they (and their associated grades) play in your class. Learning should be the focus, not punitive points taken off for having a global pandemic going on in the background of your class.

At the beginning of the transition to online, I gave my students an online survey to fill out. I wanted to find out some basic things like what time zone they were currently living in (since we were doing a lot of synchronous class time), if they had adequate access to the internet and the class materials, and if they had any additional responsibilities that would impact the amount of time they had available. But I also asked them about whether or not they felt they had adequate information about the mental health services that were available to them, what they were most concerned about trying to finish the semester, and gave them a space to tell me any other information that would help me support them during the transition.

It wasn’t all serious questions, though. I felt that some positivity and levity in small amounts would help balance it out and so I interspersed the “serious” questions with questions about how cute my dog was (Likert options went from “a little cute” to “extremely cute”), about what good things they’ve watched or read recently, and if they were also addicted to Animal Crossing.

One thing that I noticed from the survey and from continuing conversations with my students, is that there was a huge disparity in how the pandemic was effecting their everyday lives. Perhaps about half of my students noted that it was mildly disruptive, they weren’t exactly thrilled with living at home with their parents, but that they felt confident that they would be able to complete the course as expected. The other half noted significant disruptions to their lives. This ran the gamut from having to care for their siblings at home, having to care for a sick family member (more than one of them had a close relative contract Covid-19), having to take on an extra job to help out, not having reliable internet, and/or not having a good place to study and learn. Some students started out in March with having minor disruptions, but then someone would get sick a month later and all of a sudden things were much more difficult.

And this goes back to why it’s important to focus on flexibility and empathy. Your students aren’t always going to tell you that suddenly one of their parents is sick and it’s disrupted everything in their life. They just told you that they need an extension. So just give it to them. You really don’t need to know the details, you just need to trust them.

Adapting to online

Listening is still the most important skill you can have as a teacher. Maybe even more so now. Of course it’s hard with a Zoom-based class or other some other remote learning technology. You can’t get the visual feedback (nods, smiles, confused looks, clearly distracted with something else, etc.) that is part of listening and good in-person teaching. I don’t lecture very much and even when I do, I like to check in with students throughout to make sure they are getting the content and ask for their ideas and questions. That has been much harder to do online.

This summer I will have a lot more time to figure out new strategies to engage my students and have them participate in class and share with each other. I’m sure it will look different than it did during our quick spring transition. One thing that will be difficult is to not just try to replicate things that work well in person. Sometimes there is a technology solution to replicating things that are “best” in person, but a lot of times there just isn’t. We need to rethink the class entirely and figure out what is going to work online.

Now, there are some things that are possible because we are remote/online/distanced that weren’t possible before. We can interact in different ways in different modalities/avenues. For instance, if students are watching something on Zoom, they could use the chat feature to comment and build off of the ideas discussed in a way that wouldn’t have been possible with an in-person lecture, for instance (not that I’m advocating doing a lot of lecturing). Assuming technology access is equal, being online allows for different ways for students to express themselves and demonstrate how and what they are learning. Students who might not feel comfortable raising their hand in class could comment in an online forum.

There are new opportunities for interacting and learning that weren’t possible before. But, we must be careful and think about who these new ways are privileging and who they are leaving behind, because they will leave some people behind.

One thing that a lot of us have been grappling with during this time is thinking about what can be done online and what should be done online. What needs to be an in-person activity (and therefore should not be part of a good online class)? What can be done online that maybe wasn’t possible before? And how should it be done online? I think one thing that we may learn after this is all over and we all have vaccines and can go back to in-person safely, is that there may be new ways of having students interact with each other and with us that we might want to keep and that it will lead to a more hybrid approach that will marry together the best of in-person pedagogies and online affordances.

One final note on adapting is that, as my friend and fellow professor Breanne Litts said recently, we are “transitioning a classroom culture, not just content” and this is probably the hardest part to consider, as it should permeate through all of our instructional decisions. This is an opportunity to really think carefully about what is important to us in terms of creating a space for learning and how we can support our students in whatever mode we see them.

Technology in K-12 schools

I teach in higher ed, but my research is mostly focused in K-12 classrooms, students, and teachers, so I wanted to add a little bit about the unique challenges that K-12 classrooms face as they also are struggling with moving partially/fully online.

There are three main areas to consider when we think about technology and its role in virtual/remote K-12 learning: 1) hardware (computer/tablet/etc.), 2) internet, and 3) resources at home (e.g., an adult, time, space). The hardware one is fairly obvious, but is not as straightforward as it seems. Perhaps a family does have a laptop or a tablet at home. But what if multiple people (kids and adults) in the family need access to it at the same time? Internet (and wifi) is also important and vital to accessing curricular materials and other resources. Some schools have been able to provide internet hotspots to make this easier for families. This last point, resources, I think is the one that is overlooked the most. There are many additional resources that can benefit students, especially when trying to access schooling remotely. Having an adult available to help them troubleshoot their technology or answer questions or just walk them through some material is really helpful. Does the time that adults are available overlap when it’s best for the child to learn? Is there space in the house to be able to do schoolwork without interruptions?

It is important to remember that technology is not neutral. (Schooling is also not neutral. But that’s another post for another day by probably someone else who can do it more justice.) Technology can (and does) exacerbate underlying inequities that already existed. Disasters like this can reveal unseen issues, either the big systemic issues that have plagued education for a long time, or local ones that are specific to particular students.

Education is social. Learning is social. Distance/remote learning is inherently different and difficult because of this.

Being online

It can be exhausting to “be” online all of the time, or even for a two or three hour class, let alone multiple classes/meetings per day. If you feel overwhelmed with your new online presence responsibilities, that is normal.

We are losing something important by being online at a distance. What that something is will be different for different classes and types of students. It might even be different week to week. I think it’s important not to assume that we know everything that is being lost by each student in our class. They might not even know until later.

During one of my discussions with my students in class, they discussed how their phone is not leisure anymore. This was a wake-up call for them in terms of technology use. They spend so much time on their phones and it quickly and deeply changed their relationship with their phones and the internet. They talked about how it made them want to prioritize talking to people more, play board games with their family, and do other non-screen activities (i.e., less social media). Many of them said they had been taking human interaction for granted. It was also making them feel like they need to be more creative with their time/energy (not in a bad way, just like, more in an innovative way and trying to find new creative ways to interact and be in the world with others).

We are also grieving on a large scale, unprecedented in our (well, at least my) lifetime. Doing so much online is just a constant reminder of this. For many people, if they don’t (yet) know someone that has been directly affected by Covid-19, it might just feel a dull weird sense of loss and not know what to attribute that to. It could be just a general unease about this strange phase in our lives of being home and not seeing our family and friends in person and doing the things we would normally do as the weather changes and summer beckons us outside. But, there is also a tremendous amount of loss of human life and it will continue for some time and that is difficult to grasp and process (especially when much of it could have been prevented with earlier action). And everyone is going to process this in different ways and at different times.

Some personal advice

As a person with an autoimmune disease that takes up an enormous amount of mental space and medical supplies each and every day just to stay alive, I am used to living in a state of near-disaster all of the time. I have been extremely lucky so far with my type 1 diabetes, but I always know that my existence is tenuous and at the whim of medical supply chains, health insurance, greedy pharmaceutical companies, and many other factors. (I’m really not trying to be dramatic, and every day doesn’t overtly feel like this, but it is always in the back of my mind. I cannot take a vacation from this, not even for a few hours without debilitating consequences.) With this knowledge, I approach each day with a certain amount of battle-readiness – trying to figure out what challenges will be thrown at me and how I have to plan around them and adapt on the fly.

Many people who have never had to think twice about it before now have to spend a part of their day trying to ensure that they stay alive (or at least healthy). Just going to the grocery store has taken on a new danger and uncertainty that we never had to deal with before. My advice is not to ignore this danger and pretend that things are going to be ok.

Arm yourself with knowledge; take proper precautions; understand why you are wearing a mask in public and staying away from other people. My mask is to keep you safe and your mask is to keep me safe. We are doing these things because we care about others. View your mask and distancing as an act of love and care (which is it) and not a burden or hassle.

There is something called “the spoon theory” which is a helpful framework for understanding what people dealing with disabilities and chronic health conditions face on a daily basis. Basically, everyone has a certain number of spoons available to them each day. Different tasks take a different number of spoons to achieve. (You can kind of think of spoons as available units of energy.) There are only so many things you can accomplish in a day, as time and energy are limited. For someone else, getting ready for the day (eating breakfast, showering, getting dressed) might only take up one spoon. But for someone with various health conditions, that could take two or three or four spoons of energy. Anytime I eat anything or want to exercise, it takes me extra spoons than someone with a fully-functional pancreas. Getting dressed for the day is more complicated because I have two medical devices attached to me at all times that I have to accommodate. Dealing (emotionally, mentally, physically) with a global pandemic is going to take up some of your available energy/spoons on many/most/all days. Do you have your mask with you when you go out? Are the other people I encounter at the grocery store going to be adhering to the proper precautions that will keep me safe? These questions and ones like them take up space and it is important to acknowledge that your ability to do other things (even fun things you might want to do) is affected by having to consider all of these new pandemic-related things.

Along with that, it is important to remember that many people in our society are at higher risk with this pandemic. Some of them may be obvious to you at first glance, like an older person at the grocery store. But some of them, like me, don’t “look” like they’re at high risk. You should always be taking proper precautions, like wearing your mask properly and keeping your distance, when you’re out in public.

Fall 2020 (and beyond)

I am exhausted thinking about all of the possibilities and options and contingencies and unknowns for teaching in the fall. My university released their Fall semester plans last week. I want to do what is best for my students but I also need to seriously consider my health and the risks that I take by potentially teaching at least partially in-person. (Any time I leave the house I am taking a risk, just as everyone else is. How I calculate these risks and the benefits is a constantly changing calculus based on the information I currently have available to me, which includes how well others are adhering to health guidelines.)

This fall, I am teaching two graduate-level courses, one on advanced educational technologies (e.g., simulations/games for learning, intelligent tutoring systems) and one on data visualization (ggplot for life). I think one of them will be much easier to adapt to our new situation than the other. This is mostly because graduate seminars are usually focused on students discussing articles in small groups. I can’t really see how that will happen in-person safely. Those discussions in online spaces are much more difficult to have (either synchronously or asynchronously) and are more difficult for me to monitor and provide feedback on. But we will do our best.

I have been very lucky and fortunate in that my university and also my department have been, from the beginning, allowing faculty to make decisions that are best for them and for their students. Even though our university is trying to have as much in-person instruction (for small classes that can be distanced in larger rooms), they have been flexible in that they know some faculty members and some students just cannot (or should not) be in-person.

My heart wants me to teach in-person as much as possible because I know it is (under non-pandemic conditions) a great learning situation for my students. But my head knows that the risk is probably just too great for my health (and possibly for my students) and that I should be nearly entirely virtual this fall and possibly next spring as well (basically, until we get a vaccine for everyone). That’s hard to acknowledge, but I think it’s what I have to do. And so, I will spend this summer doing a lot of extra work to make those virtual classes and virtual learning spaces the best I possibly can for my students.

  1. I am using the term “physical distancing” and not “social distancing” because I have found that having strong social connections with people (at a physical distance, of course) is more important than ever before. ↩︎

Author: cynthiadangelo

I am a researcher, working on educational games, science education, and data visualization. I like photography, soccer, traveling, and teaching my dog new tricks.

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