Pandemic Teaching Is Tough, but It Need Not Be Unexamined
I am not the same teacher I was six weeks ago.
Oh, I still care very much about my students. It is still very important to me that they are learning, that I help bring the content to life and make the material engaging and applicable. I want them to feel connected to me, their classmates, and the university (connections that synergistically help learning). It is just a lot harder to do. It takes a lot more conscious effort. I find that I am not automatically doing a lot of what was sine qua non of my modus operandi.
I feel exhausted most days. Somehow, even with no commuting, no ferrying two kids to practices and lessons, no grocery shopping, and no excursions into beautiful Oregon wilderness (don’t get me started on how much I miss the coast, under an hour away), I still have less time and seemingly more work. With most of what we do in higher education already housed on computers, the now greater access to said screens can easily encroach on the time freed up by the inability to partake in normal activities. Research, writing, data analysis, and making a class better are all pursuits that, like a gas, expand to take the space you give it.
We may know the psychological story here. When organisms face unpredictable stressors over which they have little control and over a long duration, there is a toll on the psyche. Yes, personality traits such as optimism, self-esteem, resilience, and hardiness, as well as resources such as social support (both perceived and received), can alleviate some of the stress and the negative effects. Health behaviors such as eating well, not drinking too much, sleeping well, getting physical activity, and practicing mindfulness are excellent coping strategies too, nicely mediating the effects of stress on well-being. I remind myself that stress can take a toll even when we do not consciously recognize it. We all have to be watchful for those symptoms of implicit stress, those Zoomathon-inspired headaches, perhaps periods of helplessness, fatigue, and just sheer inability to function. Take your self-care up a notch. Bolster your natural capabilities by having coping activities to feature in your daily routines.
Slowly bandwidth will increase. As we habituate to the new normal, as we get more efficient at doing what we now do, as we consciously work to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, we will see gaps in the clouds, a way out of the seeming pits of despair.
Personally, my Emergency Remote Teaching has given way to Temporary Remote Teaching en route to Effective Blending Learning. At first the charge was to keep the lights on and teach a face-to-face course from afar. Time precluded a full course redesign. Some attempts resulted in Frankencourses or courses and a half (see Kahn, 2020, for a remote learning mix map that can prevent this), lumbering beasts of courses where face-to-face activities were mashed together with online courses, resulting in more work for students and teachers alike. There was undoubtedly some pruning of courses with many on-the-fly modifications. I found I used any moments of clarity to force myself to take a student perspective and adjust perhaps unreasonable requests or compensate for inadequate scaffolding and instructions.
Now, midway through, I am hitting my stride, cruising along in this temporary state of remote teaching. I am also looking ahead. I am coming to terms with new technological affordances, such as the abilities provided by breakout rooms, and am more open to leveraging the vast array of asynchronous course components to build community and increase student engagement. Previously the purview of online education, those of us taking our face-to-face classes into the cloud can benefit from best practices for using discussion rooms and more, focused around the useful categories of student-instructor, student-student, and student-content (see Riggs, 2020, for tips).
Be aware of nuances in language with significant implications as you approach the next few weeks and for when we may have to do this again. Rather than “online lectures,” think about “online classes.” What we are doing is not just taking our live lectures and recording them. What we are doing is taking an entire face-to-face experience—blocks of time we spend with our students together in the learning process—and translating it into interactions shared through screens. It is not only delivering content but also engineering a learning experience replete with opportunities for us and our students to interact with each other, apply and process material, and synthesize and create insights. That’s not all; we are doing it in the face of students’ perceptions (right and wrong) of what online learning is, their shock at being remote when expecting a face-to-face class, and their now idealized and potentially inaccurate sense of what was lost.
The challenge is to have pedagogically sound class time. This may mean untethering oneself from synchronous delivery. Yes, having a routine is useful, and many students who signed up for face-to-face classes may want and prefer fixed class times, but that may not be the most effective way for you to teach your course in your discipline. Online education is primarily asynchronous (hybrid and blended courses have some synchronous components). Consider variations on the theme where some meetings are synchronous. Reconsider what you do during those meetings. You may want to keep synchronous live meetings for discussion only and record short lectures that students can view asynchronously (they can still email questions and requests for clarification).
With a little more warning, once solely face-to-face instructors can now quickly adopt the best practices of online and blended learning. For example, at Oregon State University, we have a self-guided course on designing and modifying face-to-face courses for remote delivery. It is packed with helpful tips. The dust has settled on the pivot, and as responsible educators we need to prepare for the next step while also taking the time, mental health providing, to look at how our students are doing right now. We all know formative evaluations are particularly useful for students. This is the time to steel our resolve and carve out some time to see how we are doing. No one asked for this type of teaching and learning, but it does not mean we are powerless to do anything about it. There is still time for course corrections.
No, I am not the teacher I was six weeks ago, but after this all passes, I may be a better one.
Kahn, C. (2020, April 15). Be seen. Be heard. Teach effectively. OSU Center for Teaching and Learning. http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/osuteaching/2020/04/15/be-seen-be-heard-teach-effectively
Riggs, S. (2020, April 15). Student-centered remote teaching: Lessons learned from online education. Educause Review. https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2020/4/student-centered-remote-teaching-lessons-learned-from-online-education
Amobi, F. (2020, April 20). Bringing out students’ best assets in remote teaching: Questioning reconsidered. OSU Center for Teaching and Learning. http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/osuteaching/2020/04/20/bringing-out-students-best-assets-in-remote-teaching-questioning-reconsidered
Hahn, K. (2020, April 22). Getting close while teaching remotely: Instructor presence. OSU Center for Teaching and Learning. http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/osuteaching/2020/04/22/getting-close-while-teaching-remotely-instructor-presence
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is a professor of psychological science, the director of the general psychology program, and interim executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.