Wednesday, March 25, 2020

I've taught online before--why is this time different?

Everyone I know who has made the sudden shift to online teaching keeps talking about how exhausting it is, and I agree, but then I ask myself: I have taught online before without trouble; why is this time so different?

Let me count the ways:

Two or three times I taught an online course in Writing about Nature--a bit ironic, I know, relying on technology to write about nature, but we do what we have to do. Teaching that course was a total breeze for several reasons:

1.  Summertime! I didn't have to teach other classes, attend committee meetings, or do any of the million other tasks associated with my job during the semester.

2. Preparation! I worked long and hard to set that class up, recording narrated PowerPoints and creating assignments and activities that did not require my constant attention. I had ample one-on-one support from our Instructional Technologist and an opportunity to test every part of the system before opening it up to students.

3. Asynchrony! Students completed assignments on their own time, meeting three deadlines each week; I could dip into the course to check on progress any time and respond to their online discussions and writing assignments at my leisure--no Zooming required. 

4. Small class size! It's always easier to manage the needs of eight students rather than eighteen, whether online or face-to-face.

My current online classes, by contrast, had to be thrown together in a few days with assistance from our Instructional Technologist who is doing valiant work to provide services to literally the entire faculty, all at once. There was little time for testing or putting together elaborate resources, and of course I still have to deal with my usual committee work and my usual load of students. 

I've made some changes in syllabi and assignments to allow some asynchronous work, but because my courses are largely discussion-based, we still meet virtually via Zoom at least two days a week. I have mastered breakout rooms, and I think the students enjoy meeting in small groups where they can chat comfortable with each other, although the one guy who was Zooming without a shirt on was maybe a little too comfortable. (This is college, dude. We wear clothes.) 

I don't think I've "dumbed down" my classes but I've certainly inserted some flexibility, and I'm also offering a few unusual extra-credit opportunities designed to help students boost their grades while encouraging each other. My American Lit students, for instance, can earn a few extra points by choosing a character from their reading and writing about why they would or would not want to be quarantined with that person, with evidence from the text to support their claims. Me, I'm choosing a character with a working time machine so I can jump right past all this mess and see what comes next.

I admire my students' ability to adapt to circumstances: one rural student without home internet access drives down the road to a church parking lot where he can call in on his cell phone, and a couple of students in my 8 a.m. class are not complaining about having class at 6 because they live in a different time zone.

But I am exhausted. I feel like I'm on duty all the time, even while I'm sleeping. When I hear or read the so-called "experts" saying this experience proves that colleges can easily shift to online learning permanently, I utter a hollow laugh and start counting the days until I can afford to retire. With time, preparation, support, small class sizes, and more universal access to appropriate technology, online teaching could be a breeze, but not today, and probably not tomorrow either.

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