As a professor at a private regional university in one of America’s largest cities, I found last week’s “back to the classroom” experience to be a surreal one.
I spoke for 75 consecutive minutes through a face mask. I fidgeted while anchored to the podium, unable to move around the room while remaining within range of a video camera. And I watched with trepidation while students moved within six feet of friends, tugged down their masks to speak, and generally struggled to respect the restrictions of social distancing standards.
How can any one teach under such circumstances? Indeed, how can any teacher meet the semester’s learning objectives when students are permitted to “elect the remote learning option,” thereby eliminating the classroom entirely and opting to “attend” sessions by watching the video recordings of the live lectures?
Thus far, I only have one week of teaching under my belt. Nevertheless, I am already adapting to new realities by emphasizing certain principles:
1. EMPATHY. In unfamiliar and unprecedented circumstances, I find that I can only anticipate the needs of students by making a conscious effort to “stand in their shoes” and “see through their eyes” to identify their obstacles to learning. By making such an effort, I can recognize difficulties and develop solutions that may not have occurred to me otherwise.
For instance, consider an ostensibly inconsequential student presentation assignment. For students who are learning remotely, the physical classroom must be replaced by some type of electronic communication platform.
At first blush, a video platform such as Zoom or Skype may appear to offer an effective solution. But what if I view this assignment through the eyes of a disadvantaged student? Does that student possess a broadband internet connection at home? In more extreme circumstances, does the student live in a home at all? And in a visually “presentable” one at that?
There are various solutions to deal with this problem, though (regrettably) none is ideal. Nevertheless, by applying a sense of empathy, I may be more likely to identify the challenges that students may confront during a simple presentation activity.
2. FLIPPING THE CLASSROOM. Traditionally structured courses require students to listen to lectures and discuss cases in live classroom environments, and then to go home and apply their knowledge by completing homework assignments. For many years, though, some teachers have “flipped the classroom” by instructing students to watch video lectures at home. Then students are expected to complete their application activities in the classroom, guided by teachers who serve as coaches and mentors instead of as lecturers.
To be sure, this is not a new pedagogical strategy. However, when many students must “attend” lectures through videos because personal circumstances prevent them from traveling to their classrooms, “flipping the classroom” may evolve from an optional strategy to a mandatory imperative. Under such circumstances, teachers can embrace the “flipping” model and communicate with these remote students electronically, serving as coaches and mentors in an empathetic manner.
3. PULL COMMUNICATION. Under normal circumstances, teachers communicate with students by making verbal announcements in classrooms and video chat rooms, and by posting messages via email, blogs, and electronic announcement boards. Students then reply by verbal conversations and email transmissions.
Under pandemic conditions, teachers can continue to communicate by utilizing these methods. But imagine the discomfort that students may experience while telling teachers “I have Covid” in open Zoom chat rooms, or while reporting on students who attend off-campus “no masks allowed” parties via email messages.
New communication methods may be needed to “pull” such information from students by removing the behavioral obstacles that impede such conversations. Anonymous message systems and private reporting mechanisms may conflict with recent trends towards open and transparent group communication methods, but they may enable more effective interactions during the pandemic era.
Technology clearly plays a key role in each of these three circumstances. However, the solution in each circumstance is not technology itself. Rather, the “Path Forward” may involve the establishment of a more durable and reliable human connection between the professors and the students whom they serve.