Together, but not really. Another Push for Asynchronous Teaching

Like many Saturday Night Live fans, I eagerly tuned in to the special at-home broadcast. It was well done, as they did their best with what they had, enhanced by having Tom Hanks host. At the same time, this make-do format sadly reminded me of what we have temporarily lost.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to have the technology. To be able to see and talk to people, at least for a moment, can be a day brightener. It works great for giving a brief training with screen share for large groups, like a conference Zoom I participated in last week. The virtual meet-up is also nice for touching base with different family members. I’ve also appreciated the platforms (and the people involved) for enhancing home learning time with a poetry workshop, lesson on Helen Keller, and interview with polio survivors.

For regular online class, though, let’s not pretend that Zoom is the same as an in-person experience. So why are many institutions mandating that students “attend” class, sometimes for the full time slot? And for faculty who have choices, why are you requiring students to do this?

Pandemic at-home synchronous is problematic for a lot of reasons. Students signed up for an in-class experience to be held at a college, presumably close to where they reside. A required Zoom class significantly deviates and increases the demands and expectations of the original registration. We are assuming that students are in a safe, stable environment in which they have WiFi and a computer and are able to spend hours of consecutive time to sit in a virtual classroom. This assumption ignores shifted time zones, issues of access, and other newfound challenges that did not exist for the on-campus version — the one at registration.

We are in a new reality in which parents and other caregivers have been cut off from childcare and networks of support. For universities that are still requiring virtual office hours and live teaching, how are parents supposed to do these tasks without disruption? At the same time, how realistic is it to expect students who are parents to sit through hours of virtual lecture through virtual platforms.

Adding to this challenge, is the economic burden on students, many of whom are working entry-level jobs deemed essential (like grocery store employees or take-out restaurants). Others are suddenly unemployed and may have to take whatever work they can find. Time off for class may have been promised in January, but that doesn’t mean it still applies.

Hours and schedules have radically changed for everyone. It is unreasonable to carry over the Spring in-class schedule to the virtual one, pretending that nothing has changed. It’s far more doable to provide recorded videos and materials so that both sides can work around their other obligations.

Aside from the logistics of requiring live class meetings, the meet-up platforms just aren’t the same as sitting in a classroom. Technology issues impact some participants from having audio or video. It’s hard to call on people or to tell who would like to speak next. There’s also the awkward factor of seeing into others’ living quarters, paired with interruption from other family members or roommates. All of this is magnified when class is stretched out to an hour or two and mandatory so that people can’t opt out.

And, as I articulated in my blog post “Flexible Teaching in the Pandemic,” we also need to consider how illness has and will impact teaching and learning. Students and instructors are getting sick, some needing hospitalization. A synchronous model ignores the reason why our classes are online in the first place. If instructors can produce content ahead of time, then class can continue even if they become ill. Likewise, recorded content and flexible submissions can better accommodate students if they get sick or have to care for an ailing family member.

I’m not saying that we should do away with all Zoom interactions, just that we need to think about how we are using these types of platforms. While I do include the virtual meet-ups for my classes, mine are optional and under 20 minutes. Students can choose instead to do an online discussion post at their own convenience for the week. For those who opt for the Zoom, I know they made the choice, not me, so that they want to be there and that it works for them schedule-wise.

If the goal is for our students to learn the course material and ultimately succeed, then we need to consider obstacles and seek ways to overcome them. Virtual class is not the only pathway to success, nor is an equal substitution for an in-person experience. As with the SNL home show, it is a make-do time. If Saturday Night Live can be flexible in changing things up for the pandemic, then so can we.

The Right to Learn: A History of School

1855 One Room School / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

In this isolated time, we can appreciate the value of our teachers and educational system. School wasn’t always considered a right, especially one that was extended to every child. For this lesson, we use media sources to examine 19th century schooling and the various obstacles that prohibited many kids from receiving an education.

Starting in the 1830s, The Common School Movement led to the development of public schools, which offered free education to all children (more on its limits below) For kids who were lucky enough to go, what was school like in the 1800s? In rural areas, many children learned in one-room schoolhouses, if they lived close enough to walk. Kids across ages gathered together under one teacher.

These country schools existed into the 20th century so you may know people that attended them. Call and ask about their experiences.
Some questions to ask:
—How did you get to school?
—What was it like to have multiple age groups under one teacher?
—How was the day structured?
—Did your school have indoor plumbing? How was it heated?
—How were children disciplined?

You can see a fictional depiction of the one-room schoolhouse in the TV show Little House on the Prairie.

Who didn’t get to go to school?–African American Children
Not every 19th century child got to attend school. Some groups of kids were not allowed to go to school. Seven states had anti-literacy laws that prohibited enslaved and free children from learning to read and write. Read here about the history of African American education. Then watch this overview. Why is literacy so important?

Who didn’t get to go to school?–Children with Disabilities
Some children with disabilities were also left out of the Common School Movement. Unfortunately, inclusive education wouldn’t happen until the late 20th century. Watch the video below. Why did it take so long for the United States to provide education for everyone?

Who didn’t get to go to school?–Child Laborers
Other kids couldn’t attend school because they had to go to work to earn money for their families. The number of children working grew over the the 19th century. In 1900, approximately 18% of children ages 10-15 were employed.

Photo by Lewis W. Hine / Public domain
“10 years old. Working 3 summers. Minds baby and carries berries, two pecks at a time. Whites BogBrown MillsN.J. This is the fourth week of school and the people here expect to remain two weeks more. Witness E. F. Brown. Location: Browns Mills, New Jersey.”  

With adult supervision, research online to answer the following questions:
1. What were some of the jobs held by children?
2. Describe the conditions for these jobs. Were they dangerous? How many hours did kids have to work per day?
3. Why did children have to work?
4. When did child labor become prohibited in the United States? Why?

Reflection Essay
In a short essay, identify three reasons that prevented children from getting to attend school. Next, discuss why school and good teachers are so important. What would your life be like if you weren’t allowed to go to school?

We might get sick. Seriously. Flexible Teaching in the Pandemic

So far, our discussions on how to move online have focused on pedagogical questions and conferencing tools. I enjoyed reading one of the few essays to go against the grain–“Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.” Dr. Barrett-Fox’s reassuring narrative really gets at what most of us are feeling.

The other key point we need to center on is that many people will get sick. We are moving online because of disease. I’m not saying this to fuel the fire. It is a fact. We as faculty should prepare our courses in such a way that if (or when) we are too ill to teach, or too busy providing care, classes can still continue.

If we prep and release several weeks of material (video lectures, prepped assignments, quizzes, exams, discussion submission boxes), we also extend the same flexibility to our students, some of whom will also get sick. Even for the healthy ones, we don’t know their situations. They may not have computer access at home. Or slow internet. Or an older device that can’t download new apps.

Our students are across time zones right now and facing many unusual burdens that take away from learning. If we can create some material in advance, then we grant students the flexibility to work around their additional challenges. We can still connect by offering real-time conferencing, but only as a bonus, not for regular course delivery.

I know that many instructors are panicking about producing any materials and this task seems daunting. You will not be able to replicate your normal class or even its ideal online version. Boil down your regular lectures into short videos. Use technology that auto-grades quizzes and exams. Use the textbook’s additional resources and the free technology, provided that learning it doesn’t suck all of your time. Find Youtube videos that cover some of your course topics.

We as faculty also need to use each other as resources. If you create a video lecture with wider appeal, offer it to others. Senior faculty should reach out to junior faculty that teach the same course. Don’t let pride or fear hinder opportunities to make it through, especially as childcare options are falling through, forcing instructors and students to parent at the same time.

This is a weird time. We need to prep for the worst and hope for the best.