Pandemic Teaching Is Challenging and Difficult But Still Merits Reflection

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 is taking a lot more conscious effort. I find that I am not doing a lot of what was sine qua non of my modus operandi.

I feel exhausted on most days. Somehow, even with no commuting, no ferrying kids to practices, no grocery shopping, and no excursions into the beautiful Oregon wilderness, I still have less time and seemingly more work. With most of what we do in higher education already housed on computer, 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, 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 of time, there is a toll on the psyche. Yes, some personality traits such as optimism, self-esteem, resilience, and hardiness, and 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 as well 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 zoom-athon inspired headaches, perhaps periods of helplessness, fatigue, and just sheer inability to function. We need to take our self-care up a notch. Bolster our natural capabilities by having coping activities to commandeer our daily routines.

There is good news. 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 seeming pits of despair.

Personally, my Emergency Remote Teaching has given way to Temporary Remote Teaching en route towards effective Blending Learning. At first the charge was to keep the lights on and teach a face to face course without being face to face. Time precluded a full course redesign. I know some attempts resulted in Frankencourses or “courses and a half” (see Kahn, 2020 for a remote learning mix map that can prevent this). Some students experience lumbering beasts of courses where face to face activities were surgically squashed into preexisting online courses resulting in more work for all. I found I use any moments of clarity to force myself to take a student perspective and adjust perhaps unreasonable requests or compensate for inadequate scaffolding and instructions. There has been pruning and many on the fly modifications.

Now midway through, I am hitting my stride 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 now 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).

I know I need to be aware of nuances in language with significant implications as I approach the next few weeks and for when we may have to do this again. In contrast to thinking about “online lectures” I 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 now translating that into interactions shared through screens. Even asking questions is not the same (Amobi, 2020). Instructor presence is even more important (Hahn, 2020). It is not just delivering content, but engineering a learning experience replete with opportunities to interact with each other, apply and process material, together with synthesizing and creating 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/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 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.

Regan A.R. Gurung, Ph.D. is Interim Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, Professor of Psychological Science, and Director of the General Psychology Program at Oregon State University.

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1 Response to Pandemic Teaching Is Challenging and Difficult But Still Merits Reflection

  1. Kelly Donegan says:

    What an insightful and inspiring essay,which certainly mirrors much of what I’ve been experiencing in teaching remotely this term. Thank you.

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