getting on(line) with the tasks of teaching and learning

I know, as if the world needs another foray into this topic, but here goes. In the NY Times there’s an interesting piece that follows the deliberations at Kentucky about how/if to open the campus in the fall. We’re all in similar circumstances inasmuch as no one knows what the circumstances will be. We do know that everyone would like to get their normal lives back, and we also know that universities are not empowered to offer that gift. Basically until there is a vaccine, no one is.

Beyond that I imagine many of these decisions will be relatively localized. It will be depend on the local situation with the pandemic, the demographics of the student body, the financial situation at the institution, etc. In my case, the SUNY system was closed by Cuomo. Now we have a regional process by which the state is opening. Western NY is in “phase 1” now. I figure that if we get to a point by August that we are basically open in our region with the caveats of social distancing, wearing masks, and so on, then colleges and universities the region will also be open. The Times article does a good job of addressing the logistical challenges of figuring out how open a campus can be (presumably in a rough analogy to a restaurant, we won’t be able to be a full capacity). I’m not going to speculate on those scenarios. Whatever they are, they’ll all have to be ready for the possibility that we will have to shutdown with little notice. Can we quarantine students on campus in their dorms? Control their exposure in cafeterias, laundry rooms, etc.? Teach them 100% online? Do that for a month in the middle of the semester and then restart? Who knows?

Here’s what I do know. Students, like the rest of us, are unhappy with their current lot in life. Many are more than unhappy. They (and their families and friends) are at risk in terms of health, finance, etc. There are doubts with the “value proposition” of online education. In my social media feeds, my faculty friends alternate between sharing posts that lament the quality of online learning and argue about the foolishness of returning too soon. We range from worried to outraged about the draconian measures some institutions are taking in this financial crisis, and then we berate the cynicism of institutions whose drive to reopen is clearly being driven more by financial imperatives than sound medical advice.

It’s a quarantine quandary.

So here’s my take. First, if students are unhappy because they want to go to campus and have fun with their friends out on the quad or at crowded late night parties and engaged in all the risky behaviors that characterize being a college student, then that’s still not happening. I mean, if, as a student, you’re at home, then likely all your high school friends are at home too. If you can’t go out and have fun/take risks where you are because of COVID, then why would you be able to at college? I wish it weren’t so. But whether students come to college or not, they’re going to be in the same basic situation in relation to the pandemic that the rest of us are.

Second, we are romanticizing face-to-face education. Period. Students don’t want to come back to campus so they can sit in a lecture hall. Even in the best of circumstances that wouldn’t be the case. I mean we have attendance policies for a reason, right? Add in the additional risk of getting seriously ill and I’m guessing the appeal of FTF diminishes even further.

Third, to the point of this post’s title. We need to get on(line) with teaching and learning. We need to get on with it. And by we, I mean all us–faculty, students, staff, admins, eduTechpreneurs (or whatever the hell), various pundits, higher ed news clickbait hacks, etc. Because I think even in the best of circumstances, we’re going to be 50% online in the fall. More importantly, it’s intellectually unacceptable and unprofessional in my view to just throw up your hands and say “online teaching doesn’t work.” Honestly, there’s no way any of us would accept that kind of sweeping generalization from our students.

The appropriate question is “how does online teaching work?”

The reality is that for 20+ years faculty have largely ignored the task of online education. We have left it to corporations (publishers and edTech) and corporate-like university interests. We have left the matter to a siloed staff of IT folks rather than making learning technology decision making as integral to faculty responsibility as curriculum design and review. To be very brief about it, our inattention to these matters has resulted in three significant problems.

  1. Most LMS (e.g., Blackboard) are designed to replicate the face-to-face classroom and to “manage” learning (hence the acronym). The result is often the worst of both worlds.
  2. A lot of innovation has focused on creating efficiencies through cost reduction (e.g. MOOCs). Increasing access is a worthy goal but there are some bottlenecks that really are features rather than bugs. Expertise and interaction are the expensive parts of an education that are generally worth paying for and are precisely the things that tend to get devalued.
  3. People who are technology experts tend to get excited about the latest thing (e.g., VR), but we really need expert interest and innovation on the ground where it can have the most impact, especially now.

In many ways, the challenges here are not unlike the campus-wide task of teaching students to write and communicate. Like writing, online learning is ubiquitous. It’s hard work. It can be labor intensive, especially at the start. And no one really wants to take responsibility for it. The blanket generalization “online teaching doesn’t work” is much like the familiar “students can’t write.”

Neither of these things are true. But neither happen by themselves. And they are intertwined. Teach students to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate online and they will learn.

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