Teaching in the time of coronavirus

Teaching in the time of coronavirus

As the term comes to a close, I look back and reflect on this unique experience of teaching amid a pandemic. Both courses I taught this term, by design, rely a lot on face-to-face interaction whether because case-based discussions are more personal or that big-think economics is best done with students just a couple of feet away from the platform. When alarm bells started to ring, and queues of students and faculty in face masks formed at the entrances of the campus suddenly became an everyday affair even before a pandemic was officially announced on March 12, the need to shift to remote learning became clearer. We talked about it casually not realising that it would soon become a reality, much less a permanent feature of the rest of the term. We were not even able to say ‘goodbye’ in person before we went entirely online.

Looking back, I realise that we seemed to know it was going to happen all along. Reading the chat threads (for feedback) and the results of a poll I ran at some point (for feedback), and the attendance levels in initial live sessions (I call them “hang out” sessions instead of synchronous), it seemed that remote learning was manna falling from heaven. I think part of the excitement was discovering the extent to which Canvas can deliver so much that initial sessions were packed and students “came to class” more punctually (no hassle of traffic or long queues to take the lift). The engagement was also more active (chatting is less of a hassle than raising your hand in class).

As the dust settled and students (faculty as well) got their first taste of how it is to be in six, seven or eight classes with two sessions each week delivered entirely online. Also, the initial momentum built over the first week was somehow lost because of, for better or worse, a temporary postponement of all online learning activities to give students, faculty and their families the time and space to adjust to the harsh realities of *being* in a pandemic. Combined, it made remote learning unsurprisingly unpopular: online attendance started to dwindle, participation became erratic, and emotions were generally high and all over the place. Even engagement beyond online classes became less piquant. It bothered me.

I thought to myself, “what is it that I am doing wrong?” I had sleepless nights thinking about how heavy online classes have become and how these classes I had led might be giving them more to worry about on top of the unique situation each student has with her family. Learning should not be something they worry about while battling whatever emotions they have about the pandemic. The question, to me, then became: how can I make learning a respite and a haven for the worried student.

I wrote to my students a Covid-19 “love letter” setting the plan going forward, that is a learning plan that is optimised to focus on #whatmattersmost. This plan was meant to address learning #whatmattersmost in the course, shedding the neat but “vestigial” content and keeping only essential ones while keeping learning outcomes in mind, so they can focus on #whatmattersmost in their lives. Together, we shifted gears so that we do not redline too fast nor too soon, which can drain everyone empty for no good reason nor outcome. At that point, it became clear that we needed to cruise at a comfortable altitude and at a speed that was mindful of the uniqueness of each student’s situation. Listening and feeling were critical to finding that sweet spot to keep real learning to flow freely even when the virus and some shared fear and real anxieties can be discouraging.

Technology is the solution and is the way through which gaps are bridged, but “high tech” cannot replace the “high touch” aspect of memorable learning experiences. This is a design problem. How can we design a learning experience facilitated by technology (“high tech”, baby) that engenders a “high touch”, inclusive and responsive culture? How can we make learning accessible for most if not all types of learners (as humanly possible)? How can we make learning a safe haven for students in different situations and those who are resolved in their pursuit of excellence?

Any design undertaking has tradeoffs, and a middle ground might be ideal for classes with students in diametrically opposed situations. It is a tough balancing act, and each class, instructor, student would have to feel their way through to find that sweet spot.

I am glad that my classes seem to have found this sweet spot, the right rhythm, and a collective commitment to do what is right not only for oneself but for others, too. There is nothing better than ending a term on a high especially, I think, in the face of an emotionally draining pandemic. For that and a lot of other reasons, I am thankful for having one of the best terms I’ve had. Admittedly, it was a harsh term for everyone (the pandemic is tough on faculty, too) — no one signed up for this but have to daringly accept (and as cheerfully as possible) because it is who we are. Our humanity should never have to stop just because of the compounding pressure of a pandemic, and learning and its provision need not, too. We just have to find that sweet spot, so real learning does not become a chore (nor a bore) or an additional source of bother.

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” — Randy Pausch.

What I learnt from this experience:

Students are teaching partners, too. In crisis mode, I would venture that even in ordinary times, students are not merely recipients of instruction but are partners in making learning work. Yes, they receive grades for the work they put into the course, but they also influence the environment in which learning takes place. I learnt that partnering with students, getting their feedback, listening to suggestions, and creating the experience together not only makes the design problem relatively more comfortable to manage but also more meaningful to them. Taking students on a journey towards making their experience worth their while fosters an open, inclusive, and solution-oriented environment (which they helped to build).

A ‘dynamic’ syllabus works. From the onset, I replaced my rigid syllabus with a dynamic one that is flexible and continuously updated. While my primary syllabus, the basis of the dynamic version, as approved by the Dean and Department Chair, does not change substantially, changes in how students progress and the conditions in which their learning takes place can be reflected on this dynamic syllabus available as a collaborative Google Doc. With a dynamic syllabus, I was able to refocus the topics and rethink specific content that would fit the students’ learning needs while still achieving the desired learning outcomes. There are indeed many ways to accomplish a goal.

Keeping it interactive even outside contact hours. Student engagement in a typical classroom set up does not end when the bell rings. It goes on — students huddling with you at the end of the session, in the hallways, in 1:1 consultations, and email. These need not stop. I find that keeping in touch, in crisis or not, through groups (we call them “gc”, why not) helpful if not even more necessary in remote learning. It is where I can coordinate activities, share bits and pieces of other sources of knowledge, data, or even off-the-cuff thoughts and ideas. But more importantly, it is where I listen even when everyone is silent. It is where I feel and reach out when needed. They might not always be “chatty”, but they, too, are listening as well. It is the virtual version of “being there” for them.

Big classes held in plenary do not always work well. In a case-based learning class where students learnt in groups by doing cases together, I find those shorter sessions done in smaller groups to be more efficient in making learning stick. It is also more effective in working on challenging material and in engaging students more personally. Plenary sessions tend to lose the “high touch” factor, but this is also dependent on the time constraints the instructor has. It is a tradeoff I embraced; I allocated Tuesday and Thursday afternoons (and sometimes through to dinnertime, too) to meet with each group, one by one. It was a tiring exercise, but one that I would not have any other way.

Keep an open mind and be forgiving of yourself as you are of others. It can be an exhausting experience. Course preparations now include thinking of production considerations on top of content development tasks. What students can learn by searching on YouTube should no longer form part of our content, and what can be learnt outside a live session should no longer be repeated. Trust that students have the intellectual horsepower to look for bits and pieces of the puzzle; we need to add value to that learning bricolage by providing synthesis and insights they won’t find elsewhere. Recording sessions for “asynchronous” learning and facilitating live sessions are equally challenging. Recording sessions with your face on the material can take hours to do because there is an expectation of perfection (it is produced after all?) while facilitating live sessions requires the craft of keeping the attention of students away from competing distractions like Netflix, more gc, and newsfeeds of crushes. Bigger personalities are needed to maintain attention in live sessions; this, too, can be draining. So forgive yourself for not being perfect. You are doing the best you can and trust that students appreciate you.

Finally, I learnt that being an educator during this pandemic requires us to be there even when they are not or cannot be. We are there even when it is hard. We are there not only in good times but also in dire times. All we could hope for is that by being there, they too won’t give up on themselves.

To my students:
You made my Term 2 quite the ride. It was colourful and brilliant amid all this gloom. I thank you for that and for allowing me the privilege to be your mentor this term, and for making that experience not only memorable but also personally meaningful to me. Never relent because this journey you are on is for you.