Why I’m (Still) Teaching Online

I pitched this piece to Inside Higher Ed and even started writing it, but they turned it down. Oh well. So I’m posting it here as a blog entry instead.

About a week after Christopher Schaberg’s op-ed “Why I Won’t Teach Online” was published, Inside Higher Ed also published my intentionally playful response “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To).” This was in March 2018, two brief years and a lifetime ago, back in an era where we actually had a choice about teaching online or face to face, and back when that choice wasn’t a matter of personal safety and public health. How times change. Now he has written again, this time a piece called “Why I’m Teaching Online.” This time, we agree more than we did before, though not entirely. 

I agree with Schaberg that teaching as many university classes online this semester as possible (and probably next semester as well) is the right thing to do for both personal and public safety. College campuses are joining nursing homes, prisons, and meat packing plants as prime spots for spreading the virus. (I will leave it to readers to contemplate what these places all have in common with each other.) My university has tried to provide a safe campus experience during the time of covid, but the need for everyone to stay six feet apart from each other means we do not have enough classrooms and other large spaces to hold more than about 20% of our classes face-to-face. 

Almost all of the classes EMU is holding on campus now are ones that would be difficult to hold online, courses that depend on special equipment or that are very hands-on (pottery immediately comes to mind). While almost everyone here is happy with this arrangement (including those like Schaberg who two years ago never thought they’d be doing this), I do have a few colleagues who grumble about how this is all completely overblown, that covid is no worse than the flu, and it will fade away in no time soon. This just goes to show you that not all academics are in favor of science and data, but I digress.

I also agree with Schaberg that shifting from the f2f to the online classroom is a great learning opportunity for faculty to rethink their approach to teaching– and this is especially true for those of us who have found ourselves doing the same thing not necessarily because it is still “the best” and most current approach, but because it “works,” at least well enough. It isn’t easy to adapt to the affordances of online teaching, but it can be revitalizing since it requires a new perspective on an old practice. And it’s not just about learning new ways to teach online: a lot of the activities I first tried online have found their way into the courses I teach face to face.

But there are two places (really, one and a half) where we disagree. Schaberg says that the current moment also gives us a chance to introduce new technologies into our teaching. “We have the tools; let’s use them.” Well, sorta. 

The examples that Schaberg cites here are Google Docs, “drawing reading materials from the web,” and email. If these technologies are actually new to Schaberg, well, welcome to 2005. And yes, this is also a good time for faculty to learn more about your institution’s Learning Management System (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) But I’ve also heard a lot of stories about teachers trying to use new and shiny online toys and tools less because it helps their teaching but more because it is new and shiny. It reminds me of the Monty Python bit about the machine that goes ping.

My pet peeve example of this is the use of video– particularly live video. I blogged about this earlier and also recently published a short article about it here, but the short version is a lot of faculty new to online teaching are overusing applications like Zoom. I think the appeal of Zoom (and similar synchronous video tools) is that it is a technology that appears to replicate the traditional teacher-centered classroom: teachers talk, students sit and listen, occasionally interrupting with questions. There are even “breakout rooms” to put students in discussion groups once in a while. 

In practice, Zoom is a mixed bag at best. It certainly has its uses for conferences and occasional larger group meetings, and we are learning more about other successes through a lot of trial and error.  But it’s difficult and oddly exhausting to stay engaged in a Zoom class, and don’t get me started on the issues of privacy and surveillance it and related technologies raise. Streaming video also requires the kind of decent computer and robust wifi access that a lot of my students just don’t have. No, I think Zoom is a great example of how sometimes the more simple and established technology and approaches to online teaching are still the best: asynchronous course designs that rely on students working through problem sets, using discussion boards to talk about readings and activities, collaboration with tools like Google Docs, and so forth. 

Finally, Schaberg says all of this is temporary: “We’ll be back in the classroom eventually– even if it’s a changed classroom, with newfound sensitivity to virus transmission, shared space and personal hygiene.” Sorry, but this ain’t temporary. Not even close.

Restaurants, theaters, bars, international travel, cruise ships, salad bars, and so much more are going to be different experiences when they fully come back– if they are able to fully come back at all. We will all continue to hold a lot more work meetings and routine visits with doctors via video conferencing tools. Many who were forced to work from home will never regularly return to the office, and some will take advantage of that freedom to live not where they have to but where they want to. On and on and on.

So yes, there will come a point where students and teachers will once again meet in physical classrooms in real time. But there will also be a lot more fully online classes, and these classes will become a part of the normal offerings at the kinds of elite and exclusive universities that have long resisted online teaching before Covid. And even most face to face classes will not be entirely face to face. Instead, teaching and learning after the Covid crisis will increasingly be “hybrid:” that is, a mix of some face to face meetings with asynchronous discussion and assignments, along with some synchronous video conferencing, particularly with individual students and small group work.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong. One of the many things I’ve learned from 2020 is don’t become too comfortable in assumptions about the future. One of the curious features of the 1918 pandemic was that once it was over, people the world over seemed to put it all behind them to the point where it was mostly forgotten–until something similar happened again this year. Though this moment feels to me like less of a memory we will suppress and more like a tipping point that will impact almost everything for decades.

“Synch Video is Bad,” perhaps a new research project?

As Facebook has been reminding me far too often lately, things were quite different last year. Last fall, Annette and I both had “faculty research fellowships,” which meant that neither of us were teaching because we were working on research projects. (It also meant we did A LOT of travel, but that’s a different post). I was working on a project that was officially called “Investigating Classroom Technology bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” a project I always referred to as the “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit” project.

It was going along well, albeit slowly. I gave a conference presentation about it all in fall at the Great Lakes Writing and Rhetoric Conference  in September, and by early October, I was circulating a snowball sampling survey to students and instructors (via mailing lists, social media, etc.) about their attitudes about laptops and devices in classes. I blogged about it some in December, and while I wasn’t making as much progress as quickly as I would have preferred, I was getting together a presentation for the CCCCs and ready to ramp up the next steps of this: sorting through the results of the survey and contacting individuals for follow-up case study interviews.

Then Covid.

Then the mad dash to shove students and faculty into the emergency lifeboats of makeshift online classes, kicking students out of the dorms with little notice, and a long and troubling summer of trying to plan ahead for the fall without knowing exactly what universities were going to do about where/in what mode/how to hold classes. Millions of people got sick, hundreds of thousands died, the world economy descended into chaos. And Black Lives Matter protests, Trump descending further into madness, forest fires, etc., etc.

It all makes the debate about laptops and cell phones in classes seem kind of quaint and old-fashioned and irrelevant, doesn’t it? So now I’m mulling over starting a new different but similar project about faculty (and perhaps students) attitudes about online courses– specifically about synchronous video-conference online classes (mostly Zoom or Google Meetings).

Just to back up a step: after teaching online since about 2005, after doing a lot of research on best practices for online teaching, after doing a lot of writing and research about MOOCs, I’ve learned at least two things about teaching online:

  • Asynchronous instruction works better than synchronous instruction because of the affordances (and limitations) of the medium.
  • Video– particularly videos of professors just lecturing into a webcam while students (supposedly) sit and pay attention– is not very effective.

Now, conventional wisdom often turns out to be wrong, and I’ll get to that. Nonetheless, for folks who have been teaching online for a while, I don’t think either of these statements are remotely controversial or in dispute.

And yet, judging from what I see on social media, a lot of my colleagues who are teaching online this fall for the first time are completely ignoring these best practices: they’re teaching synchronous classes during the originally scheduled time of the course and they are relying heavily on Zoom. In many cases (again, based on what I’ve seen on the internets), instructors have no choice: that is, the institution is requiring that what were originally scheduled f2f classes be taught with synch video regardless of what the instructor wants to do, what the class is, and if it makes any sense. But a lot of instructors are doing this to themselves (which, in a lot of ways, is even worse). In my department at EMU, all but a few classes are online this fall, and as far as I can tell, many (most?) of my colleagues have decided on their own to teach their classes with Zoom and synchronously.

It doesn’t make sense to me at all. It feels like a lot of people are trying to reinvent the wheel, which in some ways is not that surprising because that’s exactly what happened with MOOCs. When the big for-profit MOOC companies like Coursera and Udacity and EdX and many others got started, they didn’t reach out to universities that were already experienced with online teaching. Instead, they reached out to themselves and peer institutions– Stanford, Harvard, UC-Berkeley, Michigan, Duke, Georgia Tech, and lots of other high profile flagships. In those early TED talks (like this one from Daphne Koller and this one from Peter Norvig), it really really seems like these people sincerely believe that they were the first ones to ever actually think about teaching online, that they had stumbled across an undiscovered country. But I digress.

I think requiring students to meet online but synchronously for a class via Zoom simply is putting a round peg into a square hole. Imagine the logical opposite situation: say I was scheduled to teach an asynchronous online class that was suddenly changed into a traditional f2f class, something that meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 11:45 am. Instead of changing my approach to this now different mode/medium, I decided I was going to teach the class as an asynch online class anyway. I’d require everyone to physically show up to the class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 am (I have no choice about that), but instead of taking advantage of the mode of teaching f2f, I did everything all asynch and online. There’d be no conversation or acknowledgement that we were sitting in the same room. Students would only be allowed to interact with each other in the class LMS. No one would be allowed to actually talk to each other, though texting would be okay. Students would sit there for 75 minutes, silently doing their work but never allowed to speak with each other, and as the instructor, I would sit in the front of the room and do the same. We’d repeat this at all meetings the entire semester.

A ridiculous hypothetical, right? Well, because I’m pretty used to teaching online, that’s what an all Zoom class looks like like to me.

The other problem I have with Zoom is its part in policing and surveilling both students and teachers. Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education both published inadvertently hilarious op-eds written to an audience of faculty about how they should maintain their own appearances and of their “Zoom backgrounds” to project professionalism and respect. And consider this post on Twitter:


I can’t verify the accuracy of these rules, but it certainly sounds like it could be true. When online teaching came up in the first department meeting of the year (held on Zoom, of course), the main concern voiced by my colleagues who had never taught online before was dealing with students who misbehave in these online forums. I’ve seen similar kinds of discussions about how to surveil students from other folks on social media. And what could possibly motivate a teacher’s need to have bodily control over what their students do in their own homes to the point of requiring them to wear fucking shoes?

This kind of “soft surveillance” is bad enough, but as I understand it, one of Zoom’s features it sells to institutions is robust data on what users do with it: who is logged in, when, for how long, etc. I need to do a little more research on this, but as I was discussing on Facebook with my friend Bill Hart-Davidson (who is in a position to know more about this both as an administrator and someone who has done the scholarship), this is clearly data that can be used to effectively police both teachers’ and students’ behavior. The overlords might have the power to make us to wear shoes at all times on Zoom after all.

On the other hand…

The conventional wisdom about teaching online asynchronously and without Zoom might be wrong, and that makes it potentially interesting to study. For example, the main reason why online classes are almost always asynchronous is the difficulty of scheduling and the flexibility helps students take classes in the first place. But if you could have a class that was mostly asynchronous but with some previously scheduled synchronous meetings as a part of the mix, well, that might be a good thing. I’ve tried to teach hybrid classes in the past that approach this, though I think Zoom might make this a lot easier in all kinds of ways.

And I’m not a complete Zoom hater. I started using it (or Google Meetings) last semester in my online classes for one-on-one conferences, and I think it worked well for that. I actually prefer our department meetings on Zoom because it cuts down on the number of faculty who just want to pontificate about something for no good reason (and I should note I am very very much one of these kind of faculty members, at least once in a while). I’ve read faculty justifying their use of Zoom based on what they think students want, and maybe that turns out to be true too.

So, what I’m imagining here is another snowball sample survey of faculty (maybe students as well) about their use of Zoom. I’d probably continue to focus on small writing classes because it’s my field and also because of different ideas about what teaching means in different disciplines. As was the case with the laptop bans are bullshit project, I think I’d want to continue to focus on attitudes about online teaching generally and Zoom in particular, mainly because I don’t have the resources or skills as a researcher to do something like an experimental design that compares the effectiveness of a Zoom lecture versus a f2f one versus an asynchronous discussion on a topic– though as I type that, I think that could be a pretty interesting experiment. Assuming I could get folks to respond, I’d also want to use the survey to recruit participants in one on one interviews, which I think would be more revealing and relevant data, at least to the basic questions I have now:

  • Why did you decide to use a lot of Zoom and do things synchronously?
  • What would you do differently next time?

What do you think, is this an idea worth pursuing?

A Few 2020-21 School Year Thoughts and Bits of Unsolicited Advice

Of course many/most college classes are going to be online this fall! Of course hundreds of colleges and universities have changed their reopening plans! Not every school is going to be offering most classes online or as a hybrid, though just because a college starts classes f2f doesn’t mean it’s going to keep classes face to face. For example, Brown University is starting online September 9 and hoping to bring students in for on campus classes in October; but “if by Sept. 11 the public health situation has not improved, the remainder of the semester will be remote.” That’s a pretty big change from Brown President Christina Paxson’s op-ed about how higher ed must be open this fall no matter what.

Of course of course of course! Everyone who was paying attention to what has been going on with the virus and with higher education has been predicting this, at least everyone who had not succumbed to the magical thinking/collective hallucinations that overtook way too many college administrators. None of this is surprising.

Not to say that being right makes me feel that good, and I feel especially bad for those first year students who are going to miss out on the traditional “college life” part of higher ed this fall. Even if they do decide to live in the dorms or an apartment away from home (and judging from what I’m starting to see in Ann Arbor, there aren’t as many of these young people but there are still plenty) it’s not going to be the same for all the obvious reasons. I’ll be honest: I don’t have a lot of patience for whiny faculty or administrators about all this (and don’t get me started with college football), but I legitimately feel bad about what this is all likely to be like for students.  As my friend and  colleague Bill Hart-Davidson pointed out in a couple of different social media discussions, everyone is going through the stages of grief. Though in a lot of ways, it kind of feels to me like we’re going through all five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) at the same time.

Most faculty at EMU are teaching all online this fall– something like 80-85% of all courses this fall will be online, and a lot of those remaining 20-15% are going to be some version of a hybrid class. I’m happy and relieved about that because I like teaching online and because I was afraid the administration was going to force a lot of us who are teaching small classes to teach f2f. So in a very real way, I’m not at all concerned about how classes will go for me and my students this fall. Now, everything else that’s happening and that will happen this fall (gestures broadly at the entire world), that’s a different story.

So, this means I will be starting my 22nd year at EMU as a tenure-track professor, and my 32nd year of teaching in college, going all the way back to 1988 when I started teaching first year writing at Virginia Commonwealth as an MFA student. Yikes. Anyway, instead of my somewhat irregularly annual August post where I begin the school year by reflecting on my goals and resolutions for the next couple of semesters, I thought I’d offer some unsolicited advice to both faculty and students mostly new to online education in the time of Covid.

  • Taking classes/teaching classes online is going to be much better this fall than it was in spring. I’m not saying your online classes will go “perfect” or even “as good as you’d hope,” but it will certainly go better than what happened last spring. As I blogged about here, that was not online teaching; that was an emergency lifeboat to rescue everyone from the sinking ship/semester. It was unreasonable to expect faculty to switch a class from f2f to online in a couple days, and it wasn’t at all pleasant for students who had the same amount of time to pack up and get the heck out of the dorms. Things will be better because we all know what we’re getting ourselves into, and because 90% of faculty really do care about their teaching and they’ve been getting ready to teach online. I’m sure students will be better prepared as well.
  • If your classes are starting f2f, there’s a good chance they’ll end up online. This is especially true with the lack of progress we seem to be making as a country to control the spread of the virus; you probably already know that. Also: If you’re scheduled to teach f2f and you are worried about that, consider a “flipped classroom” approach. I do not see how any course focused on discussion, group work, and collaboration can possibly work with everyone wearing a mask and sitting six feet apart. I mean, take a look at this advice for practice “Active Learning while Physically Distancing” from someone at LSU. These are all good ideas, but every single one of the activities in the physical distanced classroom column is actually online. So I get that there is some value to having everyone together in “meat space” even if most of the interactions are online. But I’m not sure that benefit outweighs the risks of Covid.

If I was required to teach my classes f2f, I would have everything that was required be online and the f2f meetings would be optional, brief, and not necessarily every week. Sure, that’s easy for me to say because I’m a tenured professor (meaning I can get away with stretching “the rules” in ways that aren’t as possible for a part-timer or a graduate assistant) and also because this is only a hypothetical. But I honestly believe this is the only realistic way to approach the distanced f2f classroom.

  • Students who are mad about online classes: stop thinking you deserve some kind of tuition discount and take the classes seriously. I get the frustration, petitions, complaints, and demands for discounts that are covered in this New York Times article from the other day, and when it comes to everything but tuition– room, board, activity fees, athletic fees, tickets to sporting events, on and on– I completely agree. Students and their parents have every right to feel like they’re being jerked around to the point of being the victim of a bait and switch.

But look, the online classes I teach are every bit as rigorous, serious, and important as the f2f classes I teach. It is not a “discount” experience, and at the end of the day, the credits you earn in an online or hybrid class count the same as a f2f class. The mode of delivery has nothing to do with it, and to think that online classes are inferior and not worth it is just elitist bullshit.

Tuition was too high and increasing too fast long before the pandemic, and the relationship between tuition and the cost of running a class has always been fuzzy. I mean, it’s not like I directly get a “cut” of what students pay to take my classes. So if being forced to take online classes actually makes students (and their families) question the cost of tuition and forces universities to justify the expense and/or cut costs, then great. But the main cost of running a class has nothing to do with the mode or place of instruction; it’s the cost of labor.

  • Finally for faculty teaching online for real for the first time this fall: you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I’ve seen some awesome work and effort from colleagues who will be teaching online for the first time this fall, and that is really great. But– and I mean this as gently and as non-mansplainy as possible– you are not on a trek into an undiscovered country. There are a ton of resources out there, a ton of people who have been studying and practicing online pedagogy for a long time. Ask these people for help.

I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before. It happens when well-intentioned faculty in other disciplines (particularly in disciplines far from the humanities, in my experience) “invent” writing courses without any connection or reference to any of the scholarship or practices common in composition and rhetoric. It happened with MOOCs when these Stanford (Coursera and Udacity) and MIT (EdX) folks sincerely believed they had “discovered” the concept of teaching classes online without any reference to the work being done in the distance education world for decades. And I am seeing that stuff now with these new-fangled online classes this fall.

People often need to make their own discoveries and their own mistakes first before they listen to others or seek out advice. I get that. But I must say I’m sure seeing a lot of faculty-types putting a lot of energy into making videos most of their students are not going to watch, or gearing up for lots of synchronous Zoom sessions filled with lectures, or trying to find ways to make sure students don’t cheat on exams, including requiring students to turn on webcams so the surveillance panopticon can keep on working.

Hey, if this all works out, that’s great, more power to you. If it takes making mistakes to learn and make changes next time, that’s great too. I regularly learn more from mistakes than successes. But…

    • Video is extremely overrated and it is much harder to do than most faculty think.
    • Zoom classes are exhausting for everyone involved to the point of being downright cruel.
    • Asynchronous online classes make MUCH more sense than synchronous online classes.
    • Instead of trying to spy on students so you don’t have to change the test, maybe you should change the test to take advantages of the affordances of the medium. Also: if you’re giving a memorization test about information that’s easily found with a Google search, maybe it’s not so important to memorize that stuff anymore?

Good luck, everyone. Wear those masks, wash those hands, keep that distance, and for the love of God, do NOT vote for Trump.

Is Frank Bruni right? Is Minerva the future of higher education?

No.

And I know Bruni is wrong because I wrote a book about this.

The longer version:

From yesterday’s New York Times comes this column from Frank Bruni, “How to Go to College During a Pandemic,” a fawning admiration of the Minerva Project (or School? or Institute?), an elite, experimental, and all online college. Minerva is not that new, relatively speaking– it was formed in 2011– and it is tiny. According to this article from the student newspaper for Claremont Colleges, Minerva claims it is more selective than Harvard, and it has a total of 631 students, 78% of whom are not from the U.S.

I learned about this op-ed from this twitter rant from John Warner, and I’d recommend reading that for some of the reasons why Minerva specifically ain’t it. I agree with everything Warner says here: an exclusive, private, expensive, online university that replaces the luxuries of a f2f campus with a program where students “periodically move to a new city that becomes their campus, but only temporarily” is not where higher education is going– at least it certainly is not the direction higher ed should be going. As Warner said on Twitter, the “radical thinking” that higher education needs in this country is robust public funding.

This is not to say Minerva isn’t a good school, and I am sure the students who attend that program have a fulfilling experience. But Minerva reminds  me of other unusual institutions like Deep Springs College, which is a junior college and also a working cattle ranch enrolling about 26 students at a time. It’s “free” for students, though in exchange, they work on the ranch which is located in what can only be charitably called the middle of nowhere. Or Black Mountain College or Naropa University or other now defunct art schools more notable for their contributions to the avant-garde than the history of higher education. It also kind of reminds me of the opposite of higher education, the Thiel Fellowship which paid would-be college students $100,000 to not go to college.

So for Bruni to suggest that Minerva represents a “creative mix of disruptions and rebellions that could, in some form, have application elsewhere” is just wrong. And as an aside: I subscribe to The New York Times, I think it is a great newspaper, and I often like what I read from Bruni. But honest to God, I really do not understand how this got published.

Like I said, I wrote about this in my book More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs.  While my book is primarily about the rise and fall (sort of) of Massive Open Online Courses, it’s also about how MOOCs were not something new but rather part of the ongoing history of distance education. Higher education has been rethinking and “disrupting” its modes of delivery for more than 125 years, with correspondence courses, radio and television programs, “regular” online courses and universities, and MOOCs (which still enroll tens of millions of participants), all offered through a series of non-profit and for-profit entities, a host of public and private partnerships. All of these different educational disruptions/innovations/experiments and the people behind them– including Minerva– all have two similar and contradictory goals: how can we change the mode of delivery of higher education to extend opportunity to eager learners who do not otherwise have access, while simultaneously also making money?

THIS HAS BEEN GOING ON SINCE THE TURN OF THE LAST CENTURY. MILLIONS OF PEOPLE HAVE ATTENDED AND COMPLETED COLLEGE THROUGH ONE OF THESE PROGRAMS. NONE OF THIS IS NEW. NOT AT ALL.

And yet, Bruni shares a delightful piece of marketing and promotion for Minerva (I’ll bet their website hits are way up), pronounces it as the disruption we’re waiting for, and tops it with whip cream and a cherry. Why can’t I get the Times to publish anything I write?

A F2F Writing Class Can’t Work With Students Six Feet Apart, and ADA Has NOTHING to Do With COVID

EMU’s leadership had a virtual “town hall” meeting this morning about plans for fall 2020. While the presentations from the administration folks went on (the president, the provost, the department head for nursing who was on the public health committee, and the CFO I believe), faculty were invited to submit questions in writing that would be taken up after the presentations were completed. Judging from the parallel discussion that was happening on Facebook, a lot of faculty had the same question I have had for a while now: can I preemptively opt into changing a course now scheduled as f2f to an online format? Provost Rhonda Longworth’s answer to this question was not reassuring to me. To sum up:

  • If a faculty member doesn’t want to teach on campus, they need to go through the ADA process to demonstrate an underlying medical condition or disability (which, the more I think about it, is the wrong standard, as I’ll get to below here).
  • The administration’s guess/estimate is there are only enough large classrooms or other spaces (like ballrooms) to accommodate somewhere between 12% and 35% of classes to be offered f2f. This strikes me as an alarmingly large range for this estimate. In any event, Longworth said we don’t know how many classes we will hold on campus until we have clearer data on how many classes we can hold on campus, and she hopes to have that data by the end of the month.
  • And then this (which is pretty close to a direct quote from Longworth): “I can’t make a promise that every instructor can request to teach online. The goal is to balance what faculty can teach online effectively, and then go from there. I think everyone can have the format they want, but I can’t guarantee that.”

On the one hand, it’s easy to interpret this statement as meaning that most classes in the fall will probably be online. This seems especially true with any class with more than about 25 students simply because we do not have that many rooms where more than 25 people can all be sitting six feet apart. On the other hand, Longworth specifically said she might not be able to honor requests for faculty to teach online, I believe in part because of  my previous blog post on EMU’s “bait and switch” marketing campaign. The administration has advertised the promise of f2f offerings and the provost just said she could not promise that all faculty who want to teach online will be able to do so.

It is very likely that any class with more than 40 students will be online. But there are also a lot of classes like the ones I teach where the cap is around 25 students, and my fear (heightened by this town hall meeting) is the way that the administration will sorta/kinda fulfill its promise of f2f offerings is to insist these classes are held on campus, and probably in lecture halls designed for 100 or more students.

Currently, I’m scheduled this fall to teach three classes. Two were scheduled as online offerings long before the pandemic. The third class, called “Digital Writing,” was scheduled to be f2f. The cap on that class is 25, and realistically, it probably won’t get above about 15 students. Back in April or early May, I asked my department head to move that f2f class online because it seemed pretty inevitable to me that this was where this was all heading anyway and I’d just as soon teach it online. The response I got was (basically) that was no longer possible because students were starting to register for the f2f version– unless I wanted to contact all those students and get them to agree to it being online. About 2 weeks ago, I once again asked if I could have this class moved online. That time, the response was “probably but not yet, let’s wait a bit. This class is going to end up online so there’s no need to do the paperwork.” Well, after today’s town hall where the provost very clearly said there was no guarantee that requests to teach online would be honored and that requests like that had to be made through the ADA process, I decided to email my department head again.

Here’s an excerpt of that email (I have left out four of the six reasons I gave for wanting my class moved online because most of those other four reasons are kind of specific to this particular class):

“The first and most important reason (and I am only now bringing this up after I started to think how I would teach this class f2f if I had to) is pedagogical. I don’t think it’s possible to teach an effective f2f writing class that requires everyone to stay 6 feet apart. Like most other people who teach writing, my classes depend A LOT on small group work. Students do small group discussions about readings and what-not, they do small group work frequently for peer review, and in this class, I generally make the last project (which involves writing, story-boarding, recording, and editing a public service announcement-styled short video) collaborative. These activities will not work if students have to sit 6 feet apart. Students would literally have to shout at each other, could not share a computer screen, etc., etc. In contrast, I know from previous experience these activities will work fine online through a combination of asynchronous discussions and synchronous video conferences with either Zoom or Google meetings. ”

and then a bit later:

“And yes, I am concerned for my own health and the health of my wife because of what strikes me as being asked to take an unnecessary risk.

“The standard EMU (and lots of other universities) has decided to follow is to require faculty who don’t want to teach on campus to seek an ADA exemption. That strikes me as extremely problematic because while it is true that most of the deaths from Covid have been older folks with some kind of preexisting condition, there have also been MANY examples where perfectly healthy and otherwise able-bodied people have been infected, faced serious illness, and even died. I’ve read several articles like this one from the June 8, 2020 NYTimes where they surveyed a large group of epidemiologists and asked them when they would feel comfortable resuming various activities during this pandemic, and the range of responses provided here suggest that even the experts are in a moment of “it depends” and/or “we don’t really know.”  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/08/upshot/when-epidemiologists-will-do-everyday-things-coronavirus.html

“From what I can tell (from what I’ve read, listened to on the radio, seen on TV, etc., etc.), a lot of these choices are inherently personal. I am not too worried about walking around outside without a mask, going to a store with a mask (especially if that store limits the number of people inside, requires others to wear masks, if it’s easy enough to create distance, and you aren’t just hanging out in that store), ordering take-out, etc. I’d be okay with going to a restaurant if I was seated outside, though I haven’t done that yet. I played golf once and it was fine, though my partner and I did opt for our own carts. I had my hair cut last week, and it felt safe to me. My wife and I have had people over to sit around six feet apart in the backyard. And so forth. The point I’m trying to make here is I am not someone who has (IMO) overreacted and not left their homes more than a handful of times and only when absolutely positively necessary. I do not have an illogical fear that the virus is just waiting to get me.

“At the same time, everything I’ve read/heard/seen suggests that being in an enclosed space with others for an extended period of time is still risky, which means I am personally not willing to do things like go to see a performance of some sort, go to the movies, go to a religious service (which wasn’t exactly on my to-do list anyway, but you get the idea), attend a f2f department meeting (I hope we keep doing those on Zoom anyway), go to a casino, or go to a sporting event. I think being in a classroom with 20 or so students for an extended period of time falls into this category of risk. Even in normal times, it’s pretty common for me to catch a cold or something from my proximity to students; I’d rather not risk it with Covid.

“Now, I would probably feel differently about this if I either hadn’t taught a lot online over the last dozen or so years, or if I taught in a subject where f2f interaction was essential. It’s not my expertise of course, but I don’t know how you teach online stuff like a chemistry lab, a ceramics class, an acting class, a dance class, etc. But that clearly isn’t the case here. I have lots of experience teaching online, and writing (and I’d argue ‘English’ in general) is a subject that does work well in an online format. I mean, I’m already teaching two writing classes online, and this class– called DIGITAL WRITING– lends itself to the online format. So the only reason I can think of as to why this class should NOT be online in the current situation is because the administration is requiring that we run at least some classes f2f, and a small class like this one might allow the folks in Welch to honestly claim they did indeed offer ‘plenty’ of f2f offerings as promised. That’s not a very good reason for me.”

We’ll see what happens next.

Higher Ed’s Reopening Plans Have Gone From “Wishful Thinking” to “Bait and Switch”

The tl;dr version: universities are running a “bait and switch” marketing strategy for fall 2020. Plan for online courses because it’s the only option that makes any sense, and it’s time that university administrators admit that.

Back in late April/early May, about a month after all of higher education got into the online lifeboats to salvage the term and at around the same time when, predictably, faculty and students with zero prior experience with online learning declared that the last month proved online courses were just “the worst,” we started seeing major universities announcing their plans to be open for f2f classes in fall 2020. I blogged a bit about it here. Purdue’s Mitch Daniels had a series of eyebrow raising ideas about how things could work in the fall, and while I disagreed then (and I do now) with Brown’s Christina Paxson’s reasons for reopening, at least she was honest: universities need the money.

Other universities soon followed, and, with the notable exception of California State University’s announcement that they were planning on primarily online courses for fall 2020, the pattern has been the same: universities are planning to be back in the fall with f2f classes and students in the dorms. EMU released its own statement along these lines both as ads on regional television and with this extended YouTube video.

All of these plans were short on details and long on emotions (not to mention carefully worded hedges), and they reminded me of what people say after a hurricane or a tornado. It’s a weather news cliché at this point. There’s the video footage of the storm hitting, the stock photo/video of the beautiful home or popular seaside restaurant as it was before, and then the after the storm ruins with a tearful family or owner proclaiming “We will rebuild!”

Hey, I get it. The first response to the hurricane destroying your business or a pandemic destroying your school year is to fight back, to at least pretend to have a little hope and optimism. The first thing you say to someone laying on the pavement and clinging to life after a car accident or a heart attack is “It’s going to be okay, you’re going to make it!” even when (especially when) you know that’s not true.

As we got into May, university presidents and officials began describing their plans for reopening, and it became clear these “plans” were not much more than “wishful thinking.” For me (and pretty much everyone else I know who actually teaches college classes), the plans just raised more questions. How are you going to have f2f classes that are physically distanced? As it is right now, my university is reluctant to run any class that is less than 3/4ths enrolled because (or so we are told) we can’t afford that; so how is a class purposefully kept at half capacity possibly going to work? Where are you going to put these classes, anyway? Where is the money going to come from to pay for mandatory testing, for everyone or randomly? What about these antibody tests– are they going to get more accurate? Or are we just giving up on testing entirely? What is the plan when (not if, when) students, faculty, and/or staff get sick and need to be quarantined? Is EMU going to just send those people home, and thus endanger the sick folks’ relatives and friends? How are we going to require everyone to wear masks while on campus? Given that the classroom buildings are barely cleaned now, how is the university possibly going to clean them even once a day (never mind between classes)? Who thinks teaching behind a plexiglass shield is a good idea? What if I as an employee am not willing to sign a document that says I won’t consider the university liable if I get sick, am hospitalized, or even die from Covid-19? And so forth.

Now and just within the last week or so, it feels like we’re entering into new phase. We have gone from “hope and optimism” and “wishful thinking” to a situation where it is clear these plans for a robust number of f2f offerings this fall just aren’t going to work. Here are a few simple examples of things I’ve seen recently, articles and commentaries that are getting a lot more pointed in questioning university administrator’s plans and motivations:

  • To help pay for its (always strange and unrealistic) plans for reopening, Purdue is asking for donations specifically to pay for things like face masks, hand sanitizer, virus tests, and plexiglass shields, and they’re doing this with a campaign (here’s a link to the web site for it) that has the feel of one of those “feed the children” or “save the stray dogs” ads– “just one dollar a day can make such a difference,” etc.
  • IHE published an opinion piece by Lia Paradis (a history professor at Slippery Rock) called “A Day in the Life This Fall (Faculty Edition),” which describes the many ways the administration’s plans for reopening can and will go wrong.
  • From sociology professor Deborah J. Cohan in Psychology Today comes “Pandemic U,” where (among other smart things) she says it’s “profoundly revealing” that after years of universities encouraging students and faculty into online classes they are now insisting on face-to-face classes in the midst of a pandemic. “In and of itself, this rich irony should cause us to question motives. It is nothing short of institutional gaslighting.”
  • In a New York Times Op-ed with one of the clearest headlines I’ve seen in a while, “Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy,” psychology professor Laurence Steinberg draws from his expertise to explain something every person who actually teaches college has known forever: 18-24 year olds engage in a lot of risky behaviors and do not follow rules like staying six feet apart, wear masks in public places, etc.
  • And from Forbes, where economist Andrew Zimbalist and Donna A. Lopiano ask the rhetorical question “Has Higher Education Lost Its Mind?”  Specifically, has college sports lost its mind as we are already seeing the craziness of preparing for the all important football season while players increasingly become infected with Covid-19.

In short, the message “we will be open this fall” is now just a “bait and switch” marketing strategy, and it’s been that way for a while. Would-be and returning students said back in May that they would be less likely to start or return to college in the fall if they had to take classes online. Universities in turn said “oh, don’t worry, we’re going to have f2f classes,” albeit with a ton of hedges and qualifiers that I am guessing most students and their families ignored. That’s the bait. Once students are “locked in” for the fall term and it is too late for them to change their plans, universities will start announcing that despite their best efforts, they just aren’t going to be able to offer many (any?) f2f classes after all– darn it!– and if students want to go to college in fall 2020, they’re going to have to take their classes online. That’s the switch.

Bait and switch is usually described as a scam, though it’s such a common marketing strategy nowadays I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization. What else would you call these “Black Friday” deep discount sales on giant flat screen TVs? Adding the phrase “while they last” doesn’t make it less of a bait. Regardless, it certainly isn’t an ethical practice.

I have no way of knowing for sure if this was the plan my university’s administration had all along or if it has just kind of evolved into this. And to be completely fair, maybe there will be some kind of Covid-19 miracle before the start of fall, or maybe in the next two months, these crazy, fantasy, delusional plans for successfully holding f2f classes really will come together and it’ll all be great. But I’ve also seen administrators at EMU (and elsewhere) do some pretty shady and dubious shit in the past, so it wouldn’t surprise me much if this bait and switch was part of the plan all along.

Either way, it does appear to be a marketing strategy that has worked– at least so far. According to this article in Inside Higher Ed, enrollments in public research and regional universities for the fall are not much different than they were last year. EMU was specifically mentioned in this article. “Eastern Michigan University, like many regional publics, does not use the May 1 (or this year June 1) deadline day to reply to an admissions offer. Currently, the university is down 8.4 percent on new students for the fall, but it has two more registration dates in June to close that. The university is also offering students who want them a single room.” And frankly, that drop in enrollments isn’t necessarily tied to Covid-19 at all since our enrollments have been falling for a while, mostly because of the demographics of the state and the upper midwest.

At this point, I don’t really care if this was the administration’s intention all along or if this was just a strategy they stumbled into; I just want them to tell everyone the truth about what is becoming patently obvious with classes this fall term. If it’s a class that can be online, it will be online. If it’s a class that can’t be online (say some kind of chemistry or biology lab, a ceramics class that requires a kiln, a class about welding, etc.), it is either going be held under strict limitations to maximize safety, or it’s not going to be held at all. I want my university to tell this truth because it is the ethical thing to do, and because faculty who are going to teach these classes and students who are going to take these classes need to start making plans.

Be honest for a change of pace.

The Elite “College Experience” is Not Compatible with Covid-19

There are two different but related stories about higher ed and Covid-19 right now, both of which speak to the stark differences within the hierarchy of universities and online teaching. And spoiler alert: students and faculty elite universities do not like online courses one little bit.

I think this article sums it up for the lawsuits being filed by some students against their universities: From ABC News, “College students clamor for tuition refunds after coronavirus shutters campuses.” The complaints basically boil down to two things: demanding refunds for fees paid on things students can no longer use (dorms, meal plans, lab fees, etc.); demanding their money back for tuition for classes that were forced to go online. It is worth noting these are class action lawsuits being ginned up by some law firms who appear to specialize in these kinds of class action things.

Then there are the calls from university presidents to get back to campus. There was Purdue President Mitch Daniel’s plans for getting Purdue back on campus in the fall, which (as reported in USA Today here) includes a vague goal of separating folks based on age, with the goal of “keeping the university’s younger population separate from older demographic groups that are more at risk from the virus. ‘Literally, our students pose a far greater danger to others than the virus poses to them,’ he wrote.” Also this weekend is an op-ed in the New York Times “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It,” by Christina Paxson. Paxson is the President of Brown University and an economist by training. Among other things, she wrote:

As amazing as videoconferencing technology has become, students face financial, practical and psychological barriers as they try to learn remotely. This is especially true for lower-income students who may not have reliable internet access or private spaces in which to study. If they can’t come back to campus, some students may choose — or be forced by circumstances — to forgo starting college or delay completing their degrees.

First off, I think students certainly ought to get a refund for housing, meal plans, lab fees, and all of those things– and I think most universities are doing something like that. But with tuition, we start to get into a more murky territory.

Granted, a class that shifted into the online lifeboat to finish the term is not the same as it would have been if it had stayed face to face all year. But if the goal was to complete the courses and thus grant students credit for their course work so they could continue to make progress on their degrees or to graduate, there weren’t a lot of other alternatives. In fact, it seems to me a very fair response from universities to these lawsuits would be something along the lines of “Here’s a refund for your tuition, but you aren’t going to get any credit for those courses.” Somehow I don’t think that’s what these students and their lawyers have in mind.

As far as Daniels and Paxson go: I think everyone is hoping that universities open in the fall, though as I’ve heard repeatedly from various talking head experts on cable news, the virus is driving the timeline and no one knows what the conditions will be in September. If we’re still in a world where we’re supposed to stay 6 feet apart, wear masks, and generally distance ourselves from each other, then the re-opening is going to be partial at best. And the idea that we can separate younger students from older faculty (will faculty be teaching behind a plexiglass barrier? will they be zooming in to classrooms filled with students?) is kind of goofy.

But I think these complaints and plans really highlight three long-standing realities in higher education in this country right now.

First, students/faculty/presidents/etc. at elite universities have very different assumptions about what “the college experience” means, at least compared to the rest of us. For elite universities and/or colleges and universities that cater to upper-middle-class and above 18-22 year olds, taking classes is just not what it’s all about. Don’t get me wrong, the quality of academics at elite institutions is extremely high and that’s still the main reason why these students attend these schools. But it’s also a whole lifestyle of dorms or near campus apartments, sporting events, frats and sororities and clubs, parties, beautiful buildings and campuses, etc.

We have all of those things at EMU too, and for a lot of the students we have in that 18-22 year old demographic, those things are important. But most of our students come from the sort of backgrounds where they do not assume all these things are that necessary, at least not compared to the students at the University of Michigan just across town. Frankly, a lot of our students are a lot more involved in the campus life in Ann Arbor than they are at EMU.

Most of my students– some of the 18-22 year olds, almost all of the older students– don’t have time for these extras because they are working. And I don’t mean “working” the way a lot of the students at UM work, with a part-time job to make some beer money and maybe help out with the expenses mostly being covered by the parents. No, I mean working to pay for living: rent, cars, mortgages, kids, etc.

Look, I get it. I was exactly like these elite university students when I was in college at the University of Iowa, and my wife was more or less a student like this at Virginia Tech. Our son was one of these students at the University of Michigan. If online classes were a thing in my day, I might have taken one– and I did actually take a correspondence course to earn enough credits to graduate, a story I tell in my book More Than a Moment.  For all of us, our undergraduate days were important life-shaping times because of the whole “college life” experience. But this is not the only way to go to college, and to suggest otherwise is a good example of unchecked or unnoticed privilege.

This leads to my second point: elite universities don’t like online classes because they are not the college experience (see above) and they still believe online classes are for poor people. That quote from Paxson is disingenuous because she must certainly know the students most likely to take online courses are indeed lower-income students. Why? Because students with less money and more grown-up obligations come to places like EMU, or they attend a completely online university, maybe even one of the mega-universities (Southern New Hampshire, for example) that have been doing high quality online education for years and years.

And online education works. We’ve done research on this for years. In general, the data suggests any college course which a) is routinely taught in a large lecture hall format or taught as a small (less than 40, but ideally about 20) group discussion; b) is primarily based on reading, discussion, writing, quizzes, and tests, and c) does not involve any special equipment (e.g., a chemistry lab, a kiln, a potter’s wheel, a welding torch, etc.) or that requires hands-on practice (e.g., medical procedures, cosmetology or barbering, engine repair, etc.) can be taught online just as effectively as it can be taught face to face. I do realize there are a lot of important college courses that fall into the “c” category of things and can’t be offered exclusively online. I do not think I’d be comfortable undergoing surgery by a physician who trained exclusively online. But thought-out and carefully planned online courses work in the majority of subjects and college classrooms.

Plus most college students– certainly those who attend community colleges and regional universities like EMU– have been taking classes online for a long time. Roughly speaking, almost a third of U.S. college students have taken at least one online course. About 15-20% of college students are taking courses exclusively online, and these online courses and programs are no longer just the products of sketchy for-profits.

But the perception is still there, particularly among the elites, that online courses are for “not real” and/or for poor people. It reminds me a bit of what was going in in the realm of MOOCs a few years ago: all these elite universities were developing these MOOCs they were hoping to somehow monetize by getting students to pay for credit to transfer to another college. But these same institutions were very clear that they would not accept MOOC credit for their students: that is, the University of Michigan is completely fine with students from say EMU paying for their MOOCs and then having that class count as transfer credit, but there was no way UM was going to accept MOOC credit, even when the MOOC was developed and taught by the same faculty teaching the face to face version of the UM course.

Last but not least, Higher Education is going to need a bigger bail-out and some kind of government intervention to change the funding model. This is an issue I am certain Daniels, Paxson, and (at least some of the) students suing would probably agree about. Costs in higher education have been driven up for decades for lots of reasons, but what that means now is so-called public universities have the same business model as private universities. EMU is in the same boat as Brown because most of our revenue comes from tuition, and, as Paxson put it, the loss in tuition revenue this fall, “…only a part of which might be recouped through online courses, would be catastrophic, especially for the many institutions that were in precarious financial positions before the pandemic. It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many.”

And in the medium to long term, I think we need to get to a place where public universities receive most of their funding from the government, and we need to really get over the idea that higher education is defined by the “college experience” of the elites and flagships. The feds and the states (and ultimately tax payers) are going to have to step up and fund higher education so that tuition can be reduced.

But more funding from government will (and should) come with restrictions on how that money is spent, and a lot of the money we waste in higher education in this country– sports, luxurious dorms and recreation facilities, and so forth– are what the elites and flagships out there see as part of the college experience. And that is a problem for the Browns and Purdues of the world: why would a student pay whatever it costs to go to Brown to take online classes (even temporarily) if that student could take a similar online class from a regional university or community college for significantly less money?

No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic

The TL;DR version: this isn’t how I thought my already online classes were going to go, and, if you’re a college teacher and the way you’re trying to cope is to stick with your original plans no matter what, stop it. No one should fail a class because of a fucking pandemic.

To continue:

Continue reading “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic”

Help! I have to suddenly teach online! What should I do?

As the number of universities (including my own) announce covid-19 plans that include requiring all classes finish out their terms online, I’m imagining an increasing number of college instructor and faculty-types doing a Google search along these lines of “how to teach a course online.”

Some of these administrators requiring this move or faculty who have avoided and/or complained about online courses might want to ask for advice from people like me who have a lot of experience teaching online, though frankly, that’s far from certain. After all, MOOC developers didn’t ask experts in online pedagogy when they launched. (Which reminds me, More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs seems like it might all of a sudden be a little more relevant right now. Take a look at the free sample that includes the introduction and first chapter and if you want the book, use the promo code KRAU at checkout and then it’s only $13.77).

In case there is someone who has been asked to suddenly stop what they’ve been doing for decades (let alone all semester) in order to shift everything online, and that person did a Google search and then landed here, I thought I’d jot down a few bits of advice based on my experiences and research about online teaching.

Continue reading “Help! I have to suddenly teach online! What should I do?”

A Bit of Brainstorming About Holding The CCCCs (and other academic conferences) F2F and Online

I’m not that worried about getting and dying from Covid-19 (though I don’t know, maybe I should be), but I can understand why people are concerned both for themselves and for others, and I can understand why there have been travel restrictions and school closures and all the rest. So while it’s probably too late to contain coronavirus and perhaps we’ve all already been exposed to it anyway, I do get why events are getting cancelled and why potentially sick people are self-quarantining and the like.

Which brings me to this year’s annual Conference on College Composition and Communication, scheduled to take place March 25-28: perfect timing for Covid-19 to have everything cancelled and all of us home and alone and and constantly washing our hands, and not conferencing in Milwaukee. Well, potentially; and if the conference goes on as planned, I’m still planning to go. But that’s all still a big “if.”

Now, one of the things that’s come up a lot on Facebook and Twitter and the like is the idea of “just move it online.” I’ve been saying a version of that myself, though though long before coronavirus. I know first hand that “just move it online” is not something that just happens magically, quickly, easily, and for free. But I also have some ideas on how this might work, and because it came up on Facebook (Julie Lindquist, who is chair of the conference this year, asked me to share my thoughts) because I’m procrastinating from grading, I thought I’d write about that.

The TL;DR version: the conference should have a web site and allow online participants to share links to their online presentations on that web site.

A few disclaimers. First, I don’t have much of a dog in this fight because while I’ve been going to the CCCCs off and on my entire career, it’s just not that important of an event for me any more. Second, I have systematically avoided getting involved in some kind of CCCC or NCTE service and I’m not planning on starting now. Maybe that is a mistake on my part, but it is what it is. And third, I’m not talking about doing away with the face to face conference. I think that’d be a bad idea. Rather, I’m just talking about giving people the chance to participate while not actually being their physically, and I’m talking about a way of preserving and sharing presentations beyond the moment of reading a paper and pointing at a slide show in a nearly empty room at a conference hotel.

Fourth– and this is an important one– the CCCCs can’t “just move it online” in less than three weeks. It is simply not enough time. Yeah, it sucks and it sucks a lot, and maybe participants could try to use Google Hangout on their own (see below), but I think it’s too late for the CCCCs organizers to systematically create an official online presentation mode. What I’m talking about here are ideas to think about for next year and beyond because there are lots of reasons to make academic conferences more accessible beyond a pandemic.

With that, some brainstorming/ideas: Continue reading “A Bit of Brainstorming About Holding The CCCCs (and other academic conferences) F2F and Online”