A few big picture takeaways from my research about teaching online during Covid

Despite not posting here all summer, I’ve been busy. I’ve been on what is called at EMU a “Faculty Research Fellowship” since January 2022, writing and researching about teaching online during Covid. These FRFs are one of the nicer perks here. FRFs are competitive awards for faculty to get released from teaching (but not service obligations), and faculty can apply every two years. Since I’m not on any committees right now, it was pretty much the same thing as a sabbatical: I had to go to some meetings and I was working with a grad student on her MA project as well, but for the most part, my time was my own. Annette also had an FRF at the same time.

I’ve had these FRF before, but I never gotten as much research stuff done as I did on this one. Oh sure, there was some vacationing and travel, usually also involving some work. Anyone who follows me on Facebook or Instagram is probably already aware of that, but I’m happy with what I managed to get done. Among other things:

  • I conducted 37 interviews with folks who took my original survey about online teaching during Covid and agreed to talk. Altogether, it’s probably close to 50 hours worth of recordings and maybe 1000 pages of transcript– more on that later.
  • I “gave presentations” at the CCCCs and at the Computers and Writing conference. Though I use the scare quotes because both were online and “on demand” presentations, which is to say not even close to the way I would have run an online conference (not that anyone asked). On the plus-side, both presentations were essentially pre-writing activities for other things, and both also count enough at EMU justify me keeping a 3-3 teaching load.
  • Plus I have an article coming out about all this work in Computers and Composition Online. It is/will be called “The Role of Previous Online Teaching Experience During the Covid Pandemic: An Exploratory Study of Faculty Perceptions and Approaches” (which should give you a sense about what it’s about), and hopefully it will be a “live” article/ website/ publication in the next month or two.

The next steps are going to involve reviewing the transcriptions (made quite a bit easier than it used to be with a website/software called Otter.ai) and to code everything to see what I’ve got. I’m not quite sure what I mean by “code” yet, if it is going to be something systematic that follows the advice in various manuals/textbooks about coding and analyzing qualitative data, or if it is going to be closer to what I did with the interviews I conducted for the MOOC book, where my methodology could probably best be described as journalism. Either way, I have a feeling that’s a project that is going to keep me busy for a couple of years.

But as I reflect on the end of my research fellowship time and also as I gear up for actually teaching again this fall, I thought I’d write a bit about some of the big picture take-aways I have from all of those interviews so far.

First off, I still think it’s weird that so many people taught online synchronously during Covid. I’ve blogged here and written in other places before about how this didn’t make sense to me when we started the “natural experiment” of online teaching during covid, and after a lot of research and interviews, it still doesn’t make sense to me.

I’m not saying that synchronous teaching with Zoom and similar tools didn’t work, though I think one pattern that will emerge when I dig more into the interviews is that faculty who taught synchronously and who also used other tools besides just Zoom (like they included asynch activities, they also used Zoom features like the chat window or breakout rooms, etc.) had better experiences than those who just used Zoom to lecture. It’s also clear that the distinction between asynchronous and synchronous online teaching was fuzzy. Still, given that that 85% or so of all online courses in US higher ed prior to Covid were taught only asynchronously, it is still weird to me that so many people new to teaching online knowingly (or, more likely, unknowingly) decided to take an approach that was (and still is) at odds with what’s considered the standard and “best practice” in distance education.

Second and very broadly speaking, I think faculty who elected to teach online synchronously during Covid did so for some combination of three reasons. And more or less in this descending order.

  • Most of the people who responded to my survey who taught online synchronously said their institution gave faculty a number of different options in terms of mode of teaching (f2f, hybrid, synch, asynch, etc.), and that seems to have been true generally speaking across the board in higher ed. But a lot of institutions– especially ones that focus on the traditional undergraduate college experience for 18-22 year olds and that offered few online courses before Covid– encouraged (and in some cases required) their faculty teach synchronously. And a lot of faculty I interviewed did say that the synchronous experience was indeed a “better than nothing” substitute for these students for what they couldn’t do on campus.

(It’s worth noting that I think this was striking to me in part because I’ve spent my career as a professor at a university where at least half of our students commute some distance to get to campus, are attending part-time, are returning adult students, etc. Institutions like mine have been teaching a significant percentage of classes online for quite a while.)

  • They thought it’d be the easiest way to make the transition to teaching online. I think Sorel Reisman nailed it in his IEEE article when he said: “Teachers can essentially keep doing their quasi-Socratic, one-to-many lecture teaching the way they always have. In a nutshell, Zoom is the lazy person’s way to teach online.” Reisman is okay with this because even though it is far from the approach he would prefer, it as as least getting instructors to engage with the technology. I don’t agree with him about that, but it’s hard to deny that he’s right about how Zoom enabled the far too popular (and largely ineffective) sage on the stage lecture hall experience.
  • But I think the most common reason why faculty decided to teach online synchronously is it didn’t even occur to them that the medium of delivery for a class would make any difference. In other words, it’s not so they decided to teach synchronously because they were encouraged to do so or even because they thought redesigning their courses to teach online asynchronously would be too much work. Rather, I think most faculty who had no previous experience teaching online didn’t think about the method/medium of delivery at all and just delivered the same content (and activities) that they always did before.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs here and these are all three sides (!) of the same coin; then again, maybe not. I read a column by Ezra Klein recently with the headline “I Didn’t Want It to Be True, but the Medium Really Is the Message.” He is not talking about online teaching at all but rather about the media landscape as it has been evolving and how his “love affair” with the internet and social media has faded in that time. Klein is a smart guy and I usually agree with and admire his columns, but this one kind of puzzles me. He writes about how he had been reading Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, and how he seems to have only now just discovered Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman, and how they all wrote about the importance of the medium that carries messages and content. For example:

We’ve been told — and taught — that mediums are neutral and content is king. You can’t say anything about television. The question is whether you’re watching “The Kardashians” or “The Sopranos,” “Sesame Street” or “Paw Patrol.” To say you read books is to say nothing at all: Are you imbibing potboilers or histories of 18th-century Europe? Twitter is just the new town square; if your feed is a hellscape of infighting and outrage, it’s on you to curate your experience more tightly.

There is truth to this, of course. But there is less truth to it than to the opposite. McLuhan’s view is that mediums matter more than content; it’s the common rules that govern all creation and consumption across a medium that change people and society. Oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd.

Now, I will admit that since I studied rhetoric, I’m quite familiar with McLuhan and Ong (less so with Postman), and the concept that the medium (aka “rhetorical situation”) does indeed matter a lot is not exactly new. But, I don’t know, have normal people really been told and taught that mediums are neutral? That all that matters is the content? Really? It seems like such a strange and obvious oversight to me. Then again, maybe not.

Third, the main challenge and surprise for most faculty new to online teaching (and also to faculty not so new to it) is in the preparation. I mean this in at least two ways. First off, the hardest part for me about teaching online has always been how to shift material and experiences from the synchronous f2f setting to the asynchronous online one. It’s a lot easier for me to respond to student questions in real time when we’re all sitting in the same room, and it’s much easier to do that f2f because I can “read the room.” Students who are confused and who have questions rarely say (f2f or online) “I’m confused and I have some questions here,” but I can usually figure out the issues when I’m f2f. In online courses– certainly in the asynch ones but I think this was also mostly true for synch ones as well– it’s impossible to adjust in the moment like that. This is why in advance/up-front preparation is so much more important for online courses. As an instructor, I have to explain things and set things up ahead of time to anticipate likely questions and points of confusion. That’s hard to do when you haven’t taught something previously, and it’s impossible to do without a fair amount of preparation.

Which leads to my second point: a lot of faculty, especially in fields like English and other disciplines in the humanities, don’t do as much ahead of time preparation to teach as they probably should. Rather, a lot of faculty I interviewed and a lot of faculty I know essentially have the pedagogical approach of structured improvisation, sometimes to the point of just “winging it.”

This can work out great f2f. I’m thinking of the kind of improvisation accomplished musicians have to improvise and interpret a song on the fly (and more than one of the people I interviewed about teaching online for the first time used an analogy like this). A lot of instructors are very good as performers in f2f class settings because they are especially good lecturers, they’re especially good in building interpersonal relationships with their students, and they’re especially charismatic people. They’re prepared ahead of time, sure, and chances are they’ve done similar performances in f2f classes for a while. These are the kind of instructors who really feed off of the energy of live and in-person students. There are also the kind of instructors who, based again mostly on some of the interviews, were most unhappy about teaching online.

But this simply does not work AT ALL online, and I think it is only marginally more possible to take this approach to teaching with Zoom. If the ideal performance of an instructor in a f2f class is like jazz musicians, stand-up comedians, or a similar kind of stage performer, an online class instructor’s ideal performance has to be more like what the final product of a well-produced movie or TV show looks like: practiced, scripted, performed, and edited, and then ultimately recorded and made available for on-demand streaming.

And let’s be clear: a lot of faculty (myself included) are not at their best when they try the structured improvisation/winging it approach in f2f classrooms. I’ve done many many teaching observations over the years, and I am here to tell you that there are a lot of instructors who think they are good at this at this kind of performance who aren’t. I know I’m not as good of a teacher when I try this, and I think that’s something that became clear to me when I started teaching some of my classes online (asynchronously, of course) about 15 or so years ago. So for me, I think my online teaching practices and preparations do more to shape my f2f practices and preparations rather than the other way around.

In any event, the FRF semester and summer are about over and the fall semester is about here. We start at EMU on Monday, and I am teaching one class f2f for the first time since Winter 2020. Here’s hoping I remember where to stand.

 

 

 

A lot of what Leonhardt said in ‘Not Good for Learning’ is just wrong

I usually agree with David Leonhardt’s analysis in his New York Times newsletter “The Morning” because I think he does a good job of pointing out how both the left and the right have certain beliefs about issues– Covid in particular for the last couple years, of course– that are sometimes at odds with the evidence. But I have to say that this morning’s newsletter and the section “Not Good For Learning” ticks me off.

While just about every K-12 school went online when Covid first hit in spring 2020, a lot of schools/districts resumed in-person classes in fall 2020, and a lot did not. Leonhardt said:

These differences created a huge experiment, testing how well remote learning worked during the pandemic. Academic researchers have since been studying the subject, and they have come to a consistent conclusion: Remote learning was a failure.

Now, perhaps I’m overreacting to this passage because of my research about teaching online at the college-level, but the key issue here is he’s talking about K-12 schools that had never done anything close to online/remote instruction ever before. He is not talking about post-secondary education at all, which is where the bulk of remote learning has worked just fine for 125+ years. Maybe that’s a distinction that most readers will understand anyway, but I kind of doubt it, and not bringing that up at all is inaccurate and just sloppy.

Obviously, remote learning in the vast majority of K-12 schools went poorly during Covid and in completely predictable ways. Few of these teachers had any experience or training to teach online, and few of these school districts had the kinds of technologies and tools (like Canvas and Blackboard and other LMSes) to support these courses. This has been a challenge at the college level too, but besides the fact that I think a lot more college teachers at various levels and various types of institutions have had at least some prior to Covid experience teaching online and most colleges and university have more tech support, a lot (most?) college teachers were already making use of an LMS tool and using a lot more electronic tools for essays and tests (as opposed to paper) in their classes.

The students are also obviously different. When students in college take classes online, it’s a given that they will have the basic technology of a laptop and easy access to the internet. It’s also fairly clear from the research (and I’ve seen this in my own experiences teaching online) that the students who do best in these formats are more mature and more self-disciplined. Prior to Covid, online courses were primarily for “non-traditional” students who were typically older, out in the workforce, and with responsibilities like caring for children or others, paying a mortgage, and so forth. These students, who are typically juniors/seniors or grad students, have been going to college for a while, they understand the expectations of a college class, and (at least the students who are most successful) have what I guess I’d describe as the “adulting” skills to succeed in the format. I didn’t have a lot of first and second year students in online classes before Covid, but a lot of the ones I did have during the pandemic really struggled with these things. Oh sure, I did have some unusually mature and “together” first year students who did just fine, but a lot of the students we have at EMU at this level started college underprepared for the expectations, and adding on the additional challenge of the online format was too much.

So it is not even a teeny-weeny surprise that a lot of teenagers/secondary students– many of whom were struggling to learn and succeed in traditional classrooms– did not succeed in hastily thrown together and poorly supported online courses, and do not even get me started on the idea of grade school kids being forced to sit through hours of Zoom calls. I mean honestly, I think these students probably would have done better if teachers had just sent home worksheets and workbooks and other materials to the kids and the parents to study on their own.

I think a different (and perhaps more accurate) way to study the effectiveness of remote learning would be to look at what some K-12 schools were doing before Covid. Lots and lots of kids and their parents use synch and asynch technology to supplement home schooling, and programs like the Michigan Online School have been around for a while now. Obviously, home schooling or online schooling is not right for everyone, but these programs are also not “failures.”

Leonhardt goes on to argue that more schools that serve poor students and/or non-white students went remote for longer than schools. Leonhardt claims there were two reasons for this:

Why? Many of these schools are in major cities, which tend to be run by Democratic officials, and Republicans were generally quicker to reopen schools. High-poverty schools are also more likely to have unionized teachers, and some unions lobbied for remote schooling.

Second, low-income students tended to fare even worse when schools went remote. They may not have had reliable internet access, a quiet room in which to work or a parent who could take time off from work to help solve problems.

First off, what Leonhardt seems to forget that Covid was most serious in “the major cities” in this country, and also among populations that were non-white and that were poor. So of course school closings were more frequent in these areas because of Covid.

Second, while it is quite easy to complain about the teacher unions, let us all remember it was not nearly as clear in Fall 2020 as Leonhardt is implying that the risks of Covid in the schools were small. It did turn out that those settings weren’t as risky as we thought, but at the same time, that “not as risky” analysis primarily applies to students. A lot of teachers got sick and a few died. I wrote about some of this back in February here. I get the idea that most people who were demanding their K-12 schools open immediately only had their kids in mind (though a lot of these parents were also the same ones adamant against mask and vaccine mandates), and if I had a kid still in school, I might feel the same way. But most people (and I’d put Leonhardt in this camp in this article) didn’t think for a second about the employees, and at the end of the day, working in a public school setting is not like being in the ministry or some other job where we expect people to make huge personal sacrifices for others. Being a teacher is a white collar job. Teachers love to teach, sure, but we shouldn’t expect them to put their own health and lives at any level of risk–even if it’s small– just because a lot of parents haven’t sorted out their childcare situations.

Third, the idea that low-income students fared worse in remote classes (and I agree, they certainly did) is bad, but that has nothing to do with why they spent more time online in the first place. That just doesn’t make sense.

Leonhardt goes on:

In places where schools reopened that summer and fall, the spread of Covid was not noticeably worse than in places where schools remained closed. Schools also reopened in parts of Europe without seeming to spark outbreaks.

I wrote about back in February: these schools didn’t reopen because they never closed! They tried the best they could and often failed, but as far as I can tell, no K-12 school in this country, public or private, just closed and told folks “we’ll reopen after Covid is over.” Second, most of the places where public schools (and universities as well) that went back to at least some f2f instruction in Fall 2020 were in parts of the country where being outside and/or leaving the windows open to classrooms is a lot easier than in Michigan, and/or most of these schools had the resources to do things like create smaller classes for social distancing, to install ventilation equipment, and so forth.

Third– and I cannot believe Leonhardt doesn’t mention this because I know this is an issue he has written about in the past– the comparison to what went on with schools in Europe is completely bogus. In places like Germany and France, they put a much much higher priority on opening schools– especially as compared to things like restaurants and bars and other places where Covid likes to spread. So they kept those kinds of places closed longer so the chances of a Covid outbreak in the schools was smaller. Plus Europeans are much MUCH smarter about things like mask and vaccine mandates too.

No, the pandemic was not good for learning, but it was not good for anything else, either. It wasn’t good for our work/life balances, our mental health, a lot of our household incomes, on and on and on. We have all suffered mightily for it, and I am certain that as educators of all stripes study and reflect on the last year and a half, we’ll all learn a lot about what worked and what didn’t. But after two years of trying their fucking best to do the right things, there is no reason to through K-12 teachers under the bus now.

Actually, in-person learning is the “gold standard”

As someone who has been teaching online and researching distance education for a while now, I find the current enthusiasm about the format a bit weird. For example, take this piece from Inside Higher Ed on January 6, “Rhetorical War Over Online Versus In-Person Instruction.” Here are the opening two paragraphs:

Kenneth W. Henderson, the chancellor of Northeastern University, posted a letter on the university website late last month telling students and faculty members that the Boston institution intended to open as planned for the spring semester because “in-person learning remains the gold standard.”

The statement, which was not caveated in any way, struck many in education circles as strikingly unnuanced, especially for a chancellor whose institution offers a robust catalog of online courses. Henderson is not Northeastern’s top administrator, and while at most institutions the chancellor is the top person, in a new structure implemented by Northeastern, Henderson is a cabinet member.

The writer, Suzanne Smalley, goes back and forth between the desirability of the in-person college experience and the efficacy of online classes. She brings up many of the usual examples and quotes many smart experts, though I ultimately think she emphasized the advantages of the online format.

What a difference a global pandemic can make, huh?

By “gold standard,” I think Henderson means that the f2f experience is widely acknowledged as the best and most desirable approach for late teen/early 20-somethings (aka, “traditional” students) for going to college. It is the point of comparison for most people regarding the effectiveness of online courses, as in “online courses are just as effective as f2f ones.” This doesn’t mean folks defending the effectiveness of online instruction are wrong– and I’ll come back to that point in a moment– but I am at a loss who would be “struck” by such an “unnuanced” statement. All of the most prestigious, well-known, and selective universities in the U.S. are residential experiences and they hold the vast majority of their courses f2f. These are the universities that most students want to attend, which is why these kinds of universities are more selective about who they allow to attend. That’s just a fact.

Henderson said in-person learning rather than in-person courses represents the gold standard, and that’s important. I think he’s trying to include everything that happens for students in addition to courses. He’s making the connection between learning and the broader college life experience that includes living on or near campus, parties/the Greek system/other social activities, sports, getting into semi-supervised sex/drugs/rock-n-roll trouble, and so forth. But this doesn’t have a lot to do with the mode of delivery of courses.

This is not to say that everyone who goes to college has access to or even wants this “gold standard.” At EMU, we have traditionally aged/right out of high school students looking for the full college life experience with dorms and off-campus apartments and sports and campus activities and all that. But the majority of our students– including the ones in the dorms– are coming to EMU in part because they couldn’t afford the full-on college life experience at Michigan or MSU, or because they didn’t want to move too far away from home. Plus we have a lot of “non-traditional” students, folks who tend to be past their early twenties and who have grown-up responsibilities (jobs, spouses, kids, mortgages, etc.) that are not compatible to the college life experience. It’s kind of hard to go to all the games and parties if you’re a full-time student working two jobs to help pay the bills for school and your new baby.

It’s clear that online courses/programs can be just as effective as f2f courses/programs under the right circumstances, assuming that “effective” means students demonstrate the same level of learning in both formats. But as Van Davis, who is the “service design and strategy officer for Every Learner Everywhere,” is quoted as saying in this article, “The gold standard isn’t the modality. The gold standard has to do with the level of interaction that students are able to have with each other, and that students are able to have with the content, and that students are able to have with instructors.” I agree, and there are plenty of f2f courses with almost no interaction, unless you count some prof lecturing at a captive audience for 50 minutes at a time as “interaction.”

But I also think online courses/programs are most effective for students who have the maturity and discipline to interact effectively online, and in my experience, that means upper-division undergraduates and graduate students. There’s also the issue of what I’d describe as the aesthetics of the experience. I personally “like” teaching classes online, but lots of my colleagues and my students definitely prefer the f2f experience, and a year and a half of teaching all online has shown me that I would prefer to teach a mix of f2f and online classes. Maybe the real “gold standard” here is the flexibility for both teachers and students to engage in a course in the format that best suits their own needs.

Ultimately, it’s like a lot of things we’ve learned during Covid and and how to make do online. We can have a family game night or small party with friends via Zoom, but it’d sure be nice if we could do that more often in person. We can hold large academic conferences online and we should continue to offer some online participation as an option (and I had a long blog post about this before the CCCCs got cancelled in 2020 that I think is relevant here) more or less for the same reason why we teach courses online: to give access to people who otherwise can’t come to the f2f conference. But it’d be sure nice if the 2022 CCCC’s was still going to happen f2f. We can have department meetings via Zoom, but– well actually, that last one is an example where I prefer the distance.

Kicking off a new research project: “Online Teaching and the New Normal”

I’ve been working very slowly but surly on putting together a survey to kick off a new project I’m currently calling “Online Teaching and the New Normal.” I just posted a page about it here, and I’m trying to get the word out via social media. If you come across this post and can help me out by either taking the survey or forwarding it on to other folks teaching college classes online during the 2020-21 school year, I’d appreciate it.

A bit more background:

As I wrote about back in early September, I have put aside the project I was working on last year, “Investigating Classroom Technology bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” aka “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit.” In the midst of a pandemic and during a school year in which an unprecedented number of instructors/students have no choice but to move the entire school year online, it just seemed to me like some kind of discussion about whether or not students should be allowed to use laptops in classrooms had quickly become irrelevant. Or at least it feels pretty irrelevant right now.

Anyway, in early September and after an enormous percentage of college classes went online for the entire semester (at EMU, it’s about 90%, and I think there are a lot of universities like EMU are somewhere in that range), I was surprised and rather confused at how many college faculty decided to go with synchronous video (aka Zoom) as the primary mode of delivery. As I wrote about there, it just does not make sense to me to teach an online class in that format.

Online classes have been delivered mostly asynchronously because the goal of distance education going all the way back to the Chautauqua movement, home study and early correspondence courses in the late 19th century has always been to extend access to higher education to students who can’t attend college face to face for some reason. Courses that meet at specific times in specific places restricts that access. Also, until relatively recently, live video conferencing software (like Zoom) hasn’t been that accessible to students– and it is still a problem for anyone with sketchy wifi or crappy computers, but that’s another story.

The current moment is different because we’re moving courses online for students who otherwise would prefer to attend classes on campus and face to face, which means the scheduling flexibility component isn’t as important. A lot of institutions are requiring faculty to teach their now online classes synchronously, I suppose because of the demands (or perceived demands) of students and their families, but I also know that a lot of faculty had the choice and went with synchronous Zoom instruction on their own. But a someone who has been teaching online and researching it for years, this still does not make sense to me. Teaching online classes synchronously doesn’t take advantage of the affordances of the format; I wrote about this here and I even gave an invited talk/presentation about it for a virtual conference in Europe in November.

However, these previous assumptions could very well be wrong. And right now, the tragedy of Covid-19 is giving folks interested in researching best practices for teaching online a unique opportunity. Thus my efforts so far with this survey. As I tell my students in my first year research writing classes, the reason we do research is to test the assumptions we have, particularly those assumptions that are based on incomplete and debatable evidence.

I have no idea how this is going to turn out, and while I’ve only been asking for people to fill this out for a few days, it’s been challenging to get folks to participate. A lot of it has to do with the timing (I think most of us teaching college classes are concentrating on getting done for the term so we can get to the holiday break, which makes yet another survey about something a lot less appealing), though I am also trying to get these folks to participate in a survey (and potentially an interview) about something that they perhaps would rather not talk about. I plan on leaving the survey open at least through the end of the 2020-21 school year, so there’s still time.

And of course, if you’ve read this far and you are teaching a college class online and in the U.S., why not take a few minutes to complete this survey yourself? https://forms.gle/FQSjWRcVXim6BVoq7

 

My talk at the Media and Learning Conference (plus with a post-talk update)

After the break and this recap is the text of my talk for the panel “Maximising the learning potential for students and academics” at the Media and Learning Conference. Before the panel happened, I thought I would be the “odd man out” in the sense that I think teaching with video is overrated, and the other people on the panel (notably Michael Wesch and Maha Bali) do not.

Now that it’s over, I can report my first Zoom academic conference talk is in the books. As I mention in the script of my talk, I was invited to participate in this because of a blog post I wrote back in early September about why I thought synchronous Zoom teaching online was a bad idea. An organizer of this conference somehow came across that post and invited me to be on the panel. So once again, I posted something on my blog because it was on my mind, it caught someone’s attention, and it turned into a couple of (small) CV entries. So yeah, there’s a reason why I still blog.

Anyway, I thought was good discussion/panel, with a few minor hiccups along the way. I don’t know if I ended up being at odds with my fellow panelists so much as we were all talking in different ways about the issues of reaching out to students and how video can be a part of online teaching.

The first two speakers, Sian Hammlett and Phillip Seargeant, were filmmakers in the UK who talked about making videos for Open University courses. These are professionally produced videos made with the intention of being used repeatedly for years in courses; the example the speakers and a lot of the participants mentioned in the comments was “The Language of Lying,” which looks quite interesting. Impressive stuff.

Then Michael Wesch talked. Now, I don’t know if the mostly European audience was aware of this (I assume so), but Wesch about as close as you can get to being a “famous academic” after years of high-profile work with video, digital ethnography, and YouTube culture. So he of course gave a great talk featuring all kinds of video and neat slide effects and everything. Super interesting and slick.

And then there was me. Wesch was a tough act to follow, let me tell ya.

I think it went okay, but I had basically three problems that folks might or might not have noticed. First, because this a session that was happening at 1:30 in the afternoon in Europe, it started at 7:30 am for me. Sure, I’m usually up by then and it’s not like I had far to go to get to my computer to participate, but I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t had to be “presentable” this early in the morning in months, possibly years. Second, when I was preparing my talk, I decided not to do any slides or video, mainly because I didn’t know how well it would work on Zoom to begin with– I didn’t want to be fiddling with slides and Zoom at the same time– and because it was a short talk. Turns out I was the only one who didn’t have slides, so that didn’t look great. And third, I was originally told 12 minutes, so I wrote up a script (below) that took me almost exactly 12 minutes to read. Then the moderator began by saying we had 10 minutes each. These things happen, but it did mean I did a lot of skimming over a lot of what I wrote.

And finally Maha Bali talked. She’s a professor at American University in Cairo who I had heard of before through the things I’ve read on Hybrid Pedagogy and her Twitter feed.  I think the other talks were more technical than hers, but what Maha was talking about– how to foster equity and caring in education in the midst of Covid– was arguably more important than to video or not to video. She made her slideshow available here.

This was all via the “webinar” version of Zoom, which I suspect is what most conferences that are going to happen online this year will end up using. I thought it worked well for hosting the presentations and it seemed like it was easy to moderate. One of things that happens at too many f2f conference panels is a moderate is unwilling/unable to stop someone from going over time. Credit to the moderate of this panel, Zac Woolfitt, for not allowing that to happen, but I’d also argue that’s one of the advantages of Zoom: it’s easy for the moderator to stop people. And none of the speakers had any serious technical problems.

But I do wish Zoom had a few better features for facilitating these things. There was a text chat running along with our talks, but there was no way to go back to respond to a specific comment. That was annoying. The only way for folks in the audience to ask questions was via a text box. Perhaps it would have been possible for the moderators to set it up so that someone who wanted to ask a question could get audio/video access– kind of like someone stepping up to the microphone to ask their question. I also found it a bit disembodying because we couldn’t see anyone in the audience; rather, all I could see was a fluctuating number of participants (between about 90 and 110, so a pretty good sized crowd for this sort of thing) and a stream of texts.

Anyway, Zoom was okay, Zoom could have been better, and it felt like a reasonably good substitution for a face to face conference session. Though as I blogged about back in early March, I don’t think synchronous video should be the only alternative to a f2f academic conference presentation, and covid or not, higher education needs to think a lot harder about how to embrace hybrid conference formats that could include a mix of f2f sessions broadcasted online, synch video discussions like what I just participated in, and asynch discussions/posters that can be made available as beyond a particular session time.

As I wrote back then, the problem with moving academic conferences at least partially online during and after Covid is not the technology. The problems are all about the difficulties institutions and people have with trying and doing “new things.”

After the break is the script for my talk.

Continue reading “My talk at the Media and Learning Conference (plus with a post-talk update)”

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.