Learning in a Pandemic – 1

Now, new and improved with proofreading!

poster saying keep calm and keep teachingOPEN LETTER to MY FACULTY COLLEAGUES

There’s a pandemic happening and it’s called COVID19 just in case you’ve been under a rock and haven’t heard. It’s going to have starting to have a big impact on higher education, not to mention a lot of ordinary lives. We are starting to see schools having to close their campuses to face-2-face classes and make the emergency switch to “online” to complete their terms. University of Washington and Stanford have already closed their classes and “flipped the switch”. I’m reading lots of commentary about it. And now I’m going to add my $5 worth (enormous inflation perhaps?)

Spoiler alert: it’s not really as simple as “flipping a switch”.  It’s also not really a switch to “online”. It’s completing a f2f class without having to meet f2f under emergency circumstances using available tools, many of which are also used in online class.  Remember that. It will help you.

I’m going to speak from my role as a professor of economics, my role as a faculty developer and open learning/OER champion in my school’s Center for Teaching Excellence, and my role as a faculty old. As an old, I’ve been teaching a long time. I’ve also been learning a long time. I’ve also had two careers and planning/strategizing has been a big part of  both.  I’m mostly going to share my thoughts based on my experiences in the hope of helping others.

A disclaimer first: I am fortunate. I work with an incredibly functional group of faculty in my program. We’ve largely already discussed the possibility and figured out our contingency plans. My school isn’t faced with an imminent threat of needing to make the emergency switch, or at least we aren’t as of today, March 8, 2020. But things happen fast in a pandemic.  I also teach mostly online and everything I’ve taught f2f, I’ve also taught online, much like my ECON colleagues. So an emergency switch will be relatively easier for us should it be necessary. But even for me, a switch will necessitate changes since my online class’s final exam is currently proctored.

More disclaimer: This is likely to be the first of multiple posts. Don’t expect my normal thought-out structured writing. This is likely more stream of consciousness. I’m going to write as if I’m talking directly to a fellow faculty member who isn’t as prepared or who hasn’t been as obsessed as me with studying this thing for weeks.  It’s a lot of tips and questions to ask yourself. This first post is more about getting your mind right. The next post will be more about class planning and actions. If that sounds like a teaching approach, well, good. I’m mostly talking to fellow community college and teaching-oriented colleges/universities. This is because it’s what I know and most familiar with. If you’re at a big, prestigious research university, I hope some of what I say is useful, but I can’t vouch for it. I don’t have enough experience with your situations to say. Time is of the essence, and I’ve already wasted a lot of words here, so here goes.

Put Your Own Mask On First

By “mask” I mean your own mindset and attitude – how you are thinking and relating to this whole COVID19 pandemic.  You are an academic. Trust your own intellect. Be curious. Question things and think things through, including what I tell you. In other words, be an academic but don’t be argumentative just to argue.

  • Keep calm.  The essence of a pandemic is uncertainty. Don’t let that uncertainty overtake you or your students. There will be difficulties. There will be things you can’t plan for. We’ll all deal with it together. You may have fears about the pandemic and your health, your community, your finances, your school’s management of the situation. Don’t pass those fears onto your students. They have their own difficulties. You need to be an adult in the classroom.
  • It’s in your class now. No, the odds that you have an infected student in your classroom right now are extremely, extremely low. That’s not what I mean. I mean that whether or not your school is making “the switch” or not, from here on for at least the rest of this semester/quarter/term, the idea and thoughts of COVID19 are in your classroom. It’s in every classroom. These thoughts will hang around like the proverbial “elephant in the room”.  They will take up space in your students’ minds reducing cognitive resources for regular learning. A good teacher recognizes, adapts, and responds to the elephants in the room and doesn’t ignore them.  Your students will be concerned, afraid, confused, dismissive, and maybe even argumentative. It’s the new social reality for this year. I know.
  • Be a Model Academic.  Academics learn. They deal with uncertainty by researching, sharing information, evaluating claims and evidence. They use their minds and don’t just repeat stuff. They develop informed judgements. They use science and evidence and logic. Pandemics cause fear and confusion in the society. You may be feeling uncertain and uninformed yourself. Or your school might be taking a “don’t say much and they won’t panic” approach. Students look to you as a model. They don’t really expect you to be the all-knowing oracle, but they will absorb your example. Try modeling how to find good answers and how to calmly deal with uncertainty.
  • Your Bosses Aren’t Your Parents.  They won’t have the answer or the magic key. The college president or dean or provost or VP of whatever may not even truly understand the complexities of what needs to happen or when to “make the switch”. Colleges are hierachical socio-economic organizations. There’s  a widespread myth in our society that the best leader is the boss who “takes charge” and “issues commands”. It unfortunately plays into people’s inner child that wants an all-powerful parent to act in crisis to protect them. That same inner child gets angry and throws a tantrum when the boss isn’t an all-powerful, protective parent. Either way, those reactions hurt yourself.  “Take charge” leadership isn’t really how people or orgs survive in a crisis. It doesn’t work that way. I’ll comment on that in another post. For faculty, this means that you have to figure out the nitty-gritty and your own solution to how to finish the semester. Your best resources are your fellow faculty, your students, and the faculty-support entities in your college (like the Center for Teaching Excellence where I work). Talk with them. Don’t expect them to solve your problem for you. But they can help you understand what you really need to do. They can help focus what will be scarce time and resource.
    • Aside to administrators and leaders on campus: Don’t play the great in-charge hero here. This is a time to call attention, keep people focused on the essential, and ASK THEM HOW YOU CANT HELP!  It’s time for servant leadership. Run errands for questions.
  • Remember it’s not Online. You are NOT preparing to teach online. You are planning to finish a f2f class or hybrid class or online class that required f2f proctoring without meeting f2f for the remaining days. That’s revision of a class. It’s not “going online”. Why do I make the distinction? Lots of people will bombard you with lots of things you need to create a “successful online class”. Most of it is irrelevant to your immediate situation, much of it is wrong or poorly supported anyway, and it won’t help you. It will likely make you feel worse and distract from the real stuff.
  • You Need Thinking, not Materials. If you’re making an emergency switch to online, you need to start thinking first. That’s your biggest task. Don’t fall for the temptation to immediately worry about and create “materials” to put online in some LMS.  That’s a tempting distraction. But online materials do not make an online course and they sure aren’t the completion of a course that started f2f. Yes, you’ll need to put somethings online or on the web. But think it through first. The real issues are:
    • redesigning/reimagining assignments so they don’t rely on f2f time
    • figuring out how to adapt assignments like that group project that’s already been started but now needs to finish with some artifact other than an in-class presentation.
    • alternatives and accomodations for things like exams.
    • how to add flexibility to schedules
    • how can some? all? of the planned remaining synchronous activities be made asynchronous and still be valuable learning experiences.
    • I’ll write more in the next post
  • Plan Now. If you teach any classes this semester/quarter/term, it’s time now to start planning for how you will do this. Yes, pray to your God or whatever guides your life that you don’t have to do it. Because if you don’t have to make the switch it means your community is being spared the worst  of this pandemic and human lives matter most.  But IF you need to do it, you won’t get much notice. Likely you will  have no notice. Then you’ll be in crunch mode. It’s so much easier to plan calmly and know what you’ll need to do. Start thinking about it now. Start casually sharing and talking with your colleagues. Division of labor is a real thing, but it works most effectively when done in small groups by those in the group themselves.
  • Be Flexible. If you have to make the switch to finish, then flexibility is essential. This is no time for posturing about “academic rigor” and deadlines for deadlines sake because “it builds character”.  Your students are human. They are in a community that is stressed. Lives are literally at stake. Some students won’t be able to access the LMS. You might think they have web access and resources because you see that new iPhone 11 they have and your stereotype says they’re privileged. Think again. You don’t see the limited pay-as-you-go plan with little data, or see the fact this phone just replaced the 5 year old phone that broke and is being paid for $20 a month by cutting out lunches on some days. Sure students might have web access at home. But then, there’s a good chance they don’t beyond the phone. If you think the phone is useful web access, try reading  that pdf you’re writing on the phone before you send it. Maybe they do have so-so web access at home but they share it with 4 other family members including a parent who now has to work from home online too while all of them watch the two little kids who can’t go to school.  It’s a tough time. Be human. Be kind. We get through it together.
    You can make the choice whether to see your students as slackers or see them as heroic folks working hard because they want to learn under trying circumstances.  I tell you from my experience, you get more effort from them when you choose the latter.

  • Keep Teaching. Adapt. Keep your eyes on the prize. In making a switch, you’ll likely not be able to teach some favorite sub-topic or assignment that you’ve long thought was so important to the course. Instead, think (there’s that word think again) about what the real purpose, the threshold concepts, of your course are. How can you salvage what you’ve started f2f and adapt in midstream to achieve some version of that?  You’re not making a permanent commitment to changing the curriculum in this course for all time or for all of higher education. You are trying to make sure these students finish this semester with the essentials of this course.

    There are, of course, some things that just can’t go remote (as far as my imagination has envisioned). I have a hard time seeing how clinicals in many health services classes could be done on online. Some third party accreditation/state authorizations require x number of documented f2f contact hours. Paramedic training comes to mind. If you teach those things, then your obligation is raise the flag to the senior leadership. Educate them. And work to see what is fair for your students.

  • Technology will not fix things for you.
  • Seize the Teaching Moment. Even if you don’t need to “make the switch”, consider that COVID19 presents teaching moments. For example, I’m working on a lesson now for my macroeconomics students. I hope to use the COVID19 pandemic to explain how it might result in a recession. It’s a perfect example of a process described in the course but in more general, abstract terms. I’m confident that if I re-explain those terms and abstract concepts in the context of the virus now, I’ll get enormously better, deeper learning than I ordinarily would.  A virus pandemic has aspects that touch most course subjects in some way: humanities, sociology, economics, chemistry, biology, math and stats, etc. Seize the moment.

These are not normal times.  Pandemics put a premium on our social relations and our ability to learn.

more to come with more specifics in other posts