The times, they are a changin’

Teaching in the throes of the pandemic

Today, many educators are struggling with the whipsawed, topsy-turvy world of teaching every student in every grade, including college and graduate school, in the clouded atmosphere of the pandemic. While a migration to online learning has been occurring for quite some time, the acceleration to virtual platform instruction is stunning. It wasn’t so long ago that traditional thought in the academic world was that in-class learning is/was far superior to a degree earned online. That appears to be changing.

Higher education has spent billions on educational facilities for in-person learning, and now the Zoom factor is beating up the paradigm. Schools are attempting to figure out how to ensure their massive investments in infrastructure are not wasted.

I’ve been an adjunct lecturer for almost 25 years, collectively, and this semester is like no other I’ve witnessed. Nor has anyone else.

As many parents and young people with student loans know, people pay big bucks for schooling, housing, books, sports and social interaction. Obviously, online learning does not require massive buildings and limitless classrooms to work effectively. Or does it? Just this semester, my students were told to come to school, though many of their classes might be virtual. Now they’ll finish the semester entirely online.

I am not alone in this situation. Millions of students, teachers and administrators have been attempting to provide consistency, excellence and camaraderie even if it’s on a 12-inch screen. Just how well we are doing will be determined at a much later time. Given the COVID-19 crisis has been anything but predictable, we’re probably going to see a lot more changes and vacillations during the next few months. It’s pretty certain that 2021 will present another set of challenges, even if a vaccine works.

Is there a silver lining to the pandemic?

While the quick migration to online learning created many frustrations, it provided some benefits too. According to Alicita Rodriguez, a communicator at the University of Colorado in Denver, “It’s too soon to tell how the pandemic-related shift to remote learning will affect higher education in general, but some data points to unexpected benefits for certain student groups.”

Nicole Daniels, writing in The New York Times, states that many students have had positive experiences with remote learning, such as getting to work at their own pace, schedule flexibility and being away from a stressful, physical environment.

Additional research points to advantages of online learning such as reduction in costly commutes, being able to work at home and more easily care for children and elderly adults, and flexibility in the types of classes possible through remote learning.
Nonetheless, Ross Barkin argues in The Guardian: “Remote learning, no matter how well-intentioned, is a diluted product, and students deserve a tuition reduction for sitting at home and staring at a laptop screen.” As someone who taught remotely this past semester, he said he strained to provide a comparable experience to what students were used to. Ultimately, he said, he could not.

Perhaps the online experience is better for some classes (and educators) than others. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Vijay Govindarajan and Anup Srivastava suggest not all faculty members are comfortable with virtual classrooms, with many unfamiliar with basic audio-visual equipment, choosing instead to rely on blackboards and flip charts. They go on to say, colleges and universities need to use this moment to assess what training is needed for instructors to provide an exemplary experience.

Still, while college is about education, much of the education in college comes from the social interactions that force young people to learn (away from the parental unit) about developing lasting relationships and to simply grow up. That appears to be missing on Zoom.

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