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VIEWPOINT: Report from an educator in the trenches

by Chris Naticchia

It’s been more than two months but the memory remains intense. Before there was even a stay-at-home order or talk of wearing cloth masks in public, my first adjustment was rather pedestrian: I put the winter exams for my university classes online.

But when coronavirus soon made clear that our spring term would begin and end online, I realized that my colleagues and I were in store for a much more formidable challenge.

In many ways, I’m lucky to be a university teacher—with the right equipment, I can work from home, with minimal risk of infection. Like many of my colleagues, however, I had never taught online courses before. I was nervous and worried, and had to learn quickly for the sake of my students. I had just acquired another job too—“home school principal”—basically, making sure that my El Roble eighth grader did her homework, and being available to help her when she needed it. Could I handle both jobs?   

The rest of the university, meanwhile, was a madhouse of activity, dealing with matters mundane and large: figuring out emergency and hazard pay for custodians, handling student grades, administering paid COVID leave, getting students laptops and hot spots. Our union, thankfully, negotiated the COVID leave, procedures for counselors to work from home—and a week’s pause in classes for us to receive online training.

Although a week is hardly enough time to build a good online course, it was certainly better than nothing, especially after emerging from an exhausting week of grading. Now each one of us faced a question that required an immediate answer. Should I teach in real time on camera or record lectures at home for viewing later?

Real-time was tempting. If we could interact with students, at least we could get a taste of the energy that drives good learning. But recorded lectures had advantages too, in particular flexibility for students whose lives and schedules had been suddenly upended. For me, the tie-breaker was the thought of my daughter barging into my office with a question (or demand) in the midst of a real-time class. I decided to record.

Were it not for my colleagues, I would have been stuck at this point. I don’t consider myself particularly tech savvy, but I do have experience with Zoom and Blackboard (which provides online pages for course materials). A colleague walked me through the process of recording a lecture using Zoom while sharing my screen with my viewers, then uploading it to Blackboard.

I still struggle, though, with recording lectures. Being a philosophy professor, I rely less on lecture than Socratic discussion. There’s nothing quite like the spark that occurs when students engage in a good discussion. You have to free up space for that to happen, and it’s suppressed entirely if all you do is deliver content through lecture. You’re also teaching reasoning skills, not recitation of bullet points.

So while I do use PowerPoint, I tend not to use it much—maybe one or two slides per class. For me that means that, for each lecture I have to record, I have to develop many more slides for each presentation, supplementing them with questions to be discussed online (to say nothing of a term paper in three drafts). Many a night I’m up past 11 finishing slides and recording a lecture while, in the next room, my daughter sleeps.

In the midst of this continuous sprint, I wonder whether I’ve made the right choices. Some of my colleagues have made the same choices, others different ones. As we compare notes, we all have our doubts and struggles. Not all of my students participate in the online discussions, though I’ve extended deadlines many times. On the other hand, one of my students went to urgent care, then the emergency room—I’m sure he appreciates the flexibility.

If I have to teach online this fall (as seems likely), I’ll probably teach in real time. I miss the students and live discussion. I’ll find different ways to accommodate their circumstances.

As for my daughter, she’s risen to the occasion, showing self-discipline, conscientiousness, independence, and maturity—she won’t be interrupting me.

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