One year of online teaching – what did I learn?

I remember March 2020 better than any other previous Marches I lived before. Mostly because of the contradictory feelings I noticed in myself: anxiety while in the Amsterdam airport and calm when sitting on the window sit in the airplane taking me home. Uncertainty regarding whether or not it’s a good idea to meet my parents just two days after arrival – the last time I wondered for hours whether or not I should see my parents was back when I was 7 and got my first 6 (out of 10) in the first grade at a language paper. Constant surprise and amazement between March and May 2020 when contemplating the metamorphosis of daily life.

In January 2020 I talked to my colleagues about my intention to use digitalisation in my work in the coming years. I was thinking about starting an YouTube channel and a podcast for a really long time. I saw how technology could help because I wanted to use the medium and using it for teaching seemed as an appropriate reason to invest time in social media. And then the pandemic was announced, measures were put in place and we were using technology to do our work remotely [privileged, I know].

A year is both a lot and also not that much. There are things I learned and I use the one year commemoration to express them. There are other things too, but I try to focus on the main ones. Here are three:

  • Virtual learning can’t replace face-to-face learning. With the same results, I mean. It may seem that I am getting older and already have some reservations towards change. But hear me out. There is something happening when people are face to face that mediates understanding which simply doesn’t happen virtually. Sure, virtual learning can become a thing. We could all get information and certifications through online courses. There are many advantages to it and we definitely have the technology. I myself accessed online courses prior to the pandemic. Working with adult learners is quite appropriate as they generally know how to turn on all the devices and patiently engage with content. But there is something this mediated connection doesn’t do: it doesn’t build connection and understanding. Because we don’t see each other, we don’t perceive reactions and we don’t have that much needed natural interactions as we do when we stand together in the classroom. For instance, in the classroom, one can just raise their hand, and with a minimum exchange, one may start speaking. Then another student intervenes to add something to what was said before. And so on an so forth. One finds it easier to ask questions because one can study the room and see that other students didn’t understand as well – instead to be perceived as the only one who didn’t understand, one can be the hero who stood up and asked for clarifications. Online, the interactions are much more planned and there’s barely any answer when one asks “What do you think?” unless someone is directly called upon. There is just less spontaneity. And understanding is sometimes build up on spontaneous interactions when we have the courage to explore ideas. Virtual classrooms seem to discourage that spontaneity. In my personal opinion, virtual learning can happen as an extension of face-to-face learning, when it’s non-synchronous and students need to explore a topic in-depth. I believe it’s working best when students know how to learn and are self-directed. But digitally mediating learning doesn’t seem to be a one measure fits all. I am grateful that it exists as it allows for communication during these times. I am sure we learn a lot from this experience and I am sure we will find ways to keep the advantages of online classes. But I have a hard time imagining a world in which this is the norm for working with undergraduates.
  • Virtual learning requires different tools and methods. For about two weeks into online teaching I was absolutely taken by it. I loved how easy it felt and how many students participated and I thought it is just the best. I was already thinking how to incorporate virtual meetings in my teaching after the pandemic. And then I took part in a course where I was a student myself and realised that despite the fact that I liked the trainer, the information and the topic of discussion I was simply not capable to sit on a chair, to watch a screen, to listen and take notes for 90 minutes straight because it’s too easy to be distracted – I do this constantly when I read and write, but I do it in my own pace and I can move around and take breaks to think about what I hear. It took a while longer to come up with new ideas and then to test how it works when applying different methods. At the moment, I don’t get through a meeting without splitting the larger group in smaller teams because a lecture or an unplanned dialogue does not work for me. Amongst the hardest things I did in my life includes presenting Excel to undergraduates via the internet. And I did this three times, with different audiences and there were people who either said: “I cried” because of Excel or “I feel like crying”. It’s not because it can’t be taught or that I explained it poorly [although I don’t exclude the possibility], but because people can’t pay attention that long at a small screen – they need to see it and practice it. In a classroom, they could press buttons while the teacher talks along. Very different experiences. Also, online teaching requires much more preparation, organisation and testing before the class. Many activities take more time online than offline and there are many obstacles still: like the lack of access to a laptop, a stable internet connection, a quiet space adequate for learning or the existence of competing tasks. The mobile phones are useful and all, but more research is needed to check whether people can do serious learning on it. When people gather, people can make something out of whatever is available. For making online teaching work, we first need to make sure we can all gather. Which is not a given.
  • People can adapt to everything. Now, on the positive side of things, though I am not yet sure whether this is something good or not. I tend to believe that it’s good, because it means that people are resilient and make the best they can out of whatever situation they are in. This has a backside though, which practically means that people can adapt to anything, including detrimental conditions which could in fact be changed. Comfort is a dangerous thing indeed. It may prevent us from making better choices. However, it is good to be able to communicate and continue teaching. We can test new methods and learn new skills and try our best to use the resources we have available. These are moments when patience, creativity, resourcefulness are taught. It’s now only a question of how prepared are we to listen, take notes and emerge as better human beings out of these times. It is not easy. It may seem easy and there may be moments when it feels easy, but that’s a superficial perspective. And from the behaviours I witness in my surroundings, I have a hard time believing it will not have consequences on mental well-being.

And yes, I did visit my parents last March two days after returning from Lisbon mostly because I really wanted to see them in case I will not be able to see them soon – at the time, I did believe quarantining was the only option. I did however think it will only last two or three weeks. It was the first time when we haven’t kissed or hugged goodbye, when we talked from what I believe it’s about 2 meters away and it was the second to last time I would see my dad alive.

Make today count.

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