Online and off kilter

In one of my many simultaneous lives, I teach a subject that can’t possibly be taught online. I am teaching it online this term, nonetheless, and I’m lucky.

My university opened up last week for in-person instruction, and by the end of the week they had identified 58 cases of the coronavirus, sending out a notification that the city had asked students to avoid social gatherings entirely.

I have no idea what any of these people are thinking. There is no reason for a student to be living on or near campus if they can’t go to social gatherings. An article I read recently suggested that the university reopening process is just a convenient way to blame students for the results, even though we know that people in their late teens and early twenties are going to behave in certain ways if the environment is structured for it. It’s the fault of the universities themselves, not the students. No, it’s a situation. We did not do what we needed to do in order to curb this disease in the beginning, so we are lurching ahead like people driving a car held together with wire and string, on fire, and missing integral parts of its engine, with a cat trapped under the hood.

Meanwhile, here I am teaching. And here my students are, learning. My course is a fieldwork practicum for would-be teachers. In normal times, they would spend one full day a week in a public elementary school interacting with children and learning from mentor teachers, but the public schools are trying to teach online and our students would just be in the way, so they aren’t there.

The newly revised guidelines for all the practicums our education students have to complete emphasize video, and so I have been industriously educating myself using all the various resources our university offers, learning better how to teach with Zoom and all the various and sundry wonderful tools out there, and I also met with a university consultant. The consultant was not terribly useful in some ways but she did send me a bunch of links that my students can use to help them learn how to make effective videos.

That’s because my practicum students are still supposed to write lesson plans this term. And then they are supposed to videotape themselves teaching their plans to nobody, with the idea that our Field Experience office is going to offer their videos to any school that wants them. So oh god I’m trying to teach my students to make educational videos.

I already make educational videos, mind you. I started last term when we went online and nobody was telling my students anything. I would post an announcement on the course management system for my far-flung students, and I would post a little video of myself telling them all the things that were in the announcement, so that they could feel like I was still there and still a human being. The main thing to remember is to keep it intensely short because after about 7 minutes students will be checking their email, playing solitaire, or trying to do their other work. That goes for university students and it goes for elementary students even more.

The second thing is to just DO it.

With that in mind, I assigned my students to make a short video introducing themselves by Wednesday’s class. They are so sweet. All my nice young students telling their iPhones all about themselves and sharing their dogs, roommates, or apartments.

(As always happens with Wonderful Technology, the first thing I had to do was figure a whole bunch of workarounds. The rule of thumb for Wonderful Technology is that it is indeed wonderful once you get it to work, but getting it to work often eats up all the time you save. And you better have a Plan B when it fails, as it always does, just when you need it most.)

I don’t believe that online learning is as good as in person learning (and the research bears me out). That’s from someone who, for thirty years, has been doing online learning of various sorts and leveraging technology to give me more contact with my students.

My sixth graders did their summer reading reports by posting to a blog on an ongoing basis over the summer; I presented my own research on using collaboration with Google Docs to improve writing; I had a subject-specific web site in the 90s until schools finally caught on and started having teacher pages in course management systems, and these days I ask my college students to send me a selfie so I have their phone numbers and pictures in my phone, and communicate with them by text a whole lot, something my colleagues will never do. I have been doing technology in education for a very very long time.

BUT it isn’t a substitute for face to face.

Yet here I am.

I also have three student teachers who are trying to do their student teaching and collaboration with their mentors online. While we rewrite the curriculum. Because the state department of education, the city board of education, and the university spent all summer trying to figure out how they could rewrite a certification process that depends on in-person learning.

Because we’re driving a car on an oiled road with flat tires and we have already started to spin out.

All of this is to say, my dog ate my homework and I am really going to try to do some work on my novel this week because otherwise I will lose my will to go on.

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