Teaching in the Time of COVID-19

Teaching in the Time of COVID-19

Distance Learning: Anyone Else Skeptical?

When I was a kid I remembered reading about life in the Australian Outback. Kids there grew up on remote cattle stations or small towns, hundreds of miles from the nearest teacher. Apparently, lessons were broadcast over the radio. Even as a kid, I wondered how the hell this was supposed to be effective — you couldn’t ask the teacher a question, or even to repeat something if you missed it.

Through my entire career as a teacher, online learning platforms have been an expected component of my practice. Blackboard, Moodle, Finalsite, Google Classroom. The portals, dashboards and shared folders haven’t really evolved too much over the last decade, but they’ve become more widely available and widely used.

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many schools to close — and many more will close in the coming weeks — and transition to distance learning.

We’ve got the tools to do it.

So why do I feel so skeptical? Why do I feel like my students are going to be like Australian farm kids I had read about? We’ve replaced the one-way radio with a two-way internet device, but here’s the thing.

We can’t plan our instruction based on bad assumptions about access. We have to think about how we’re going to design our remote instruction.

Now, more than ever, teachers need to think like designers.

Consider the User's Perspective

A key step in the design process is to consider the user’s perspective. In our case, as teachers, our users are students whose access points to our online content can’t be broadly assumed.

We can’t assume they’ll all be sitting at a desk on a laptop or desktop computer for as many hours as they need to say, watch videos, post on discussion boards, work on Google Docs. I’m thinking, in my case, a good portion of my students will be accessing their learning through mobile devices with small screens. That they’ll be doing work catch-as-catch can as their lives are disrupted more and more with travel bans, quarantines, parents working from home, siblings sent home from college.

My school? We haven’t shuttered yet, but we’re preparing. The faculty of my school gathered yesterday and today to share ideas for how to approach distance learning wisely.

Our leaders advised us to consider the following:

  • Keep it light. Our goal should really be to provide our students with a sense of normalcy under extraordinary circumstances. I for one, am planning a unit where the students will review albums of pop music. It’s a great way to talk about aesthetics as culturally-defined and evolutionary, dialectic, hegelian synthesis and all that — without all the up-front conceptual baggage.
  • There’s no need for “synchronous” distance learning. Really. Model your distance instruction on one-on-one interaction, not teacher-on-whole-class. Plus if we’re all trying to do video “hangouts” at the same time, because half the schools in the developed world are closed, well — as my colleague put it — “internet go boom.” We don’t have the bandwidth.
  • Stagger due dates. For example, our English department will use Tuesdays as our day to collect work; History will use Fridays.

I want to add a couple thoughts here, and invite further discussion.

  • Keep it simple. This applies both to your curriculum, and your reliance on technology.
    • I’ll be avoiding any kind of assignment that, if I were delivering it orally in class, I could predict getting multiple clarification questions. This goes against my grain as a teacher — I’m usually one to co-construct parameters with my students in class, or say “we’re not writing a five-paragraph essay, you’ll need to develop your own structure dependent on your argument,” and so on. I’ll need to pull back, and rely on the kind of assignment parameters my students don’t have to think too hard about.
    • In terms of technology — just think about all the times the projector in your classroom just didn’t feel like working. For distance learning, multiply Murphy’s Law by a factor of 10, because now you’re totally reliant on technology both on your end and the student’s end, geometrically increasing the potential for tech SNAFUs. I refer you, for further consideration, to my favorite list of Murphy’s laws.
  • Communicate redundantly. I don’t mean overwhelm your students — but send the same, simple, clear information through multiple channels, because you don’t know which channel will be a particular student’s access point. For example, my plan is to post an assignment on the class’s online calendar, but also email that same assignment to everyone on the roster, and post it as a bulletin on the class’s group page. Even so, since I know my students communicate peer-to-peer via GroupMe or Messages groupchat on their Mac devices, I have to assume some students may ask each other what the assignments are — so, I plan to make my assignments copy-pastable (brief, simple text, not embedded in PDF, Word, etc.).
  • Lean on pre-existing well-designed things. Don’t go crazy trying to reinvent the wheel. But also acknowledge that document design and information design are going to have a huge impact on your students’ comprehension and workflow. Here’s a simple example: if you want your students to read and respond to a poem, don’t send them a PDF attachment. Many of them will be completing homework on their mobile devices, and PDFs are not mobile-friendly. Instead, send them a link to a poem on poetryfoundation.org — which has mobile-friendly formatting. The folks at Poetry Foundation have done the design work for you. Use it.

Any Ideas to Share?

Okay, friends. Do you have resources or approaches to share? Please feel free to email me, or leave a comment. I’d love to be able to assemble your contributions (with all due credit to contributors) into a resource we can share with even more teachers.

Thanks for reading, and stay healthy,

2 Replies to “Teaching in the Time of COVID-19”

  1. Thanks for the well thought out advice. I am a HS art teacher in Central Virginia and I decided to turn my students into journalists, asking them to do a sketch each day we are out with a minimum of three sentences written with the drawing. The theme is the unique moment we find ourselves in-a close-down of society in an attempt to stop a pandemic. I’ll be happy to share the presentation from Google Classroom if you’d like it.

    1. I love this idea: art as journalism in this strange time. Engaging our kids with ways to document their perspective on this crisis will be so valuable. They’ll have a way to own the moment. Please do share if you get a chance!