Sunday, June 7, 2020

Plunging Online in a Pandemic

It’s amazing how quickly things can change in a few days. On March 11 one of my students asked if I thought the university was shutting down. I’d just been at an event where top university officials were still shaking hands and physical distancing wasn’t yet part of their lexicon. “The university doesn't look like it’s shutting down” I said, “but one never knows. Everything could change tomorrow.” By the 13th of March Santa Ono had declared all in person instruction was to end and by the 16th the university was telling students they could fly home and their exams would all be online.  Many faculty had already realized teaching online was very likely on the agenda.  But when the announcement came it was a surprise just the same.

For most of my colleagues teaching ended in April. But I was signed up to teach three courses in our summer semester making me part of the vanguard setting a path everyone else will follow in September (UBC has announced that the fall term is all online). Last September, when I agreed to teach these courses, we envisioned them as a range of small to medium sized in person classes. But with the pandemic I was suddenly teaching three online courses, two of them enrolling more than a hundred students each (way more than we anticipated last fall). The pandemic has brought us into a new space for learning and teaching.

It’s been a major learning curve for me. But having always dabbled in online communications through blogging, video production, and podcasts the technical part wasn’t that daunting.  The hard part is trying to find a way to connect with my students. Despite what is said about the online environment it still has a long way to go to emulate real human contact.

I am so impressed by the students. From Bangkok to Jakarta , Yellowknife to Montreal, Cape Town to  Shenzhen, my students are literally everywhere in the world.  This means I have to think differently about lectures and assignments – all of which have been modified. Lectures are shorter but there are extension materials including online sources and videos. Lectures are recorded so that students don’t have to be present in real time. Assignments and tests are restructured to let students progress at their own pace (to an extent) with sliding deadlines.

But with all of that it becomes clear how problematic our home internet services are. It might be okay to stream a great movie over Netflix, but try an interactive video discussion with a hundred students and you find out who is literally hanging on by thin wire and who has a robust home network.

Disparities in access to good internet services and home equipment is striking. I asked my students who had dedicated work space in their homes. More a third are sharing space, moving from front room to kitchen, patio to bedroom, as they chase after quiet home work space.

I’ve also heard from my students their worries for family and friends in essential services or elders that need care. They have shared worries that come from isolation for those living alone or with roommates who have grown apart.   Then there are those who have lost their jobs and, despite this modest reopening, have been told there is no job for them to return to. For many it’s been pretty grim.

Yet there is, and I know it's a cliché to say it, a really strong base of resilience among these students. At the same time as they face increased pressures, disruptions, anxiety, and fears, they also express joy in having the good fortune to study. They express gratitude for the learning teams UBC has put in place to support their learning.  I may be the public face in the class but there is a team of five working directly with me  (four teaching assistants and graduate research associate) and a host of other support in IT, the library, and our administration making sure that UBC’s learning community continues to thrive no matter where in the world they have scattered to.

I look forward to returning to face-to-face instruction where I can interact with and get to know my students more thoroughly. In the meantime we make the best of it in our shred learning journey.