Be forewarned! Today’s post is largely me whining. I think there may be a point to my whining, but that is largely irrelevant; I gotta get a post out and this is the only thing I’ve been really thinking about. What am I whining about? I am whining that the world has not heeded all the wonderfully amazing advice I gave in my post Zoom Pedagogy.
As you are probably well aware, unless you are from the future and haven’t learned about it in school yet (or I guess a time traveler from the past just getting their bearings and for some reason using my blog to do it), there is a pandemic on and that has forced many schools, including the one I am currently going to (Yale, nbd) to shift to largely or entirely to remote classes. I am not fundamentally particularly upset about this. I would prefer that classes be in-person and that we could all jostle together and discuss deep thoughts while huddled around tables (or whatever it is we used to do here at Yale, it all seems so long ago now), but it’s vastly better we take measures so that we don’t all die and/or suffer the long-term consequences of COVID. And also while this isn’t the Yale experience I was expecting, I didn’t actually know what to expect anyways before I came to Yale, and I am taking it all in stride as an experience that isn’t necessarily better or worse, but just different. I’ve also gotten very used to not having to run around campus to get to my classes and can instead just open up a new browser tab to get to my next class and being remote makes it much easier to play Pokémon during class. This is not really the point I am trying to make!
What I am here to whine about is the fact that we are somehow not all phenomenal at teaching online. Here at Yale, we have recently begun the spring semester. It will be my second-and-a-half semester of taking online classes (half of the Spring 2020 semester, all of Fall 2020 semester, and now Spring 2021 semester), and I gotta say, we don’t seem to have gotten any better at this. When all of our classes suddenly went online over Spring Break last year, I was very sympathetic to teachers that were struggling to make the transition to online. Teaching online is a very different beast than teaching in a classroom, and it was a hurdle that they were not expecting and is not easy to overcome anyways. But I feel that whatever consensus method we had achieved by about late April last year is just what we’ve been doing ever since.
And lemme tell ya it is not great! That last sentence lacks nuance, so let me put some in. There is a lot of variability in the quality of classes, which comes down to both the fact that some classes lend themselves to the format more, and also a difference in ability between teachers. But as far as I can tell there does not seem to have been any concerted effort to figure out the best way to teach an online class and disseminate that among all the professors. Given that literally every professor here at Yale is taking a stab at the online thing, you’d think it would be a great opportunity to very quickly identify the best practices and the ideas that work and make sure literally everyone knows about them. I don’t seen any evidence of that happening.
I’m getting increasingly frustrated at the little things. I actually have one “hybrid” class, where I am attending in-person (masks, testing, social distancing, all that), but some people are online. The first day of class, the professor was somewhat flummoxed because he had intended to use a white board to keep notes but hadn’t figured out an elegant way to let the online students see the board as well. Then, he wound up walking around holding a desktop microphone because the online students couldn’t hear him. These are little things, and my condemnation here might be a bit harsh, but on the other hand, how do we not have something like a standard package for all of this? That is, as soon as a professor decides they’re gonna teach a hybrid class, why does Yale not have myriad resources that tell them exactly how to do it? “Ah, hybrid class I see. Here is your lapel mic! Were you planning on using a white board? Excellent, here is what we have found is the best way to go about doing that. You’re going to be splitting the students up into groups occasionally? Yes, that is a great learning tool, other professors have found a lot of success using this method…” Why do we have every professor reinventing the wheel for themselves?
There are larger problems as well. My most frustrating experience this semester has been my Spanish class. Again, here I have a lot of sympathy. I struggle to imagine how you could do a really effective online language class with 15 people in it, like we have. If there is a way, however, the Yale Spanish department has not figured it out. One of my biggest frustrations is their decision to go from five days a week to three days a week. When we were in-person, and then last spring when we suddenly went online, we had class for 50 minutes five days a week. Then, in the fall, and now again this spring, they have decided to teach only three days a week for reasons that are mysterious to me. This hasn’t been an unpopular move; it’s kinda nice to free up that block of time on Tuesday and Thursday. However, they still expect the students to do the same amount of work to the same standard. This seems ridiculous to me. If you operate under the belief that teachers add something to a class, then having less time with a teacher is going to make that class less effective. I have to imagine this is especially true in a language course. But instead of cutting out 40% of the work to go along with cutting out 40% of the teaching time, the students are just supposed to do the lessons on their own twice a week. I have found it difficult to teach myself Spanish, which is not surprising, because I do not speak Spanish.
Last Spring, when we all suddenly went to online classes, the school made a huge effort to acknowledge that it was a difficult transition. I realize they were also responding to the pandemic in general, but students were given a lot of leeway in how they managed to achieve the requirements of the course. Professors were told to be very generous with extensions and allowing for Temporary Incompletes with the classes. Every student could change their classes to pass/fail with no questions asked up until the very last day of class. As soon as fall semester hit, however, I guess it was decided that This Is Just What We Do Now, and all that extra leeway was taken away. I understand the need to keep a rigorous standard when it comes to student work, but on the other hand I don’t see that same rigor being applied from above to make sure the classes are effective in the online format. I am floored that a year into online school we all aren’t phenomenal at it, because I feel like we could have been. Where are the numerous online thinkpieces about effective online teaching? Where are the Wikis to cover every conceivable online teaching scenario? Where are the virtual conferences about Zoom pedagogy? Am I just missing them? My super amazing girlfriend, who has thought deeply about education for years, figures that the answer is research universities like Yale just don’t actually care about teaching quality. Let’s hope she’s wrong.