Further thoughts on online education

This week I will be returning to an in-person classroom setting for the first time in more than a year and a half. It was evident last spring, and it remains evident now, that students are burnt out on online classes and eager to return to the classroom. My own feelings are a bit mixed. I am surprised to realize that my trepidation on returning to the classroom is not rooted primarily in the health risks, even though coronavirus transmission remains an ever-present public health concern. Strangely, it was the comments and questions from my non-teaching friends that alerted me to this cognitive discrepancy. “Aren’t you worried about catching COVID?” they’ve asked me. In these moments I became aware of being preoccupied not with the lingering virus but rather with how rusty my skills of classroom management had become.

As I’ve discussed previously, the advent of the pandemic and subsequent shift to remote instruction prompted sweeping reappraisals of the value of the college experience in general and the value of classroom education more specifically. The crisis affected me on multiple levels. On an existential level the emergence of the pandemic threw the very future of public institutions and interaction into doubt, higher education included. This uncertainty exacerbated my precarious position as fledgling early career academic, and my anxiety during the summer of 2020 was compounded by global unrest in addition to my ongoing lack of employment prospects.

I thus experienced the availability of distance learning as a boon: it afforded me the opportunity of continued employment, and offered other conveniences such as the elimination of commuting. There were clear benefits that I enjoyed, and even as my students expressed exasperation at “Zoom University” they also identified aspects of remote learning that they wanted to preserve: the online availability of lecture materials, “on-demand’ access to lecture recordings, and an end to the onslaught of class handouts. As an instructor I had developed my own list of perks that I was loath to relinquish, mostly relating to the availability of student names and attendance records (even with the associated discomfort over increased surveillance and privacy concerns).

Last Fall I discussed the merits of online teaching with a distinguished colleague. He has been retired from teaching for some time, but had just participated in a Zoom class session as a guest speaker. He was aghast at the number of students who elected to keep their cameras off, and that some of those who did choose to be visible were in dark rooms with sweatshirt hoods over their heads. I had to wonder how long it had been since he had been in a classroom as his dismay seemed to betray an unfamiliarity with the contemporary classroom setting. I also appealed to his robust background in media ecology: wasn’t he discounting the fact that each of the students now had an equal view of the instructor, as compared with a physical space? What would McLuhan say about the virtual classroom environment? When I discussed this with one of mentors he pointed out that McLuhan would be honor bound to support remote learning, as that is exactly the sort of unexpected hot take that became part of his public persona and brand of media analysis.

I am aiming to approach the return to classroom instruction with an open mind and an ample amount of grace for my students. I remain hopeful that I will receive the same consideration.

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