School’s Out for Summer

I am an Associate Professor at a community college in North Carolina. I have not been in a physical classroom since March 20.

When I was hired almost a decade ago, it was optional to become certified to teach online courses. For years I chose not to take the certification classes specifically so I could focus only on face to face courses. The COVID crisis has forced me out of my element and into an online environment where I personally have struggled, and continue to struggle, to adjust.

Unlike many colleagues throughout education who chose to use some kind of broad video service like Zoom, Hangouts, or Teams, I chose to post lecture videos on YouTube where I would then pass the link to my students and embed the video on our pre-prescribed page in our online learning platform. I did this for my students and for myself as I feel a driving need to talk and at the same time not force my students to engage with the awkward prospect of having to show their teacher and peers the cleanest corner of their home. By embedding the video and optional direct link in our page, I am able to run reports to see which students are clicking on the videos and which ones are not. Whether they watch the whole videos, well, that comes through in performance…

I note all of this to say two things: 1) Education, for better or worse, has been completely turned on its head from kindergarten to the PhD and 2) face to face classroom experiences, when we fully return to them, will never be the same. Is this good or bad? I believe the answer is YES.

In February, 2006, Sir Ken Robinson gave what has become the most popular TED talk of all time with his “Do Schools Kill Creativity” discussion. For almost 20 minutes, Robinson dissects the core issue of education in 2006 (and pre-COVID 2020) which is that a turn away from the arts and focus on STEM is leading to a generation of students who cannot produce creatively in an ever increasingly technological world. Now I know what you might be thinking: teacher + arts based education + blog post = rant about how stupid kids are these days, blah, blah, blah.

Well, no.

Actually, I think that these unprecedented times have forced education to completely reengage with creativity in ways that we could not get administrations, older pedagogically conservative peers, school boards, and parents to buy into. We have begged for years for an increase in the humanities and critical thinking while increasing the amount of STEM basics together. The fact that we continue to separate STEM and the Humanities is simply the biggest mistake we make in education, and now COVID and the stay-at-home orders across the country have done what we could not: forced students and teachers of all disciplines to engage with both fields equally in new and excitingly creative ways. Thousands of teachers in every corner of this country have had to adjust their old pedagogical philosophies to focus on creatively engaging with students in ways that simple, older online classes did not because, like me, many of our teachers cannot operate in an online environment in the traditional way that online classes are built to operate. Simply put, the teachers who have spent years building and perfecting online courses are not engaging the same way that traditionally face to face teachers are engaging, and it is the face to face teachers operating in this new environment (through the sink or swim nature of the pandemic) that will lead to the long over due educational revolution and re-marriage of STEM and the arts.

I’ll explain:

When we were told to start preparing for the possibility of moving the classes online in the middle of our semester, a dear friend and colleague of mine was riddled with anxiety over the prospect. He, like myself, had never taught an online class, so moving everything online and changing everything we knew burdened him in ways that nearly brought him to a semi-nervous breakdown. However, myself and another colleague were able to allay his fears by pointing out that those of us with face to face courses were not generating online courses to take the place of our f2f classes, but instead were simply moving the course from a physical classroom to a digital one. Using the technology in ways that we were familiar with, we would be able to still teach in some of the same ways as we had before without re-creating the wheel of the online course. In other words, the only differences for us would be that we would not be meeting them face to face but instead through a digital realm. The pedagogical aspects would not have to fundamentally change, just adjust to the new environment.

Most of my colleagues I work with have integrated our online learning platform into our everyday face to face classes. For myself, most of the assignments my students are required to turn in are done so digitally, so I did not need to change much of what I had already assigned. What I did change I had to do so because of scheduling (we lost a week of classes when this all began), the nature of the assignment (ie. the peer review, group papers), or re-adjusting specific lectures which relied heavily on live interaction with the students. And while some of my colleagues relished in the newly discovered forum functions of our platform, I used the forums sparingly choosing to instead refocus on the response essay, exploit the possible value of a YouTube live stream (promising engagement from the students through a live chat instead of a camera pointing at their face), and posting lectures 2-3 times a week ( each with a small lecture assignment) for each course to keep the students engaged in whatever capacity I could.  

But that’s just me and my classes. Other teachers, especially elementary and middle school teachers, have had to do even more as they had not already been using an online learning platform, or had been using it in a very minimal capacity. The trend over the last 5 years has been the integration of the Chrome Book and iPad into the public-school classroom. And while curriculums have been slowly moving into using the technology more each year, public-school classrooms still lag behind in teaching basic technological practices and how to use these devices in both practical and creative ways.

Until, as I believe, COVID. The pandemic, more than any policy or school initiative, has brought the technology of the classroom to the front row to be integrated, used, and adjusted to the demands of a society that has been engaging with these technologies for more than twenty years.

What is the downside? Older, more pedagogically conservative instructors and teachers who, once we get back to a “normal” teaching environment will ditch what we have done and go back to the old ways. In order for this to become a positive, and to finally engage with the online classroom in ways that we have not been able to even comprehend so far to make it more of a supplement and not a primary delivery source of knowledge, we will need to take what we learn from this brief respite in educational history and reconstruct the classroom to fit the social world that surrounds it. For years I have argued that we need to return to a fully Socratic model with aspects of Platonic and Aristotelian teaching methods while simultaneously integrating the technology most of our students carry in their pocket and book bags. The world had already changed, and now COVID is forcing education, an industry still stuck in the model of an industrial 19th century world, to reevaluate itself and openly accept the technological prospects it has needed to adapt for the last thirty years.

But most importantly, creativity, the eternal project of the humanities, is being used to forge this possible revolution. Let’s keep creating…

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