Remote Learning

In the wake of the coronavirus, my faculty has been forced to shift to completely remote teaching for the remainder of the semester (and who knows how much longer). Few of them had been trained in this mode of instruction, and not all students are adequately outfitted at home with Internet-connected computers. Some students seem to be writing papers on cell phones now. Do we need to shift to a less rigorous expectation, even to mere morale-boosting?—Remote Controlled

Dear Professor Controlled,

When I first read your question, a few campuses had moved to all-online instruction. Now it’s in effect for a huge percentage of students and faculty across the country. The questions you’re asking are uppermost in the minds of many of us, and I’ll try to give you the advice I shared with the faculty in my department.

Many faculty have little to no experience in online instruction, and the short spans of time we’ve been given to adjust is not nearly enough to think through pedagogically how our classes should look. Plus, as you mention, not all students — or faculty for that matter — have adequate technology to make this shift.  In addition to which, students might be sick or have infected relatives, or even be losing friends or family members to the virus (as happened to two of my students in the past two weeks). Many of us are trying to obey stay-at-home directives, which means that on top of all this pedagogical transition, we’re also dealing with isolation and loneliness, not to mention that many faculty are also home-schooling their own children on top of everything else.

This is all to say that you and your faculty are facing an immense task. My advice is to be compassionate towards yourselves and your students. It may be that some of them fall off the map and don’t respond to emails, in which case you have little alternative than to give them  whatever grade your institution has for students who unofficially withdraw from a class. For those who are sticking with it, though, it makes sense to keep the technology comparatively simple. Synchronous classes on Zoom or similar technology just isn’t the same as an in-person class, and may put too many demands on your own or your students’ technological capabilities. Make the course accessible but challenging for your students; they’ll appreciate being able to be in academic time on their own schedules.

I would advise against thinking in terms of “rigor,” and see if you can replace that concept with “learning.” You may not be able to explore material in the same depth, but if you think about what you want your students to learn, you might come up with exercises that get them closer to that goal. What I would suggest is empathy, understanding, and compassion — for yourself, for your faculty, and for your students. We’re all operating under less-than-ideal conditions, and whatever you can impart to your students is more than they’d have otherwise.

—The Chair