Observations on online college education in a pandemic


I was supposed to continue my witness intervention research for With Us, a national witness intervention program based at my university. The work was intellectually interesting, and its implications for helping people were exciting and meaningful. But alas, Covid-19 turned my university upside down and shook the money out of its pockets. Now there was no more money for my research position. This meant that I had to retire or teach an online course that I hadn’t taught in over 20 years (my regular classes had already been assigned to others). I wasn’t ready to retire, so this old teacher dog was going to have to learn some new teaching tips.

The learning curve has been steep and the workload high. We have a new teaching platform called Canvas. It is well suited for online education, but each element of education has its own requirements and features. I was concerned about students sitting on Zoom four hours a week to listen to lectures, so I decided to make educational videos, another new skill and one that required learning to use three different types of software, all by becoming my own videographer and graphic designer. designer (I call my production company “Rascal Cats Productions”, an ode to my beloved cat). The course design involved another layer: how could I create an engaging classroom and homework where students learn as much as they would in the “real” classroom? How can I test their learning and ensure the academic honesty of students without infringing on their privacy?

These were complex and time-consuming tasks and the student jury still doesn’t know if I passed (I’m in the middle of my class). But I have a few observations from my experience so far.

I have found that online education about the pandemic amplifies some of my usual teaching challenges.

Every time I teach, I find it hard to know how much “slack” students who miss classes, tests or due dates for homework. Empathy is a quality in a teacher. Shit happens. But there are always students who rely on the kindness of teachers to allow their procrastination or irresponsibility, and there are always those who have legitimate and excusable reasons for missing homework or exam dates. It is not always easy to tell them apart, as some students lie. It is also important to be fair to all students. With pandemic online education, new reasons for not meeting deadlines or classes arise, such as technology failures that go unchecked and mental health issues related to the pandemic.

Whenever I teach, I always worry about whether my students are learning. After all, that is the purpose of the educational effort. Education is one of the missions of my life. I have seen reports that students do not learn in this online environment, but my observations reveal a nuanced learning picture that makes sense when you consider the diversity of students and the diversity of their learning spaces. physical learning.

Some of my students report that they are learning more. These students include conscientious, independent learners and those with anxiety disorders that make campus classes stressful. Students with sensory and attentional issues (neurodiverse) also say online learning is better for them. Eliminating stimuli irrelevant to learning in the typical classroom environment is a challenge for them, so learning in an environment less stimuli rich seems to work better. Many say they learn more when the lessons are on video because they can watch them multiple times and get up and move around when needed.

But some of my students report that they learn less. Students’ physical learning environments vary considerably. Our home environments were not designed to be learning environments and, depending on the student’s situation, they may not have a dedicated and quiet workspace where they can be online without being distracted or interrupted by the people they live with. The diversity of students suggests that when the pandemic is said and done, colleges and universities might consider teaching some of their courses online.

My students also report that well-structured and organized classes make it easier for them to learn online. With lives seemingly out of control, structure becomes even more important in helping students manage their lives and feel in control.

Whenever I teach, I worry about the mental health of students, college professors regularly encounter students with mental health issues. We can save lives and reduce suffering with some emotional support and appropriate mental health referrals. College can be stressful, and stress can trigger new or pre-existing mental health issues. Pandemic stressors and learning conditions make it an even greater concern and also make it more difficult to discern. I’m glad I chose to make part of my class ‘synchronous’ (a fixed day / time) and separated my students into smaller sections for Zoom discussions. I feel like I can build trust and relationships with them better and be more aware of their way of doing things.

Coincidentally, I teach environmental psychology, a sub-discipline of psychology that includes the study of human risk perception and the psychological effects of cataclysmic disasters, including pandemics. Our discussions confirm what the research says: Long and uncertain cataclysmic events that threaten human life and health are particularly stressful. I talk to them about coping skills, resilience and social support and how to ‘keep going’ until things get better. My students wonder when this will end, if their life will ever return to normal, and what their future holds. I try to give them hope and encouragement even if I have questions.


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