Teaching and Learning in a Pandemic
This school year has been quite an experience for most undergraduate students. They have had to adapt to taking courses online, distant from their classmates and instructors. They have had to adapt to learning remotely, collaborating with physically distant group mates (whose faces they might never see), and missing out on campus culture. In the meantime, instructors have had to adapt to delivering courses online, adjusting workloads, changing their teaching styles, and learning how to teach online (which is no easy task, if you’ve only been using a blackboard in a live class for the last 25 or so years!). I, on the other hand as a Teaching Assistant get to personally experience both sides of this reality (well! As close as a Teaching Assistant can get). I find my experience to be rather unique because this is the first semester I’m TAing (Pandemic TA!) and the only previous experience I have teaching, was my volunteer experience teaching Grade school students about how to. So let me expound some
of what I notice on both sides.
The Teacher Side
Teaching is hard when you can’t see faces
One thing I noticed when teaching a complex subject (pre-pandemic) to a class of grade schoolers was that it was quite easy to notice when something didn’t make sense. In fact, it was the same response most anyone expresses when exposed to something confusing. A puzzled face, a blank stare, the raising of an eyebrow or two can actually affect the pacing of a presentation or lecture. If the presenter only has a limited understanding of how the audience is taking in the information they would have a difficult time understanding how to adjust their presentation accordingly. We can take body language for granted sometimes, but most of our communication is via body language. A subtle expression can effectively change the pacing of a presenter so as to meet the demands of an audience. It can mean slowing down to allow students to gather the content or going faster so as not to bore them.
It’s very easy to have office hours
It has become more and more convenient to have meetings at any time and no matter
where I am. I found I could host meetings late into the night at the convenience of my room. It’s rather nice to be able help the students in some way while minimizing commuting time. The internet was built for communicating over distances, leveraging this utility for education has many benefits.
A blackboard/whiteboard really helps
Blackboards and whiteboards are one of life’s small luxuries I miss when trying to explain a concept. Although there are tools made available that enable digital sketching. I feel that a large board where you can elaborate on your ideas more freely would be very useful.
Professors do try hard to make everything as fair as possible
Most (if not all) professors I’ve learned from and are helping teach, do care about the student experience. They do try to structure and design newer (and fairer) methods of assessments. And sometimes it does feel like they aren’t being completely fair, but the case in point is that they are also trying to adapt to a new situation. They’ve probably been teaching in the same way longer than we’ve been alive! It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks but it is important to appreciate the fact that they are still teaching and trying to get things to work.
Classes were/will never be about only teaching content
Classes are important, and hardly are they only for learning (you can use the book and some online material for that... though not recommended in all cases). For First-year’s especially it’s where you meet your first friends in university. A first-year student is getting started on a new experience when they enter university and they are more likely to not know many other students in the program, this time is important to start making friendships with their peers. For other’s it’s where you learn about school events while at the same time enjoy a lecture. I certainly found it fancy getting to sit in fairly more comfortable chairs in university as opposed to high school and have a person give a presentation about a topic I’m interested in. It feels like watching a movie sometimes. I also found it fun to socialize with other people who had the same questions I had, having the same questions is sort of THE conversation starter in class.
The Student Side
Learning is hard when you can’t physically interact
Humans are animals who often interact with their environment (like most animals), it helps them get a feel of their surroundings. I didn’t really appreciate physical interaction until lockdown began, mostly because I couldn’t really see the small things that make life the way it is. Physical interaction allows looking at a problem or subject in a different way than just thinking about it. It feels nicer to reason about equations on a board, it feels better to hear the tap-tap of chalk. I suppose it’s because of the habits we’ve formed about learning (mainly going to lectures and attending in-person classes) that makes those things attractive.
You can be more anonymous
You can ask more questions in a video call and not physically identify yourself. People can only hear your voice, or see a picture of you, or your name on a chat message, but it can feel less intimidating (in some sense) than if you were physically present to ask a question. At the same time I think it’s important to note that asking questions shouldn’t make a person feel uncomfortable. I strongly believe that as undergraduate students (most being adults) people should have some respect for a person’s question, if they are genuinely puzzled or are curious about the topic. That’s the point of learning to a larger extent.
Eye-strain is a big issue
Eye-strain has become a rather annoying issue for me and for many students. You’re
video-conferencing on your computer and also doing assignments while constantly using your eyes to do process information. I find that blue-light glasses are recommended for reducing such strain. But at the same time I find that walking away from the computer in the afternoon and enjoy a lone walk (or run) to be relaxing as well.
More assessments make things feel the same
More assessments make things feel more digestible at shorter paces. I like the idea of having more assessments that are weighted less and are open notes, given the circumstances since it tells me to keep up to date with newest material that was covered in class. At the same time the amount of work can get rather annoying, it feels like there’s more things to think about than before but at the same time it feels more or less the same. It feels like a net zero sum.
Watching Recorded Lectures are a Trap (okay maybe only a last
Recorded lectures are the thing I most appreciate and at the same time abhor about the online learning experience. They are great for going through information that you might’ve missed because of other commitments (or if you fell asleep, or you felt like skipping class). But, at the same time they take much more time to digest, you feel so in control of the information that you are willing to pause and take more and more detailed notes only to realize that the same information is summarized in the next lecture. So please try to make most of your actual lecture times and ask questions to reduce your workload later.