When teaching goes remote

A personal reflection that will resonate with many involved with emergency remote teaching, learning, and assessment.  

Ingrid Rewitzky

Lovely reflection on the teacher-student relationship, and whether technology would ever be able to replace that.

Wiida Basson

Illustration by Cayla Basson

Dimitri Dias discussing the issues and opportunities available with online teaching, and ponders the best way to evaluate student learnings from afar.

The unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adapt to remote teaching nearly overnight, a virtual paradigm shift from our traditional ways.

In education, as in most social activities, communication and trust are our best allies. A thriving student-teacher relationship that allows us to create a caring atmosphere is the essence of teaching. I need to believe in my students as much as they need to believe in me and I need them to adapt to my approach as much as they need me to adapt to their needs. But we now have to adjust to an entirely new world where social distancing thins out the bonds between us and disrupts the fundamental basis of what school is, making me feel like the focus of my teaching has been altered.

I’m a mathematics professor at college level in Quebec. In this French-speaking part of Canada, colleges play a very important role in higher education. Meant to form a bridge between secondary schools and undergraduate degrees, they ensure that the students are well prepared for the academic challenges to come. Instilling rigor and autonomy, they offer a hybrid environment, similar to universities, but with the more personalized and caring approach of secondary schools, with smaller groups and more handholding from the professor. But when the crisis hit and courses went remote, the whole basis of this system was shaken, forcing us to suddenly adapt to a different and unnatural way to pursue college education.

Understandably, students are apprehensive. Studying alone, away from their friends and from the professor’s guidance, is an unsettling experience for most of them. What should they work on every day? What if they have questions? What about equity? Add on top of that, the need to rely on new technologies to follow the courses, and you have the perfect recipe for anxiety. Therefore, even more than usual, courses need to be designed around their capacities, both intellectual and technological. However, none of my previous trainings and experiences prepared me for the challenges of remote teaching and feeling this lack of expertise can be deeply frightening, especially with so little time to prepare.

Following my school recommendations, I opted for asynchronous teaching via videos, so as not to disadvantage students with unreliable internet connections. A synchronous approach would probably have necessitated resources my college can’t offer. But asynchronous teaching is no miracle solution and has some clear downsides. Being a YouTuber, as cool as it might sound, has a hefty price: it’s a time consuming activity, which requires many new skills, making remote teaching quite strenuous. Being asynchronous also lets the students study by themselves, when they want, the way they want. What might seem a comfortable way to experience the material at their own pace sadly comes with a high unpredictability. To mitigate that, the curriculum requires extra care. Students need, even more than usual, a clear direction, with a suggested schedule, recommended activities and checkups on a regular basis. Nonetheless, it still entails a lot of autonomy that some might not have developed yet. For their whole life, students have been taught a relatively easy way to schedule their work: they attend their courses at a fixed time and then have some homework to do before the next meeting. But now that they’re left on their own, what happens?

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

To preserve a semblance of normality, communication seems to be an obvious solution. Students might be studying alone but I would like them to feel otherwise. They need to know that I’m here for them, to answer their questions in a timely manner. But, with no fixed schedule, it makes me feel like I need to be available at any time, which is a serious threat to my work-life balance. Should I feel guilty leaving some hardworking students waiting for hours so that I can relax? Probably not, but in this unprecedented crisis, I have difficulty not to.

Unsurprisingly, and despite all the efforts, many students still find it tough to maintain a steady connection. According to the feedback I could gather, many miss the normalcy, discipline and atmosphere of the classroom. The social synergy doesn’t exist anymore and interactions need to be more frequent and direct than ever. Unfortunately, some perceive this need for personal and sustained communications as particularly daunting while others just can’t adapt to the lack of physical presence and supervision. The first few weeks were marred by an unsatisfying number of students who went completely silent, which can be difficult for the professor. Nevertheless, it’s thankfully getting better week by week, with students becoming less intimidated and more willing to participate in two-sided conversations.

The evaluation process is one key question I wished I had more time to ponder. How do I ensure that the students have truly mastered the required abilities? Are grades still relevant? Will students still be motivated if grades don’t matter anymore? Will they cheat if they do? Maybe now is not the time to cling on to an academic rigor which, anyways, would probably be illusive considering the situation. But letting it go is not easy, especially as a mathematician. It makes me insecure and forces me to constantly wonder whether I’m simply lowering my standards just to pull through this upheaval. I nonetheless decided to be more open minded, assessing student skills using two different approaches: traditional homework and online autocorrected quizzes with unlimited attempts, encouraging the students to experiment and learn alongside their evaluation. The latter seem to garner the most encouraging reactions, which pleases me since I believe that learning by yourself can be an invaluable experience. Many students are working hard and long to obtain the maximum score, an attitude which, I hope, should positively impact their understanding of the material. For now, most of those really invested in the course have great results. However, a significant portion of the less motivated students will likely withdraw before the end of the session. Assessing whether this should be considered as a failure or simply as an inevitable by-product of the sudden disruption is not an easy task, especially while still being in the middle of it all. It’s nonetheless an important question which needs to be carefully thought about once the semester is done and everyone can finally put things into perspective.

Whatever happens in the following months, this crisis will certainly have tangible consequences for the way we teach over the years to come. Because we were naively unprepared, unaware of the challenges we could face, we are now steering through uncharted waters. By necessity, we had to take emergency decisions, massively and suddenly shifting the design of our courses and the way we communicate. But education cannot be improvised. Both students and teachers are doing their best and we’re all paying the price, even though it causes anxiety and overwork, etc. Let’s now hope we can learn from this experience. Committing more time and resources to train teachers and develop strategies to tackle the intricacies of remote teaching is the best way to move forward and build a better future for our students and for us.

Dimitri Dias

Professor of Mathematics

by Laylaa Motola
Meme by Laylaa Motola

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