Teaching in a Remote, Individualized, Asynchronous, Divided World

Hello from the study, the room I am pretty much consistently occupying,

As I finally get back to this blog, it has taken me a month-plus. The new semester has me buried, but still plugging along diligently. So here was where I was a month ago and the thoughts at that time. – – – – – – As we move into a new semester, I wonder exactly what my students are imagining and feeling about being a college student. There is little doubt that our world is a significantly different place than it was a year ago. Last spring, I was walking into classrooms, welcoming students to my office, holding office hours at times in the library location of Starbucks, and both my students and I was merrily going about our lives doing what we do. Fast forward (and the year has been anything but fast), as I consider the past year, the changes are profound. My exchange student left the country (and that too was a process that had many twists and turns) sooner than planned. I found myself sitting in my house hours and days upon end, wondering what was coming next, how we were going to cope with the new found changes, including buying toilet paper, and hoping somehow I would not be exposed to this virus that sounded much more frightening than many of the things I had already faced in terms of health complications. Somehow, catching COVID seemed much more traumatizing. Indeed, only a few days beyond our first national fatality, and the difficulty that occurred in a nursing home in Washington State, we currently have over 440,000 fatalities, 26.5 million cases, and a country that is still struggling to overcome the logistical mountain of getting shots into the arms of 80% of the country’s population. As I write this, I have received my first vaccination in the past week and I am scheduled for the second before the end of February. And yet, in spite of our difficulties, the EU is in a much greater struggle to vaccinate its population, the entire continent of Africa is in a terrible predicament, and much of the world has little idea how they will ramp up to vaccinate their own populations. Much of the world, like most of what the virus has revealed, is controlled by the economics of haves and have nots. That is the reality of our planet. We are not equitable nor are we just. I am fortunate beyond words to have already received a vaccination. I understand that on a number of levels, from just that I fall into a category that has priority to the fact that our government or my health insurance is covering the vaccination. All of those things are gifts.

As I begin yet another semester of teaching, the continual effect of the pandemic requires a very different level of commitment from all, and that goes beyond students and faculty. It includes technology services, library staff and also the administration, as well as health services, counseling services, landlords and others. It is a complex puzzle, and like most things, one size does not fit all. I have spent significant time on the phone with students within the first week, trying to assure them they can manage the expectations of the semester. As seems to be the case, I probably have a dozen students who have me for two separate classes at the same time. This makes their lives busy, but mine confusing. This is particular the case when there are times they will ask a question, but they do not specify to which class they are referring. That specificity is important because I can easily forget they might be in both classes, particularly in the first couple weeks. – – – – –

Back to this and trying to make sense of our yet jumbled world. At this point, the reality of what is expected has hit all involved like the proverbial ton-of-bricks. What makes it so difficult, at least I think this is what it is, is the simple reality that most students do not know how to critically think and analyze. This is not the fault of the average 20 year old, it is that too often they have not been required to do so. The recipe card life of high school does little to prepare them for what is coming. The fact they must reach out and ask for assistance if they do not actually comprehend the nuances of their assignments, their process, or how it all fits together is complicated when they are not in a classroom. Too often they turn to Telegram, GroupMe, or some other group app to ask their questions of each other. In spite of that fact, I have created a Coffee Shop in our CMS specifically to ask these questions, they are often embarrassed or uncomfortable in asking in that forum because they somehow believe asking questions makes them look under-prepared, perhaps, not smart enough, perhaps, or . . . when precisely the opposite is true. Asking for assistance and communicating your concerns is precisely what should happen as a student. I have thought about this a great deal. What is it that makes us so fearful of admitting what we do not know? If you actually knew all of the answers to the various questions, there would be no need to be in the class from the outset. I am just looking it it logically (sorry, Melissa; I guess I am still the same). Currently, I am asking students from one of my classes to call me about their initial work on an assignment. At this point, some 36 hours later only a handful have actually done that. Of course, one called me three times at 11:30 at night, somehow believing I would still be up. My goodness!! Two have called, but did not leave messages, and I do not keep their phone numbers in my phone. Again, we are back to basic communication skills. As I try to figure out how all of this occurred (the this being an incredible loss of basic interpersonal skills), I do not think it can all be blamed on social media. I do not think it is that no parent has tried to teach their offspring basic manners. So what is it? I think perhaps it is a combination of a multitude of things that has created the “perfect storm” resulting in a profound lack of interpersonal decorum.

I believe the isolation of the last year has caused an overpowering need for us to want something with no sense of how that request or demand might affect the person on the receiving end of our missive (be it text, voice message, email, even a video chat or app). I have long argued the main deleterious effect of social media is not that we are in contact more readily or easily, but rather we have so blurred the public and private that things like decorum, civility, and appropriateness are too often forgotten. Isolation causes fear; it often causes antisocial behavior that can be significantly damaging to mental and emotional health, as well as one’s physical health (Novotney, May 2019). In the article just cited, the author noted that latest census data shows that 1/4 of the population in the United States lives alone (and that was before the pandemic) (Novotney, May, 2019). The consequence of reactive loneliness versus chronic loneliness is an important consideration, and I think this is something many of our students are struggling to manage.Reactive loneliness, to be clear, is when there is something that changes in our lives so that our social group has a profound change and we feel a degree of loneliness because of it. A death of an important friend, a spouse, a child, or such is a good example. Reactive loneliness is painful for anyone, but if that loneliness continues to occur or there is nothing there to address it, then it becomes chronic. Chronic loneliness often seems to occur when there is no visible possibility of change. This sort of loneliness can become harrowing, excruciating, even torturous.

To escape this struggle, particularly when there is some overarching circumstance that seems to predicate it, many will turn to less than proper options. Fortunately, I am not a smoker, but studies show that binge smoking, binge eating, binge watching, binge drinking are all too often the escape. I am fortunate enough to be able to stay away from those things, but there is going to the grocery store to buy more food I do not need, or fortunately it is not warm enough (yet) that the plants are out. Those of you who know me, know this can be a problem. So . . . are there positives in this isolation? For me, there have been. It has caused me to actually reach out to some I had lost contact with. That has been something unexpected, but it has helped me manage the day-in and day-out on the Acre. Additionally, it has required me to be more intentional and thoughtful about things if I am going to manage the work I need to do. That is particularly the case with an extra prep and extra section, and 26 credits of internships. All in all things are getting done. The other thing it has prompted is a really careful prioritization of what needs to happen and what can be let go. All of these things have helped me stave off that sense of isolation because things are getting accomplished.

That is another irony of all of this. Some students have more time than ever to work on their classwork, but they seem less likely to manage their requirements. I have had more students miss deadlines than ever before. I have struggled to keep students on-board, thoughtfully engaged, and ready to do their work than ever before. However, let me also say there have been some incredibly ambitious and disciplined students too. They are my saving grace at this point. There are students who have stepped up and realized this need to adapt to the world we are in is simply the way it is. I believe the ultimate consequence of this move to remote teaching is the push it has created to make all of us more accountable to each other in the educative process. The amount of work needed to manage an asynchronous remote course is exponentially more. I am not complaining because I believe it has required a great deal more intentionality on my part. I have to think about what I am asking students to do more thoughtfully. I need to be more process driven in what I do. However, it requires a great deal more intentionality from students too. This is a different world than the world of sitting in a lecture (either large or small). It is so much more evident precisely what a student does or does not do. That is also frightening, but it can be liberating if the student will claim their education. It is theirs. They are accountable to themselves first and foremost. We all know when we do something well; conversely, we know when we half ass something. I believe that is even more apparent in this remote world, which is ironic beyond anything imaginable. Everything we do is in the open. Likewise, everything we do not do is in the open. That is where the accountability piece really kicks in. It is hard to say, or even imagine, where all of this will shake out. What will happen to this generation of students? How will they take this experience and adapt to the world beyond their backpacks? It is most definitely something we will have to wait and see as far as the ramifications. In the meantime, my computer and I are best friends. Seldom can I leave the screen and the desk believing I am caught up. There is no such thing. It is simply trying to stay afloat. For my students, if you read this and comment about your thoughts, you will get extra credit.

Thanks for reading as always.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

5 thoughts on “Teaching in a Remote, Individualized, Asynchronous, Divided World

  1. As a student who experienced college life before and now during a pandemic, I have to say there have been many changes in my attitude towards school. You commented that more students have missed deadline than ever before. While I have not missed any assignments so far, I have hit a point in time where I have felt very unmotivated. Online learning is very hard for me to adapt to because it is not my learning style. In the classroom it is easy to pay attention because distractions are limiting. Sitting at home in my bedroom trying to study comes along with hearing my roommate blasting music, the washer outside my room causing the floor to shake, needing constant visual breaks because the screen brightness gives me a headache. School has always been a priority to me but the pandemic has not made it easy. Adaptation is truly important because as much as we all would like to think that getting by is sufficient enough. It will not work especially under the circumstances that nobody knows when the pandemic will end. For me personally, I try to switch up my routine as much as possible so that I do not allow the distractions to become too much. I never study in my bed and I put my phone on silent because those are my two biggest weaknesses when it comes to not paying attention. When the lockdown first happened I admit I became lazy with my work, but as you had said a reality check is needed. I hope moving forward into the semester I am able to adapt more to the asynchronous learning style. Also looking forward to the announcement that classes will return to in person in the fall!

  2. Roughly one year ago today, I went home for spring break and returned back to campus only to collect my belongings. I was forced to attend college from home listening to PowerPoints and basically teaching myself. This was a big adjustment for me both academically and mentally. At home, there were many distractions such as my brother working from home and my cat waking me up at the crack of dawn. It is hard to imagine how college life was prior to the pandemic and attending classes in person. To help prevent the spread of COVID, a vaccine was effectively developed and made available to the public. I am glad to hear that you have received your first dose of the vaccine. I just recently received my second dose and experienced only a slight fever afterwards. Moreover, I think with the changing of in person to online classes affects the way we communicate with each other. Asking questions when you do not know the answer or want clarification on a certain topic is being proactive. I take every chance I have to contact professors whether it be through email or over the phone to receive help with assignments. My reasoning is that if I do not attempt to find a solution to my problem, I will simply never know the answer. It is that simple. With the adjustment of classes being online, I find myself feeling lonely as well as unable to fully focus on my assignments. I have never missed a deadline, but I at times lack motivation to complete assignments. To fix this issue, I go over to a friend’s house to study and we watch television too. It helps me find motivation and decreases my feelings of loneliness. Hopefully in the Fall I can say goodbye to online exams and hello to Scantrons!

  3. This pandemic has not changed my life that drastically, I was always someone who preferred to stay at home and would often find myself doodling during lectures and not participating. Working online and blended for some classes has offered a great deal of freedom for me that wasn’t accessible beforehand. My asynchronistic online courses can be some of the easiest I have, I have the ability to learn the material whenever it works best for me, and when I feel most focused. I have very little due dates and teachers who reach out consistently every week to tell me what’s due when and to contact them with any questions. I also have some of my hardest classes that are asynchronistic online, classes that the teacher is inaccessible and hard to reach. Classes that blur the lines of when things are due and those can be overwhelming for me. My favorite are the blended courses I have, where I can choose to commute or stay home, where I can review lessons whenever and do assignments at my own pace while still being able to present things in person and talk to real people instead of just screens. My life with this pandemic is still partially the same because I am one of the fortunate ones who was able to keep my job, I still work part time when I’m not in class and while it’s not easy to attend class and work in the same week, it never was easy to balance. However, now with these asynchronistic online courses, thinking I have the whole week to twiddle my thumbs and do their assignments, makes it much harder to balance both, I don’t have enough time for what is required of me anymore and its heartbreaking. I used to be what felt like top of my class, my school liked to tell my parents I was one of the better students – now I am falling so far behind that I’m not surprised anymore when I get a C on an assignment I put my best effort into. I’m not surprised when I miss assignments because I am so tired, and run down when it comes to the balance that I cant balance them anymore – but what other choice do I have? With college costing an arm and a leg anymore, you have to work during your college years just to stay afloat, you have to sacrifice the very thing your working towards just to afford to do it. My original point, is that this pandemic can be viewed more than just a black and white. It is a whole rainbow of grays.

  4. After reading this post I really just sat back and thought about what you had to say and how this pandemic has affected you. Once again realizing that it has impacted everyone in different ways. On March 13th, 2020 my high school gave the announcement that school would be out of session for two weeks. We had no idea what was actually ahead of us so we were just excited to get off for two weeks. After those two weeks were up, it was extended for another two weeks and this became permanent. We never went back to school that year. We all had to stay home and try to figure out this new way of learning and how we were going to pass our classes effectively. Covid-19 really effected my junior and senior year of high school and I basically thought my life was over. I was so upset about the fact that those upper classman opportunities and activities were taken away from me. As I felt life was hard for me at that time, I wasn’t even thinking about what was really happening in the world. People were dying. People lost those they loved and lost connection with others. My household was specifically on full lockdown due to my grandmother living with us and trying to be as careful as possible. It was hard not being able to leave the house for almost four months in a row. Very hard. I had no idea what to even think at the time. It ran through my head a few times that this was the end. It was a very scary thought because the world had been portrayed as if it was ending. From day to day, you just kept hearing about the number of cases rising and the death count around the world. On top of all the uncertainty, I had to stay on top of my grades and somehow learn over zoom meetings. Personally, I was frustrated with my teachers because of all the work that was given. It felt useless because I was not getting anything out of it. But I also eventually realized that my teachers are struggling too. This is very new to them too and they had a whole swap in how to teach in todays world. We ended up going back in person senior year, with masks on of course. Everything was so different and the whole first week was extremely discouraging. Throughout the year we would get a certain amount of cases and have to close down for a few days at a time. It was hard to get into any type of routine. Now that I’m here at college for my first week, I’m hoping and praying that things can only get better and we can keep our in person activities. I know that being online this early in the semester would really be hard and stressful to keep up with. Going forward, I would love to stay in my classes and be able to walk up to my professors when I have a question rather than going on a zoom call and not understanding the material. At this point in time, I hope we can all stay healthy and continue the actual college experience.

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