Almost a year into the pandemic we’ve transitioned most of our teaching and learning into completely virtual activities. By now most of us have participated in some live online activity by connecting with others via technology services such as ZOOM or Webex. For the most part, this modality seems to be delivering effective instruction in an accessible and convenient way, and literally meeting learners where they are via broadband Internet.
Whether learners are engaged or not is another matter. Engagement has always been the gold standard for a memorable learning activity and is proven to increase retention rates of knowledge transfer. And those teaching online are bravely exploring novel approaches to connecting and engaging learners during virtual activities. The Pandemic Pedagogy Facebook group, for example, has grown to almost 40,000 members since March 2020 – members post stories of successes and failures as well as discuss challenges of teaching and learning virtually.
We are adapting in real life to educate virtually and have made great strides in meeting learners where they are (on a couch in pajamas, lunch break, protected time for learning, etc.) and constantly evolving our approaches to instruction to increase the level engagement and connection to them. So, aside from engagement, what challenges remain by being virtual after a year in?
To find out I conducted a totally unscientific poll and the results are not surprising. (Engagement - lack thereof - was the top response.) Here’s a rundown of the other responses:
Distractions: So many more distractions for everyone! Lack of childcare was citied frequently as many have been faced with conducting their daily work from home. There’s laundry, and projects, and the kitchen is so close! Also, why does the yard crew have to crank up at the worst possible time?! Tip: create a beautiful and comfortable space that allows you to focus and create clear boundaries for interruptions.
Planning: I’ve heard some form or another of this one a lot more lately: “A bunch of extra work and menial tasks with no acknowledgement or reward.” Since I have been involved with online learning I’ve fought the misconception that teaching online was easier. Just webify it and boom there it is. Not so fast! The general heuristic that I use is for every hour of online teaching you need at least twice that amount of preparation, and even more for asynchronous courses. Faculty enjoy the earned ease of popping in a venue to lecture in front of friendly faces, taking a few questions from the audience, then walking out with honorarium in hand easy peasy. Now I actually have to practice?! And I have to review my content for copyright, transitions, and fancy file formats that don’t transmit so well online. Well yes, all of that. Bottom line: take the time to practice and prepare and even ask what could go wrong to help formulate your plan B should the need arise (power outage anyone?).
Technology: Until there is ubiquitous broadband in the ether, the last mile problem will always be a challenge. Rural home, ISP bandwidth, signal quality from participants…it all comes down to the size of the pipe to your device. Other challenges cited were feedback/echo; poor camera angle and lighting; nonstandard user interfaces, option and feature operation (muting, breakout rooms, etc.) among the platforms. Think of what you can control here and adopt a mechanic mindset. Turn off camera to increase audio quality; close all other applications; kick some devices off the home WiFi; etc. and just know you will never solve the last mile problem so don’t take it personally is my best advice.
Human Connection: This one is tough to emulate virtually. In his book 12 Rules for Life, psychologist Jordan B. Peterson writes of learning and the beauty of connection during in-person lectures:
“A lecture is – somewhat surprisingly – a conversation. The lecturer speaks, but the audience communicates with him or her non-verbally. A surprising amount of human interaction – much of the delivery of emotional information, for example – takes place in this manner, through postural display and facial emotion.“
And he goes on to say,
“A good lecturer is thus talking with and not at or even to his or her listeners. To manage this, the lecturer needs to be closely attending to the audience’s every move, gesture, and sound. A good lecturer speaks directly to and watches the responses of single, identifiable people.”
Connecting on a personal level is a challenge when getting to know the people and not their ZOOM boxes for reading nonverbal cues and fluid interaction. Being able to read the audience, and creating connections between learners all the while trying to maintain engagement of a multi-tasking oriented audience is no small feat! Bottom line: get attention with an ice breaker related to why the lesson matters and provide clear expectations for Q&A, feedback, and social interaction.
Digital divide: Some learners suffer from that last mile more than others (rural versus urban Internet coverage for example) and some folks have legacy equipment that don’t have the juice to run today’s demanding applications. And think of the technical competency required and have grace for those who are not at the same level of acumen. It is important to keep your audience demographics in mind and offer an asynchronous option for on-demand access and meeting these learners where they are and when they can experience the lessons.
Fatigue: Common themes here again…sitting all day, eye strain, no personal connection… and I think we can all relate to: “it's much more mentally exhausting than in-person for me.” My bottom line here is a general practice to not exceed 3 hours at a stretch if possible and even better keep live trainings limited to an hour.
There you have it: real world teaching and learning challenges in the virtual world. The good news is that we are all getting better at conducting our business online. Just like ATMs, novel approaches take time to gain wide acceptance and find their optimal place in our lives. Unlike ATMs it won’t take 10 years for us to accept and become skilled at virtual learning as we overcome the challenges to learn and thrive in <sigh> new normal. In fact, most of us are already there!
Please add to my unscientific poll here: https://www.menti.com/yf5ewxjp5f and no, there are no gift cards nor iPads to give away for responding