Although I am a researcher, this piece is not a “peer reviewed journal article”. I am simply stating my observations and my experience with online education. I have attended online classes in two different countries and I have been teaching online for over a year now. I will start with my experience as an online student.
My first time attending school online was with a reputable and accredited university in the United States of America in 2007/2008. This was obviously long before the current situation and I only needed to take one class for a grad school pre-requisite. The course was Human Anatomy and Physiology and it was quite a pleasant experience…much to my surprise! Survival in this course required being an independent learner. We never had a live lecture, it was all asynchronous learning. Assignments were posted, labs were completed via simulation , there were discussion posts set up for those who needed assistance and if all else failed, you could email the course lecturer. Again, this was some 13 years ago! I was most amused by the accuracy of the simulations but I did miss being in the laboratory. It required tremendous discipline and honesty. There was a lot of reading assigned every week and the tests were not open book but there was not invigilator. Cheating never crossed my mind as I love learning and considering my original field of interest, cheating wouldn’t have been in my best interest.
Fast forward to the year 2020. I was a student again (while teaching) at a local bible institute. I was very disappointed with my experience, so much so that I took a leave of absence with no intention to return! Yes, it was that bad. There was no committed staff. The lecturers were not very versed about the platform and as such there was a heavy reliance on administrative staff (two persons who were employed full-time elsewhere) which often led to numerous delays…much to my annoyance. Lectures were recorded but the delivery didn’t really make it worthwhile listening to the recordings again. Often times the lecturers would read from their poweressays…yes I am being facetious on purpose! Other times they would read word for word from the textbook. The returning students outnumbered the new students and often had their way with rearranging the schedules often negatively impacting others. Don’t mention trying to get the teacher’s attention! They didn’t pay attention to the chat. And sometimes if you just opened your microphone to speak, someone else was yelling over you so your contribution was drowned out. I don’t even know if they knew about the raise hand feature! They tell you participation is mandatory but my efforts often felt futile so I stopped trying. The worst issue was the sitting of exams. That is the night when the platform would always act up and we couldn’t get on. We would have to use an alternative site and sometimes that was a problematic alternative. I couldn’t understand why as we use the same platform for my job and I didn’t have and still don’t have an issue. Sometimes the questions asked, and the responses they later told us were correct were as opposite as North and South Korea! The good thing was I did learn, I did pass and I “met” some great people along the way.
Teaching online is much more difficult than in person! I love teaching from home and I have grown accustomed to staring at my presentation while teaching as the students’ cameras are off and they are not always participatory. Some of the issues that present in this scenario locally is the access to both steady high speed internet and a working device. When I enrolled in college overseas many moons ago, a laptop was mandatory and could be purchased through the school. That is not a hard and fast rule here in Jamaica. Most students and their families don’t necessarily have the wherewithal to acquire same. Most persons don’t see a laptop as necessary since a smartphone or tablet can perform most of the same functions. If you can only afford one, the obvious choice is the smartphone. If one lives in a rural area, you might have cell towers which give you some amount of internet connectivity but to go to class would require copious amounts of data and that is costly. Most of our students don’t pay attention in face to face classes and now in the [dis]comfort of their own homes, it is even more difficult. Some students have challenges at home that further prohibit them from being fully attentive in class. Parents are constantly asking them to run errands or do chores. Maybe their community is noisy and or violent. Perhaps they have a young child or children who require supervision for their schooling. Maybe, as the eldest sibling, when the parent(s) goes to work, they have to supervise their short attention span siblings plus cook, et cetera. Some students are not from stable loving homes. Sometimes there are unplanned outages and other force majeure events that preclude them from learning. Other times students are just down right lazy and know that some of their excuses cannot be proved nor disproved so they take advantage of same.
All of those present as problems to treat with as a lecturer. It now forces us to find new and engaging ways to reach our students with the understanding that we, yes students and teachers alike, are “zoomed and google meets out”. It is draining when just talking to oneself and the students are not responding. However, the first thing that helped was to take the emotions out of it. Their response, or lack thereof, is not on me it is on them. I cannot take it personally, even if the students have expressed hatred for or disrespect towards me. I have to take the higher road even while establishing boundaries. I stopped asking students to turn on their cameras, except for when the assignment required same. I only turn on my camera for the first few weeks so that they know who is lecturing. Afterwards, I join them in not being visible. I don’t know where they are and if its feasible for them to turn on their cameras as such, I don’t force them to do so. One may argue that they can blur the background but again, not everyone is technologically savvy and using the background feature slows down the device. I record the classes and post the link. Anything can happen that causes a student to miss a session in its entirety or partially. Also, if a student were to lodge a complaint to say something wasn’t taught, I have the evidence in the recording. Or, if a student wanted to dispute a graded assignment that was presented in class, I also have that recording. I create synchronous and asynchronous activities to help reinforce the material. It also gives the students with connectivity issues an opportunity to participate in the course. I make myself available within regular hours and try to facilitate their questions as best as possible. Sometimes I just have to work with whomsoever is participating. I try to give breaks during long sessions. It is hard on both the teacher and the students to sit for the 3 hours. Lastly I try to post materials in a timely manner along with descriptions that are helpful, in addition to finding new and creative ways to present old material. Yes it sounds tiring and that is because it is!
It is sometimes difficult to be excited to teach the same thing you’ve taught for the last five years, especially if there is nothing new to add because that subject matter is not dynamic. However, it is possible. As lecturers so much more is required of us. How do we set online assessments that are fair to the students but safeguard against cheating? That is almost impossible! If you cut the time, students complain that they didn’t have enough time. If you use a safe exam browser, it won’t work on some of their devices. If you require them to turn on their cameras, they will tell you it doesn’t work. How do you invigilate that? Is it worth calling around to verify that their area, which cannot be found via GPS, was really without electricity and that the student isn’t just buying time? There are so many variables over which we have no control and it is frustrating. Even more frustrating is watching these high level passes that you know are not true representations of the students’ academic performance. But what to do? Do you stop teaching? Do you stop being creative or going above and beyond for those who need it? No! You have to balance. You have to show up and you have to keep trying. You have to be the encourager who reassures them that the pandemic will end and we will return to a better normalcy. You have to be smart and find the cheating but not let it cause bitterness. You have to know where your responsibility for their learning ends, and the students’ responsibility starts. And you have to take care of our own mental health. If that means giving more asynchronous assignments or tasks, by all means do so! Pre-record materials where applicable and establish and maintain a cut off point for responding to student queries. Take time for yourself and least once every two weeks, have a no teaching/work related tasks day!
This business of online teaching is going to continue regardless of when the pandemic ends. Whereas most schools in Jamaica might return to traditional classroom teaching, there will undoubtedly be a hybrid that involves some online aspects. Studies should be conducted to rigorously assess the weaknesses and strengths of our current systems. How is that we need to improve so that no student will be left behind? I think it is obvious that there is no panacea and that it will take a joint effort from several sectors and government ministries. If we are to remain competitive, I believe that we need to, as a country, figure this out. We need to improve our technological infrastructure, equip our teachers with the right training and tools to create a low affective filter classroom, and provide the support needed for both the teachers and students. It is hard to teach a large classroom. It will take trial and error but that can easily be minimized by looking at best practices across the globe and make the adjustments for our system. Let us not overlook the many positives this transition has engendered through being stymied by the frustrating challenges that coexist.
So enough of my rambling…I am sure a plethora of experiences and opinions exist. Do you care to share yours in the comments? What else did I forget to mention about online teaching and learning?