How USF faculty, students transition to online learning in the time of coronavirus

I had to cancel classes at the University of South Florida on Monday (March 30). And for the first time in my teaching career, I felt guilty about it.

Some background first. There is an old teaching trick that I use every semester. (I hope none of my future students is reading this.)

I always schedule two days each semester where I cancel classes. I don’t tell the students in the original syllabus or course schedule. I present it this way to them: “I am going to cancel class [on whatever day]. You all need some time to catch up, catch your breath, and you deserve it.”

They love it. They applaud.

The reality is those days are for ME, the teacher. For me to catch up and grade and do all the other myriad things teaching at the college level entails: writing student job or grad school recommendations, serving on numerous college committees, planning next week’s lecture, helping students land that first job and so on. The students love it and it lowers their stress. I love it and get caught up.

But in the age of coronavirus and distance learning, it didn’t feel the same way to cancel class. I suspected the students were not happy either.

Those synchronous online class meetings, using a software tool called Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, seem to be the only lifeline for the students between the normal, predictable past and the new scary normal. Last week, after a spring break that was ruined for the students and teachers alike, our first online class meetings seemed like a family reunion. There was a joy I rarely see on the students’ faces as they popped up on the screen and said hi to their classmates.

And so, my guilt in canceling classes Monday.

I had to, though. I am exhausted. Way behind in my grading. Even further behind in my lecture prep. (Of my four sections, three are new preparations, meaning I have never taught them before. One is familiar to me but has changed dramatically since I last taught it in 2015.)

Virtual time together

Everything online takes three times longer than it did in person. Not only do I have synchronous classes using the Zoom-like Ultra software, but I have to create new asynchronous lectures and pages full of information that doesn’t translate to teleconference software well. These are pages online that students go through at their own pace and time schedule. It is good pedagogy to use asynchronous lessons more than synchronous, but the students want time together with their classmates. Or anyone, for that measure.

Even running those synchronous online class meetings is exhausting. (And yes, that is a relative term. I do not earn my living by putting on roofs or framing new houses in the heat of summer or work daylong shifts on my feet in retail year-round or have to be present at a hospital in the midst of a pandemic.) Instead of just worrying about being interesting, funny, and connecting during an in-person lecture, I run a dashboard of controls, switching from sharing this screen to sharing that Powerpoint. I have to toggle between a text chat the students keep as a running commentary to a panel that shows which students have digitally “raised their hands” so they can open their mic and chime in.

On top of those online meetings and the new lecture pages online, I am also having to re-invent my assignments because many of them no longer can be accomplished. In my journalism classes, my political news reporters are not allowed to go out in the field and report stories or interview people in person. I have to come up with alternatives, encouraging telephone interviews and allowing, for the first time, students to conduct interviews via email. In the public relations-advertising creativity classes, I have had to combine some assignments, drop others, and figure a solution to the problem of students working with partners on each project. It is hard enough for them to do it when we meet in person and I can give them time in each class to connect with their project partner; online, it is 10 times harder.
The solution to all these problems? More compassion and flexibility.

Deadlines -- and this kills me to say as a former newspaper reporter for two decades -- are optional. Working with project partners? Optional. And they can now choose their own partner if they do not want to submit solo efforts. Story assignments have morphed into ideas that can be executed by calling experts or by interviewing friends and roommates (previously verboten) and all by phone.

The juggle is real, especially for students who work
The compassion part is key. I have many students who have been laid off. They have had to move home, sometimes out of the United States. Others could not travel abroad to get home, and they are stuck here. Others are working like crazy. I have three students who work at Publix. They are exhausted and burned out and miss class sometimes because of it. I have to excuse those “absences.” The nice thing, though, about online classes is that the software records our synchronous learning sessions and students can re-watch our gatherings. (Not true of my in-person lectures pre-COVID-19.)

My faculty colleagues have joined me in letting students know we are there for them -- to hear emotional problems or financial problems. I suspect I will be buying some students pizza dinners from afar before the semester ends. I have another student who just wants some gummy worms. It’s the comfort things in life that we crave.

The novelty of online teaching wore off quickly, much more quickly than I thought it would. Being at home is a double-edged sword, as all my fellow work-at-home employees know. Now, it is harder to maintain that sense of normalcy, the veneer of hope and strength. One of my colleagues flat out is struggling with it, feeling useless because she is not as productive at home as she was when she could go to campus. Normally, there is an energy on campus with nearly 50,000 students present, a buzz that drives teachers and feeds their souls. It is the same from K-12 to state colleges to big universities. It is why most teachers do what they do, I have found in my discussions over the years with teachers all over the state at all levels. It’s the students and the pursuit of knowledge.

My answer to my colleague, and some great advice for all of us, came when I opened the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, Aisha S. Ahmad, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto who has been in and written about war zones, writes under the headline “Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure.”

She opines: “Global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war. Even if we contain the COVID-19 crisis within a few months, the legacy of this pandemic will live with us for years, perhaps decades to come. It will change the way we move, build, learn, and connect. There is simply no way that our lives will resume as if this had never happened. And so, while it may feel good in the moment, it is foolish to dive into a frenzy of activity or obsess about your scholarly productivity right now. That is denial and delusion. The emotionally and spiritually sane response is to prepare to be forever changed.”

For now, it is back to class. Online.

Wayne Garcia is a master instructor at the University of South Florida Tampa campus. He teaches two journalism and two advertising classes this semester.

For the latest on what is happening at USF, check out the student newspaper, The Oracle, online.

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