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Tending, befriending, and coping with upending: Takeaways from the first month of mass emergency remote education

Posted in Academic Life, Cognitive Psychology and Learning, Higher Education, Ideas and Resources, Technology, and Trends and Change

About a year ago, I experienced what we all do sooner or later in the course of our face-to-face teaching careers: something terrible and unexpected happened in class. In my case, a student collapsed and became unresponsive*.
*The student was okay, in the end.

What I did to handle the situation is a story for another time. But I will say that it required me to put plans into action and then adjust them quickly as needed. In that moment, it was on me to take charge, give directions, and set the tone for how the group was going to react.

This was an emergency, in the traditional sense of the word, and the 23 minutes it took the EMTs to get to my classroom felt like a week. Today of course, our collective emergency has stretched into actual weeks and will likely run into multiple months. But despite the unique and yes, “unprecedented” nature of today’s extended crisis, I’m struck by how much of the same key elements of emergency response are present in we are doing, day in and day out, as part of remote instruction.

Some of these teaching moves are so simple and well-practiced that we might not even recognize them for what they are. Videoconferencing glitches happen; we fix them on the fly, or quickly devise a plan B. We patiently explain how to use technology that we ourselves have barely mastered. We send email after email to our classes, striving to keep everyone connected and informed. We sign these messages with chipper words of encouragement and remind students, over and over and over, that we’re here for them, no matter what.

These efforts might seem small, but they’re all part of a much grander mission, that of keeping our students afloat through confusion, disappointment, disconnection, even panic. Perhaps all we’re doing is offering reassurance: that the semester will be okay, that students’ grades will be okay, that we’ve made plans and covered bases. But beneath these little pep talks is a more consequential subtext: There is a way forward. We will get through this disaster, one way or another. There is a future, and it’s one worth fighting for.

That’s just leadership 101, after all: to exude calm, to talk people through the worst of a situation until they can get their bearings and rally themselves to action. To know when to stick to the plan and when to change it, and how to communicate plans with clarity, optimism, and grace.

It’s also a decent example of engaging in nurturing social affiliation as a positive response to stress. The social psychologist Shelley Taylor coined the phrase tend and befriend as a counterpoint to the traditional notion of fight-or-flight as the instinctive way in which we react when threatened. With that elegant revision to a long-entrenched theory, Taylor reminded us that stress doesn’t have to bring out the worst in us. She made humans under pressure look less like cornered animals and more like the altruistic, pro-social beings that we can be.

What I’m seeing right now from my fellow faculty looks a lot like tend-and-befriend, and that makes me radiantly proud to be a part of this community right now.

Another point of pride is that on top of everything else, we’re busily swapping information about what we’re learning as we go along. And this, of course, helps all of us help all of our students even more.

Before saying anything about what those emerging lessons might be, I want to absolutely sure not to make it sound like this switch to emergency remote teaching is part of a wonderful opportunity for professional growth, rich with silver linings. What we are going through right now is a tragedy, plain and simple. We’ve lost opportunities and shelved projects that we cared deeply about. We’ve been set back, permanently and in unfixable ways, on our career trajectories. Whether we’re graduating into a job market that’s freshly turned to dust, or entering a time of austerity during what should be our years of peak productivity – the damage is real, and the damage is done.

I think it’s also important to note that these lessons learned aren’t the sort that form a grand referendum on online learning as we had come to conceive of it before the crisis. As a number of smart critics have pointed out (here, here, and here), what we are experiencing right now is in no way an informative “natural experiment” for determining what online learning can do.

And lastly, there’s a big caveat that I’m speaking mostly from my own experience, in which my current remote teaching load is just one graduate seminar and two independent research courses. This is largely because I’d already been scheduled to teach a fully online course this semester; it was set up as a concentrated 5-week class, and happened to be wrapping up just as campuses began closing. So I want to acknowledge the privilege of having that relatively undemanding load, and acknowledge that those who are heroically carrying 3, 4 or more courses right now are having a different experience.

That said, now that we are this far in, what can we say about what’s working, what’s not, and what’s been a surprise?

  • Is asynchronous better than synchronous? It’s complicated. One of the biggest surprises for me has been what synchronous instruction, in the form of the much-maligned Zoom meeting, is really like for myself and my students. Meaning: not that bad. Sometimes, even pretty great.

    Let me add some context here. Early on in all this, my university leadership handed down some strong words steering faculty away from synchronous instruction in favor of asynchronous, non-time-locked, non-scheduled activities. I assume that advice was well-intended, perhaps as a way to dissuade faculty from plowing ahead with an hour-plus mandatory lecture as the primary means of engaging students.

    Anecdotally at least, it seems like that video-lecture approach is the default for faculty who have less experience with online teaching, so I suppose it makes sense to steer people away from this practice as an initial piece of basic advice. There is also well-founded concern about students who cannot make scheduled class meetings due to new caregiving and work responsibilities, as well as those without access to reliable wifi or adequate computer equipment.

    With all that in mind, I’d structured my graduate seminar so that Zoom meetings were biweekly rather than our normal weekly meeting schedule, and I made attendance optional. I signed on expecting maybe a few people to drop in, and was bowled over when 90% of the class showed up. We talked well past the time when I thought we’d be wrapping up, with students eager to share their experiences, to support each other, and to ask questions about the assignments they were doing. (Oh, and we talked about the assigned reading, too.)

    The next meeting went about the same, with one student floating the idea of doing their assigned presentations in a live Zoom, rather than recording and posting them as I’d originally planned. Others jumped on the idea, and now we’ve got multiple new sessions on the schedule where I thought we’d just have one or two.

    The point is, these meetings turned out to be more enjoyable, engaging, and productive than anticipated, and while I’m still loath to make them mandatory, I’ve come around to the idea that real-time virtual interaction can be a positive thing, rather than an automatic negative. Indeed, I think many of us are finding ourselves looking forward to at least some of these Zoom-fests with students and colleagues, clunky though they may be. And thus, I think we can put an asterisk by that standard advice that asynchronous is usually the better choice.
  • Goal-directed design still carries the day. I found that for myself, the only way I was able to “pivot” my course on such short notice was to back up and identify what I wanted students to get out of each part of it. This conceptual, top-level list of goals is what I worked from as I went through and determined what to drop, what to keep, and what those remaining pieces would look like in the new modality.

    This is what experts have said for years: start with the end in mind, and the rest will fall into place. In that overwhelming moment when I actually sat down to make the pivot happen, I found it was critical to have my focus narrowed to the bare essentials: what you are trying to accomplish, and what activities and materials you need in order to make that happen. I was also more transparent than ever with my students, explaining exactly what I was trying to do – meet their needs, no more and no less – and stressing that everything was negotiable in service of that overarching goal.

    This was a great reminder of time-tested approaches that, honestly, I should be using more frequently anyway. Once again, I’m not saying that this is all a magical blessing in disguise. However, it’s undeniable that emergency remote teaching reminded me of important design principles and processes, and that may turn out to make me a better teacher in semesters to come.
  • It really isn’t about the tools. Similar to the working-backwards principle, expert wisdom is holding up when it comes to the importance (or not) of picking a specific technology to do the job. In conventional teaching, it probably does matter more whether you go with, say, one text annotation tool over another, or one student response system over another.

    But in the current situation, as many of us have found out, it’s rare that a given app or tool is going to be a linchpin of our plan. Partly this has to do with the situation-specific need to go with familiar technology that won’t add any more challenges to our already stressed-out students (or to ourselves). Partly it’s because given the depth and totality of the changes, we’ve needed to lean more on general-purpose features like email, discussion boards, and document sharing.

    Zoom is perhaps a special case, as this one videoconferencing platform has taken off, to put it mildly. Even so, I think its extraordinary rise reflects familiarity and consensus rather than anything truly special or different about what it does. We could perhaps also make an exception for products that support remote laboratories and similar special cases. But overall, I think it’s clear that the switch to remote teaching has been less a shopping trip for the perfect products and more an Apollo 13-style race to survive using what we have on hand.
  • Summative assessment: Something’s got to give. We have reached a point – a tipping point, a flashpoint, or whatever you want to call it – involving high-stakes testing that is likely to remain relevant beyond the current crisis. On the one hand, proctoring services and surveillance are being energetically promoted as the natural solution to making assessment work at a distance, and to some faculty at least, this is an attractive proposition. On the other hand, criticism of the companies themselves, and of the entire notion of supervision and surveillance as the road to academic integrity, is becoming loud, clear, and impossible to ignore.

    I think it’s too early to say whether the tide of opinion has definitively turned against online proctoring, and if so, whether the tide might turn back after this semester. But I think more faculty, and perhaps more academic leaders as well, will be asking whether we have to have the kind of assessments that require this kind of cheat-proofing, and we will hear even more calls to uphold certain responsibilities that come along with high-tech, high-stakes surveillance.

There’s a last point to consider, one that is not so much a lesson learned as an ongoing issue that’s now thrown into high relief by the demands of putting so much online so quickly. This is the question of how to best match up the skills of instructional designers and educational technology experts to the needs of faculty. I know from visiting campuses all around this country that most have offices full of brilliant instructional specialists eager to share their expertise. But few institutions have developed systems for tapping in to that expertise to the level that they could.

From what I’ve seen, there tends to be friction in the system, resulting in a chronic under- or over-utilization of the help available. With this friction now being accentuated by crisis, it’s clear that we need new models for efficiently connecting faculty need and institutional resources. Sometimes help can’t be provided because it’s not there, as is the case in smaller institutions that just don’t have an extensive instructional design and ed tech infrastructure. But in many other cases, the help is there, yet faculty don’t know how to ask for it. Or, it’s not clear who is actually responsible for identifying what needs to be done and making sure that it happens. Or, instructional design staff get mixed messages about when they should jump in to help and how they ought to be interacting with faculty.

It’s possible that there’s even confusion about what “help” and “support” mean. Is it offering lots of nicely curated information that faculty can use for guidance? Is it providing on-demand advice? Or perhaps it’s taking on part of the actual work – cleaning up captions, turning material into presentable online content, organizing and setting up discussion forums. All of these are valuable, but if it’s not clear which ones we’re talking about, it will be no surprise if the right assistance fails to reach the right people at the right time.

I hope it’s also clear that the last thing institutions should be doing right now is treating faculty as an obstacle standing in the way of progress. If institutions are going to succeed at developing solutions for now and preparedness for later, it will mean drawing on the shared purpose and willing spirit of everyone in a university community. My take right now is that in general, faculty have been displaying amazing professionalism, leadership, and dedication to duty, even as we face monumental levels of our own grief, disappointment, and fear. No, faculty are not all suddenly rising up and singing the praises of online learning, but then again, that is not what this is.

All this brings me back to the ethic of care that teachers everywhere are applying as they help students make it through this upending of their educational lives. As I type this, I’m listening to the upbeat-bordering-on-frenetic delivery of my daughter’s ballet teacher, who’s leading a lesson on Zoom. He didn’t sign up to teach dance over a glitchy videoconferencing app running on a teenager’s precariously balanced iPhone, but that’s what he’s doing, and quite effectively too. Their show is going on, as it must. Ours will too.