Teaching through COVID-19

Just like so many other universities across the school (and around the world, for that matter), Temple has decided to suspend in-person classes starting on Monday of next week, though the effects of the decision are already being felt today in terms of attendance.

Students are already packing up and some are even already home; consequently, I received something like half a dozen emails from students telling me that they wouldn’t be present today. Unsurprisingly, in my 9 AM class this morning, I had only 11 students out of the 34 that are enrolled. My 11 AM class was slightly better attended, with 13 of 28 present.

In many ways I’m one of the luckier teachers when it comes to moving my classes to a fully online modality. I already use Canvas, our university’s learning management system (LMS), in all of my courses; I routinely use it for a number of tasks, including posting grades, sharing files, providing details and instructions for assignments, and for submitting assignment electronically. By and large, the biggest challenge will be providing alternative means for students who were scheduled to do in-class presentations, but even that seems to have worked out for the most part, given the university’s site license for Zoom, the webinar software.

But I can’t help wondering about professors and teachers in other disciplines that might not have it so easy. The news has been covering this struggle already, because it is one that has caught a lot of my colleagues off guard. One of my officemates, for example, was uncertain how to convert a video production assignment to an online format, given that the students wouldn’t necessarily have access to the equipment and software they’d ordinarily be able to use. I also wonder about theater, dance, music, and art classes–how exactly do you “digitize” these kinds of things? Or chemistry, biology, and other sciences–how exactly can you replicate labs and hands-on learning in the online space?

I’ve always been a bit of a cynic, but as I get older, I have been trying to push back against those impulses in an effort to be more sanguine. Admittedly, the remainder of this semester is going to be a challenge for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of college students and their professors, but let’s think of the upsides. Perhaps the challenges and barriers that we will have to struggle through together over the next six weeks will result in the next wave of innovation that solves many of the problems that we are currently facing. Virtual laboratories, or maybe micro-labs that students can slip into a pocket and safely take home? VR technologies like Google Cardboard or Oculus headsets and motion-tracking sensors to allow music students to play “with” their ensembles and see their conductors as if they were in a recital hall?

I am decidedly optimistic about the long-term consequences of this experience on pedagogical development and its integration with technology–but for now, I encourage everyone out there to keep your hands clean and stay well.