Why Is Online Teaching and Learning So Awesome and So Awful?

Special / Top Feature April 20 / April 30, 2020

– Thomas Mennella –

Don’t panic. Everything is scary. This is our new normal, and it’s very abnormal.

This pandemic has led to contradictions and paradoxes emerging daily.  The cognitive dissonance can be strange, disorientating, fun, and interesting. How can opposing contradictions both be true? How can paradoxes have become realities in our profession as educators? Why is online teaching and learning so damn awesome and so damn awful?! 

When my university announced that its on-ground campus would be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and that all instruction would be moved online immediately, I panicked and felt a sense of calm. I had anticipated this because of other closures of neighboring institutions, and so I had given much thought to migrating my courses to an online platform. I was prepared for this and caught completely off-guard. My experience with Flipped Learning made this change far easier than I expected, and it was the hardest professional challenge of my career. (And, for what it’s worth, spending some time with my wonderful family has been a joyous blessing, and we can barely stand each other.)

Before the pandemic, in my traditional flipped courses (yet another paradox…), students would watch videos as their pre-work in the individual space and convey to me what they still found confusing. In the group space, we would review that confusing material together and then dive into Challenge Questions to apply those concepts to novel situations reaching Bloom’s higher levels. When I realized it was very likely that my university would close after Spring Break, and that I’d need to migrate online rapidly, I knew that this migration could be nearly seamless. Students would still watch video lectures each week, I’d create additional short review micro-videos to replace our Monday Reviews and my Challenge Questions would convert into online discussions. Students would each post their Challenge Question responses on our LMS and then be required to respond to at least three classmates’ answers. I even decided to post a weekly capstone video where I would review the ideal answers to each Challenge Question. Transition, easy. I was all set.

In practice, it wasn’t so easy at all. Getting my students acclimated to this new approach was time-consuming and nuanced. Some students took to it immediately, others needed some additional coaching, others still were resistant, and a fourth class of students needed deep intervention to deal with the self-motivation and discipline that online instruction requires. I’m still dealing with this latter group intensively; some have still not fully acclimated despite us now being in our fourth week of remote learning—transition, difficult. I’m still struggling.

Awesome Day

Here’s an average day for me as a remote instructor (no exaggeration or embellishment at all, I promise this is all true). I wake up at 6 a.m. and immediately get to work. I catch up on student emails, grade any work that was turned in during the night, and then dive into the student discussions. I’ve promised myself that I will respond to every single student’s response to a classmate’s initial post. I do this to show that I am deeply involved in their discussions, present in the “room,” and because I do enjoy it. I am blown away every single day by the engagement and richness of my students’ discussions.

At 8 a.m., I take a break to wake up my daughters (12 and 14 years old). My wife and I get them squared away for breakfast and make sure they’re set for their day of learning. I treasure this time with my family. Then back to discussions and grading.

At 1 p.m., I take time for physical health and ride a stationary bike for 45 minutes; this is a welcome respite from all of the mental energy I’ve expended that morning.

By 2:30 p.m., it’s time for round two. More emails to respond to, students’ appointments to keep on Zoom, FLGI commitments to attend to, and discussion posts to reply to that have been posted since morning.

At 5 p.m., my girls are winding down, so we make sure that they’re set for productive (i.e., non-screen time) activities to close out their day. Then one final round of grading, email replies and discussion posts, and I call it a day by 6:30 p.m. The day ends with me fulfilled as an educator and as a father. I’ve had the privilege of watching my students flourish online and my daughters flourish at home. I am content.  

Awful Day

Here’s an average day for me as a remote instructor where there is much of the same routine, but when I wake up at 6 a.m., I am already tired, and immediately get to work. I continue the same routine, but rather than enjoying it, I’m afraid that if I don’t, the quality of my students’ work will diminish. I am still blown away every single day by the sheer amount of time it takes for me to reply to all of my students’ discussions.

At 8 a.m., I take a much-needed break as opposed to a regular break to wake up my daughters (12 and 14 years old). The day continues except for their day of learning, this often comes with some bickering and refereeing, yet the discussions and grading continue.

At 1 p.m., I take time for mental health to add to physical health (activity); this is a critical need, as I absolutely require some time to decompress and be in my own space.

By 2:30 p.m., it’s time for round two and I continue the process.

At 5 p.m., as my girls are winding down, I am now fighting them to compel them to engage in productive (i.e., non-screen time) activities to close out their day. Then one final round of grading as I routinely do and still call it a day by 6:30 p.m., yet the day ends with me absolutely exhausted as an educator and as a father. I’ve expended more mental energy over the past twelve hours than I probably do in five days of my usual job. I am tired beyond belief.

Is emergency remote instruction easy for you, yet a challenge? Are you so happy, yet miserable? Are you hoping to teach online next year and beyond, yet can’t wait to get back into your classroom? I promise you are not alone, yet you are in self-isolation. 

One of the most common refrains I hear lately is, “We are in strange times.” Indeed. These times are made stranger by these constant contradictions that we are experiencing every day. It’s weird, but it’s kinda cool, too. I have no advice other than to embrace the paradox. Be fulfilled, yet overwhelmed. This is the new normal, at least for now. Because, after all, this is all temporary, yet there is no end in sight….

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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1 Comment

on May 7, 2020

College students tell me that the completely online environment provides no motivation to prepare and not motivation to work hard. The strongest motivation comes from the guilt and embarrassment of not being able to talk with classmates about the topics at hand. When another student wants to discuss whatever the instructor brings up, having no response is an embarrassing situation. In a purely online situation, peer pressure goes away. Even if students can see each other, there is no way for neighboring students to look AT a student who has not prepared for class.
In a flipped classroom, students reach the instructor through interaction with classmates. In a purely online environment, students reach classmates through the instructor. Motivation in our culture does not come from authority. It comes from colleagues. Cheating an instructor and not getting caught often impresses classmates. It may even be viewed as clever. Cheating classmates without getting caught doesn’t impress other classmates. It marks the student as someone who cannot be trusted.
Our online methods expect that students want to work hard. Our culture teaches young people to work as hard as necessary to accomplish what is necessary. Get as much as you can for as little work as possible. Some call it getting the best deal. Others view it as trying to get something for nothing. Although students do not expect such a situation to exist, it is considered efficient to lean toward it whenever the opportunity exists. Computers lean toward quick processing and arriving at answers that match the solution sheets. In-person discussion leans toward insightful interpretation and creative development, things computer programs do not evaluate well. Two sentences typed into a chat line cannot express insight and creativity. There is not opportunity for the class to take hold of it and develop it into something the instructor would never expect.

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