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Lessons Learned: What the Pandemic Taught Us About Remote Teaching

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Although failing to enter the popular lexicon as of yet, a useful term was coined in March 2020 in a paper published in EDUCAUSE Review by Charles Hodges, Stephanie Moore, Barb Lockee, Torrey Trust, and Aaron Bond, a group of faculty and educational technologists from several universities. The term is “emergency remote teaching” (ERT), and it’s intended to avoid conflating what we’d now call “traditional” online education with the improvised adaptation of face-to-face lesson plans and classroom experiences to the synchronous videoconferen­c­ing platform available to any given school dur­ing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The gist of their paper is that a traditional online course takes typically 6 months to develop before students enroll in it, and it is then iteratively improved as students provide feedback on its quality and as the teacher comes up with new ideas for ways to improve it based on their own experience running it. With ERT, the online curriculum is built on-the-fly, and student feedback is largely irrelevant, as the course materials consist of ephemeral, single-use, synchronous video sessions.

The ERT approach was largely promoted by school administrators who were attempting to put an optimistic spin onto the sudden transition to what was expected to be a short-term shutdown of their schools and typically articulated as, “Do what you would ordinarily do, simply over videoconferencing software at home.” The paper suggests that ERT is also an applicable term for other efforts to continue education despite times of extreme crisis and social fragility, such as the rise and revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan, when improvised schooling for girls was attempted using radios and circulated DVDs.

The originators of the term believe—and I agree—that ERT facilitates student learning at a significantly lower success rate compared to traditional online courses or face-to-face courses, but in an emergency, it is better than nothing. Those who struggled to teach students despite the demands and limitations of ERT are to be commended.

The primary difference between online education and ERT, then, is that online education is deliberately designed and presented using well understood approaches and tools specialized for the online classroom. ERT, by contrast, is deployed reactively using whatever creative solutions are available. Most instructors simply adapt what is familiar from the physical classroom.

The great challenge we face today is to help transition the teachers, students, and school administrators who desire to do so past the ERT mindset and into the more satisfying and effective mode of online learning. I expect this change will be easiest for teachers, most of whom were already convinced of the potential for teaching online, both from their own experiences and from seeing the success some of their peers had.

Students exposed to ERT certainly have a very poor opinion of what they would call “online classes” after the disengagement of long stretches of\ videoconferencing calls. School administrators need to avoid the classic “Maginot Line” blunder of building a strategy specialized to win the previous war.

Supporting Post-ERT Online Education Development

As a general rule, ERT was more successful with older students and was progressively less effective for younger students, a generalization attributable to the nature of intellectual and academic maturity and the accumulation of investment in one’s education. With that in mind, let’s review the paths forward for ERT to fully iterate online education in descending order of student maturity.

A videoconference call is a perfectly serviceable substitute for a physical classroom in an advanced, graduate, or professional-level seminar course in which the teacher and a reasonably small number of highly motivated students interact with one another either in a free discussion or a Socratic-style lecture. A traditionally designed online course at such an advanced level might differ little from an ERT course, with allowance for flexible schedules built in for some of the work, like asynchronous discussion boards or video tools. We would call a synchronous discussion in such a course a high-engagement activity. Combining such activities with out-of-band asynchronous discussion activities would prime students to fully engage when given an opportunity to debate in live sessions that impose on their schedules.

The majority of college-level online courses demand more robust development, however, and the ERT experience requires that those of us who support faculty in creating these courses dramatically change our approach. As much as many people despise the term “new normal,” acknowledging and adapting to paradigm shifts is wise no matter your attitude toward cliché.

Most important among these new facts is that every teacher who has been active in the past 2 years has deep, potentially traumatic, ERT experience. They had to figure things out the hard way: through their own mistakes, frustrations, and failures, as well as through TikTok video tips addressing microscopically specific concerns, providing hammers to pound in all of the loose screws. The old expectation might have been that a teacher who is developing a new online course would have no experience whatsoever with online education and would therefore need comprehensive training. The new expectation should be that teachers have unpredictable gaps in their skill sets surrounding grizzled, battle tested strengths that are disrespected at great peril. To best support teachers, the goal is to gently determine those gaps while listening for pinch points they experienced and identified.

The range of instructional support services varies wildly across universities, but many have offices or centers devoted to faculty de­vel­op­ment, curricular production support, and teach­ing assistant training. I’ve worked at one such center since it was founded and performed similar work at the college level before then, for more than 2 decades altogether. The approach we adopt for supporting faculty was described by Paul Riismandel, my predecessor on the education beat at Streaming Media, in a 2015 column: “As a producer, you should shift into a student mindset. That means really trying to make sure you understand the content fully. It’s a task that should start in preproduction by sitting down with the instructor or subject matter expert and walking through the lesson plan or lecture notes. … Then, during the actual shoot, it’s vital to be engaged and pay attention. … Great teachers excel when they have great students. As a video producer, be that student."

For those who support faculty in developing courses, I advise always taking this student-centered approach: Never present yourself as telling a  professional teacher how to teach better. Always frame your advice on improving student understanding and elevating teaching performance as coming from a perspective unavailable to them rather than superior knowledge or skills, while doing whatever you can through body language to encourage their confidence and elicit their best teaching performance.

A more core skill than photography, lighting, and demonstrating constructive, encouraging attentiveness is the ability to quickly establish the requisite rapport and trust with someone who may be hesitant or even threatened by your intentions.

Situational Leadership

For all who support instructors, I would also recommend studying management and leadership frameworks. Too much of course development work gets bogged down in overly prescriptive project management that becomes a wasteful burden on the faculty and support staff alike. I advise this very much not for the reason that I view support staff as the leader or manager of course development, but because these formalized frameworks reveal truths about human relationships that are universal.

Specifically, I advise reading a book or watching a video series on situational leadership, which applies structure to a truth about human relationships: that a partner in some endeavor needs different things from you at different times. These needs can be helpfully distilled into two parameters: direction and support. I assert that this provides insight into the nature of human relationships because the situational leadership diagram shown in Figure 1 is the exact same as the Maccoby and Martin (and Baumrind) model of parenting styles parameterized from warmth and structure, shown here with the “Structure” axis reversed from its canonical orientation in the child psychology literature to highlight the parallel.

Situational leadership

Figure 1. Situational leadership diagrams modified from creator Ftsn’s original at go2sm.com/ftsn

Again, both of these examples involve how to behave effectively in a position of power over another person, and I like to think that is because decent people tend to be reluctant to wield authority over their fellow humans and therefore intensely study how to do it considerately. People also attenuate these parameters when interacting with people in dynamics without a relative power element or when the power dynamic is reversed (so-called “man­a­ging up”).

The point of all of this is that teachers sometimes need different kinds of support from their video professional, like everyone else does in any relationship. Being sensitive to changing needs and adapting make you a more effective producer. In situational leadership, the general objective is to train and manage those who report to you to be highly competent and highly self-motivated to achieve the S4 quadrant shown in Figure 1.

In parenting, the goal is to raise your children toward eventual independence (here unfairly labeled as negligence when referring to adult children, but your kids likely won’t need quite as many hugs and kisses as adults). In practice, whether it is managing your staff, raising your children, or providing professional support, the amount of direction and guidance you deliver and the amount of work you do directly together will depend on the situation, negotiated among the comfort level, motivation, other demands, and time remaining before some external factor changes the relationship (like the course opening to students).

Obviously, the same model applies to teachers and how they relate to their students. Dur­ing the heyday of ERT, students needed flexibility and empathy based on their unusual circumstances, but they also needed structure to avoid falling behind and into despair. Well-designed online courses have that balance baked in, leveraging interactive synchronous activities around an asynchronous core curri­culum, as I discussed in my October 2019 column.

The question that instructional support centers at universities appear to be confounded by in the lurch from ERT and lockdowns is whe­ther we should focus on supporting DIY or doing more professional, high-end instructional video production. My answer is that we should support both, with an eye to the two approaches eventually converging. Figure 2 depicts a situational leadership diagram customized for curricular support.

modes of educational video production

Figure 2. The original diagram again (credited to creator Ftsn), here modified to depict modes of educational video production

The black arrow in the diagram could represent a teacher’s journey to finding their voice as an expert in instruction through online video. In the S1 quadrant, where the school has heavily invested in facilities for online video but the teacher has little access to support staff with whom to deliberately produce great video, the canonical example is lecture-capture systems, in which the teacher is incidentally—by virtue of the lecture-capture-equipped room the class is in—teaching to an online audience receiving a fly-on-the-wall perspective.

The S2 quadrant represents the bulk of online course productions, in which the bread-and-butter approach has the teacher’s slides from the in-person version of the course improved by artists, and they then teach with them over in the studio as microlectures.

The S3 quadrant is my favorite kind of course production, in which the teacher wants to bring students to places they can’t go in a physical classroom with the magic of a production crew. We recently produced a course, the Science of Fermented Foods, in which certain topics were shot on location at a local microbrewery, bakery, and creamery, as well as in campus laboratories, to complement the in-studio lectures, which cover topics that don’t lend themselves naturally to a particular location.

And finally, there is the S4 quadrant, in which faculty members have fully found their voice and don’t need us anymore (except when they require a film crew for a particular topic, and we get to have fun together again).

During the pandemic, everyone was prematurely thrown into the S4 quadrant. Our responsibility now and moving forward is to listen to how ERT dissatisfied them and support them in the appropriate quadrant where they can most effectively accomplish their teaching goals without those dissatisfactions. We can do this with either some range of full production support in studio (S2) or in the field (S3), by supplying them with semi-supported DIY studio spaces on campus (S1), or by providing expertise with gear selection, acoustics, lighting, post-production, or on-camera performance coaching (S4).

For new faculty members who didn’t experience ERT or did so as students, we’ll need to evolve those needs-assessment skills, but the song remains the same. School administrators should be circumspect in not overinvesting in any one quadrant based on trends during the pandemic. The facts of the situation have changed, and this is the time to be listening very closely to what the faculty demands.

Facilitating Student-Student Interaction

One thing that I shamefully, belatedly came to realize due to the pandemic was how centrally important student-student interaction is. Pre pandemic, I mostly heard of student complaints about activities in online courses that required such interaction—complaints that discussion forum prompts were too contrived or too straightforward to allow for enough plausible points of view to enable a meaningful discussion or complaints about group projects in which slackers created excessive work for the rest of the team without consequence.

Those complaints were still real during ERT, but the now glaringly obvious realization is that a major draw of a school is the other students. Students choose a school that challenges them academically so they can leave their small pond to swim with the bigger fish. They want to make lifelong friendships with peers they can collaborate with and benefit professionally from over their careers.

The technology we offer in our online courses does not effectively facilitate such interaction, it turns out. Instead, during ERT, students convened in off-campus services like Discord, away from the campus snoops. Unfortunately, there were far too many examples of disturbing campaigns to cheat in course work using these unsanctioned tools.

For vendors that sell solutions to schools to enable student-student interaction in a course, the problem is a complicated gauntlet of providing a compelling, adequately private student experience without undermining faculty oversight or the academic integrity of their courses.

ERT and K–12

At the other extreme, ERT was almost completely ineffective for kindergarten and the lowest elementary school grades. The function of kindergarten and early elementary school is threefold:

  • Students learn how to interact respectfully and sociably with their teachers and classmates and appropriately for a school setting.
  • Students are reliably under the care of their school’s faculty and staff so the parents can work.
  • Students learn the mandatory skills needed to advance to the next grade.

In any cases in which schools were closed down and ERT was implemented, the first two functions were not satisfied and the third only marginally so in many cases. Learning loss was significant, according to government data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Hardest hit were demographic groups that traditionally underperform and students in areas with the most prolonged school closures.

Most younger students are expected to recover from the learning loss over time, but many older students won’t have that option: They finished or dropped out of high school under conditions of diminished learning and entered a very difficult economy with the deck stacked against their chances of success.

Learning loss is a more easily tractable (and much more easily measured) problem compared to the youth mental health crisis that will play out over the years and decades to come. A generation of children has been traumatized by inadequate contact with peers, which lasted more than 2 years for many. I can barely tolerate three or four back-to-back videoconferencing meetings; I can’t imagine how schoolchildren felt after 7 hours of it every day.

The school closures exacerbated existing antisocial trends in young people. Two that a strong majority of us in the get-off-my-lawn, shaking- fists-at-clouds cohort can agree on are an over-reliance on and a reification of what they see on often predatory social media platforms and hostile, resentful ageism (OK, Boomer).

Equally traumatized are teachers, 55% of whom are considering leaving the profession, according to a National Education Association poll published earlier this year. Their reasons for leaving are varied: They feel unsupported by their school administrators, they feel unsafe at school, or they don’t feel respected as educators.

One of the contributors to the last reason is the standardized testing that supplies data to the NAEP. Many former teachers feel they spent too much time teaching to and administering the standardized test and that this detracted from their joy of creatively teaching. The test results would be compiled and used to rate their school and school district. That data would then be published in online real estate listings, and before you know it, the teachers’ core role is to maintain home values in their schools’ community instead of teaching students to think critically about a text, play the viola, or graph polynomials. That’s but one memorable example of the many ways teachers feel professionally diminished. All of this came to a head over the past 2 years and was one of several factors leading to the current teacher shortage.

There is a place for effective components of “traditional” online education in K–12 schools. One notable example is the Skyline Curriculum, which had been in development before the pandemic and launched in June 2021. It is a comprehensive pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum that packages unit plans, video lectures, and assessments that meet state standards. The Skyline Curriculum was developed by a partnership of traditional textbook publishers and district teachers to be localized, using examples relevant to students of the Chicago public schools.

For northern or mountainous climates, having an option to assign well-prepared asynchronous learning activities for students to complete during snow days allows more certainty in the school year schedule, with typically an hour or two of optional office hours-type access to the teacher over videoconferencing software if a student needs it. Such efforts are the exception, not the rule, but the Skyline Curriculum was a major, long-term investment by the district. School leaders in other major metropolitan areas should pay close attention to how it works out.

Finally, school closures led to a large increase in homeschooling, most notably for Black students, according to a February 2022 TIME article. The degree to which homeschooling grew is significant. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that between the end of April 2020 and the beginning of October 2020, homeschooling doubled to 11.1%, and for Black families, the increase in the homeschooling rate was greatest, from 3.3% to 16.1%. So far, those numbers have fallen off, but are not close to pre-pandemic levels, representing a promising new market for online educational platforms to provide high-quality content for currently underserved audiences.

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