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The Pandemic Holds These Keys to a Better Education | WIRED


Writing about education in 1962, Buckminster R. Fuller described a scenario of remote learning where faculty and subject experts would “give their basic lecture course just once,” creating “moving-picture footage of the lectures.” Fuller imagined an educational utopia, a transformation where available technology would be used to help ease and distribute education. Almost 60 years, and one global pandemic later, here we are, struggling to figure out how to move classrooms over online.

I often gravitate to the creative-arts departments in education, because I see them as the world’s R&D labs: small offshoots not afraid to make bold moves, and with an open interpretation of success and of failure. So to understand how to best set up our remote classrooms for success, I talked to half a dozen professors at the forefront of design, art, and creative technologies. I wanted to hear about their experience from the past term and a half, gather methods attempted and lessons learned, and bring back a field guide of pivots and practices, tips and tricks, in order for all of us to venture into spring term afresh, and better prepared. Following these conversations, I’m even more excited about the diversity and richness with which people are approaching the online classroom, and what’s possible amid the reinvention.

Cathy Davidson, who teaches at the City University of New York and is the author of The New Education, said, “One of the things I’ve been most shocked by, with everybody going remote, is there’s 30 years of research and science on how you teach with technology. And most people who were freaked out about teaching with technology never bothered to read stuff by people who’ve been doing this for a very long time.” However, for overextended faculty, who amid the pandemic are asked to do even more with less, deep-diving research on a new way of practicing might not be something they can buffer for. Hopefully that’s where this article comes in.

Paul Soulellis, of the Rhode Island School of Design, looked even wider and asked, “What can we learn from the last 30 years of cultivating online spaces? What can we learn from successes like gaming? And what can we learn to avoid from places where there’s been real trouble, and challenges, such as Twitter?” In the framing of those questions, there’s already much to be teased out: the ability to work and connect simultaneously, the high value of successful moderation, and what happens in its absence.

Taeyoung articulated that Zoom “can accidentally be a space where the person teaching has too much power, so that really has to be held carefully.” Soulellis agreed, noting that in remote teaching, “all those things that we take for granted in real-time, real-space teaching were suddenly heightened and exaggerated.” Above I touched on how this showcases in witnessing the boredom of long lectures. So, if we’re to go beyond or around Zoom, what else is there?

There was a lot of appreciation for chat spaces and various whiteboards among all the teachers I’ve spoken to, seeing them as pathways to greater participation and more play. “Typing allowed for different ways to participate” Huang said, emphasizing the impact of written communication for “quieter students, or those less confident with their English. Or if they just didn’t get a chance to speak before the conversation moved on,“ noting how helpful that second channel is in terms of accessibility.

Another question to consider is, do we need to watch most of these lectures? Davidson recounted a story of a professor, Michael Wesch, of Kansas State University, who instructed his students to “put on their earphones and go for a walk wherever they are, or do their chores around the house,” as he read. I’ve similarly been invigorated by the use of, and response to the use, of Clubhouse. Clubhouse has been referenced time and time again as the closest to an IRL feel, “mimicking the spontaneity of parties and large social interactions” and compared to “a class with everybody in the world.” Due to their positive launch, there are now various other, more easily accessible, competitors entering the market: Twitter is testing Spaces, and Telegram just came out with Voice Chats. I’m anticipating holding a large segment of my classes in a space where students aren’t required to look directly at me the whole time, and aren’t in turn themselves on stage. I’m allowing them to do what they would normally do in a long studio class: work while still engaging in chit-chat, ask questions, or listen for background sparks of inspiration.

With the personal and professional boundaries blurred because of the pandemic, many have reactively tried to barricade themselves with professionalism. But letting down those barriers can open up communication, give people an opportunity to express themselves, and with that, make space for more authentic engaged learning. Most people currently in remote classrooms haven’t had the years or decades to develop a working-from-home practice. Davidson outlines our reality clearly: “We’re in a pandemic, on the verge of a financial collapse, leadership collapse, conspiracy theories everywhere—it’s a very strange time to be a college student.”

Taeyoung discusses setting up his courses in a jigsaw manner, where he works in daisy-chain review processes and steps away. He works to, as he said, “create spaces where people feel free to talk to each other” outside his gaze. This is especially important now, as the mingling that normally happens before and after class is no longer there. He notes that “the act of giving feedback to others is also the act of honing the process of giving feedback to yourself.” In my classes, I often harness the motivation that got students to sign up for the course in the first place as free rein to dictate their research, seeing my role as much as a concierge as a tour guide, and one that allows students to get excited by the divergent paths their classmates are also taking.

Now that we’ve refocused on, roughly, where learning happens, the next step is to understand what might inhibit it so we can address it. Davidson says the biggest distractions aren’t cell phones or other low-hanging fruit that most often gets attacked, but rather “heartache and heartburn,” as in “emotional loss and anything that’s physical.” Davidson then explained that, especially now, “emotional and physical loss are the conditions of our life. And unless you’re paying attention to that, all the bells and whistles don’t matter. We’re all distracted.” So, to teach, and to teach well, we must first make sure there’s nothing blocking it. And we do that with whole-human caring and flexibility.

Keep the Wins, After the Pandemic

The pandemic has shown us that the accessibility issues that disabled communities have been speaking up about for years are actually quite doable. We all now have access to learning without having to physically attend classes, allowances for missed lectures, being able to read rather than listen, or learning tuned to different attention spans. “After we have a vaccine, can we make education more accessible to people who can’t physically move somewhere?” Huang asked, pointing out additional accessibility elements they’ve recently implemented, including a live-captioning plug-in for Zoom, allowing for reading of the lectures.

We’ve dissected the candidness, and abundance, of feedback that can happen in digital spaces that faculty weren’t used to seeing in classrooms. Those that I spoke with are already thinking about how they might integrate some of these new methods into the in-person experience. Skolos said that she’s likely to move away from linear presentation software like Keynote, and instead to “use Miro even once we’re back in the classroom: showing examples on boards, doing in-class exercises together, then projecting it.” Soulellis asked if “it is possible that there’s something about this situation and the onscreen space that allows a kind of intimacy that has never before been possible?” before answering it himself with “yes, because I feel like I’ve experienced that.”

In terms of bearing witness to the heartache and heartburn, the pandemic, along with the bedroom- or kitchen-table-view video feeds, has given faculty a front-row seat. Many teachers and professors, some for the first time, have experienced how hard it is to learn, or be productive, amid life’s difficulty and complexity. Can we bring this understanding and empathy to the other side, or when that intense disruption is happening to only some of us?

Soulellis reflected on his growth as a professor, stating that he sees his role as a teacher “differently now. Though it’s a process that began before, the pandemic experience has accelerated that.” Huang mentioned how being more flexible about deadlines has worked really well and kept more students from dropping out compared to past years. Skolos said that, prior, she’d occasionally feel that the students weren’t working hard enough, and this year she didn’t have any of those nuances. Instead, Skolos’ attitude was to “treat them all like they deserve the very best of everything.” She would give extra meetings and generally cut them more slack “if they didn’t get their work done. I felt like, oh, they’re probably depressed this week. And then I noticed, the students, they really brought it. Everybody who was there was giving it their all. And they were super creative.”

We went into the pandemic with a patchy and bloated higher-education system. Like in other areas of life, the pandemic has pushed on preexisting pressure points. It has made us wonder what credit hours really mean and has forced us to observe how students learn in an always-connected culture. And, for many, this time has fostered a reassessing of the true value in leading a class.

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