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Separated By A Screen? Advice For Online Teaching Amid The Coronavirus Outbreak

A classroom is seen vacant through a window at Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, R.I., as the school remains closed following a confirmed case of the coronavirus. (David Goldman/AP)
A classroom is seen vacant through a window at Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, R.I., as the school remains closed following a confirmed case of the coronavirus. (David Goldman/AP)

Some of Massachusetts' most prominent colleges and universities aren't taking any chances with coronavirus and are effectively shutting down most of their campus operations. But by closing up, those schools are taking another kind of gamble: with an abrupt pivot to online learning.

In just the past two days, Harvard, MIT, Smith and Amherst have all announced plans to vacate their dorms in an effort to mitigate the virus' effects. Other institutions seem likely to follow suit.

All four of those schools have pledged to resume their academic work after their spring breaks entirely online.

To do so, they'll use a variety of technologies, including course-management software that can share readings and upload student work, online conferencing software like Zoom or Google Hangouts and, inevitably, old school solutions from emails to phones.

Still, the switch has prompted concerns from students worried about their access to a computer and teachers worried about their facility with the one they do have.

We spoke to professors with experience teaching online about what newcomers should expect.

Give up on having students' undivided attention.

Jessica Parr, a professor of history under contract at Simmons University, said that even when class isn't being held on the internet, the internet's in the classroom.

When she's teaching in person, Parr sometimes cold-calls students that she sees has lost to their devices. "Generally, if you do that a few times, it works as a gentle nudge," she said.

But during a live discussion being conducted entirely on computers, that kind of social policing is impossible. "There's really nothing you can do," Parr said, "so it doesn't make sense to try."

Parr worked for three years in online teaching environments in a prior job, and she warns against misunderstanding the nature of the experience. Most of the work is asynchronous: students are reading, completing work and asking questions on their own time. They may take a detour to Instagram as they do so, she said, but "at the end of the day ... the students are adults. They can make their own decisions and live with the consequences."

Be yourself, but set boundaries.

Online learning is an ideal form of social distancing, one of the best ways to bring an outbreak like coronavirus under control. But that distance can become an obstacle to learning and communication.

"There can be a real disconnect between teacher and student" in online only classrooms, Parr said. Subtle signs that students are bored, overwhelmed or confused can be hard to spot when they're not physically present.

So Parr says she's found that "regular engagement with your students is absolutely critical" when teaching online. Most of that kind of teaching, now set to begin in the weeks ahead, is happening mid-semester. Still, Parr encouraged teachers to be present on a regular basis in online discussions, and with their personalities somewhat intact.

The lack of a regular class meeting time can create "a sense that everything is 24/7," Parr said, adding, "burnout is real." She and others said teachers in online environments have to establish and maintain clear expectations: not just about deadlines and participation, but also about when and in what ways they'll be available to students.

Focus preemptively on your struggling students.

At the same time, there are new risks.

As director of MIT's Teaching Systems Lab, Justin Reich is a leading scholar and practitioner of online learning. He even hosts a podcast on the subject.

But he sees the limitations of the technology. For example, Reich noted that "there are increasingly [many] studies that show that students in online environments do less well and get lower grades" than they would in comparable face-to-face settings.

That "online penalty," as he called it, seems to hit hardest among minorities and low-income students. Studies of that effect are still ongoing, but Reich suggested it's probably determined by multiple factors: from unequal access to technology to uneven development of "self-regulated learning" across populations.

So as his and other institutions go fully online until further notice, Reich had one important message for teachers: "Look at the data [you're] getting" — for example, students' rates of participation or time logged in — then do what you can to reach out to struggling students by the most low-tech of means: a friendly check-in over email or the phone, even when it hasn't been requested.

"When I've talked to the people that I feel are the best, most experienced virtual school instructors, that's what they tell me they spend a whole bunch of their time doing ... [asking,] 'who needs me now?'" Reich said.

There's more than one digital divide.

Reich also pointed out that it isn't enough to note the obvious: that broadband access, secure housing and access to technology are far from universal in the United States, let alone in the global market of students from which many American universities draw.

There's also a divide as to the way different groups use the technology once they've logged on.

"Forty years of ed-tech research tells us that for young people from affluent homes, the technology is more often used for richer academic fare," usually in a context of robust in-person support, Reich said. On the other hand, when marginalized students have used computers in their education, Reich said, it has tended historically to focus on "drill-and-practice exercises."

For institutions: When in doubt, just don't

Sudden changes like these will involve some bumpy transitions. But if anyone can pull off this precipitous pivot to the web, Reich said, it's places like Harvard and MIT that have huge budgets, experienced faculty, many years of experience with online learning and support staff to handle the "inevitable questions."

Those elite private colleges also tend to serve students who, Reich said, are "good at teaching themselves" and many of whom come from the nation's wealthiest households. Reich warned other institutions against automatically following that example: "One thing I've started saying is that every ed-tech solution is a human-capital problem."

In this case that means institutions that can't quickly train professors or install webcams might be better off proposing ways from that students can use their minds during this interruption — for example, book clubs or reading contests — and then committing to helping them catch up when they return to the (brick-and-mortar) classroom.

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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