“Working from home” or “At home working”

Who benefits and who hurts from fast and loose decision-making in the face of a pandemic?

When I walked out of my classes on March 12 & 13, I didn’t realize that it was going to be the last time that I would see my students in person.

That week in itself was a whirlwind, and, by 2:30PM on Friday, March 13, I was sitting in an all-faculty meeting planning for what “at least two weeks” of virtual teaching was going to look like. Now after one week of Spring Break, a “Pause Week”, and two weeks of virtual teaching. I’m ready to break down the “winners” and “losers” of my attempt at virtual teaching.

Who benefits?

Zoom (& other virtual conferencing softwares)

I should start by saying that I am thankful to have access to these softwares and programs. I have colleagues at other institutions who do not have the same access to technology that I have. Honestly, I cannot even imagine trying to teach online using Google Hangouts or Skype instead of Zoom.

Why is Zoom a winner? Zoom is a winner because every institution that has the cheddar is throwing it at Zoom.

If you weren’t well versed in Zoom prior to March 15 (like myself), you’re likely on your way to becoming a pro now. When one of my colleagues offered for us to have weekly planning meetings over Zoom back when we could just meet in one of our offices, I was hesitant. I really prefer to talk face-to-face, and I didn’t fancy the idea of having a virtual meeting with someone just a floor or two below me. I’ve changed my mind now. Zoom has so many features that have made virtual teaching possible for me.

There are still some things about Zoom that I still don’t quite understand. For example, just the other day one of my students was logged in twice–once from their phone and once from their computer. I tried to “kick out” their phone account, but kicked out their computer. Then I couldn’t figure out how to add them back in. There went 15 minutes if you can imagine.

Zoom has its perks though, and if you or your institution can afford it, then you can be on the winning team, too. The breakout rooms, online storage for recording lectures, and the ability to use your “personal meeting space” to create pre-recorded lectures is second to none. Make use of it if it’s available to you.

Large Publishing & Educational Technology Companies

You know that phrase “If I had a dollar…”? Well, honestly, if I had a dollar for every large publisher or educational technology company that wanted to “help out” during this pandemic and large move to virtual teaching, then I would have paid my year’s salary by now.

I’m not going to lie, I love having access to all of these softwares and programs, but isn’t this all just a marketing ploy anyway?

I mean, if these publishers and companies have the ability offer free or upgraded services to absolutely anybody who asks for them during this difficult time, then what is preventing them from providing affordable services regularly? I would be so much more inclined to use some of these programs and pieces of technology more regularly if they didn’t easily cost my students $30+ per class.

Free access to e-books, online textbook activities, and companion sites has made online teaching so much easier. We this kind of access, it makes it much easier to plan both synchronous and asynchronous activities. If all of these materials were always “free” or available because you and/or the students purchased the book, I would be more likely to use these publishers again.

Who hurts?

Students

As an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor, I am often one of the first Americans that my students really get to know. I teach in an intensive English program (IEP) where the students have not yet matriculated into the university, and, therefore, have ESL courses for up to 20 hours a week. All of their courses are together and they usually have 2 or 3 instructors in a semester. Therefore, they often become the closest friends with their classmates and instructors.

The sudden move to virtual instruction has been very difficult for some of my students. For example, I had a student who was absent for a few weeks of class prior to spring break. They had been feeling very stressed and overwhelmed with their coursework. They returned to class right around midterms, but just in time for us to make the switch to virtual instruction. I cannot even imagine how this student is feeling in our current situation.

In addition, many students were asked to leave the dorms and move off-campus in the face of this pandemic. Again, as an instructor of international students, many of my students live on campus because they are only here during the academic year. Some students, then, have had to suddenly find off-campus housing which they may not be able to afford. Can you imagine being given a week’s notice to find new housing–moving out of the dorms, setting up utilities, trying to figure out limited public transportation? Luckily, the student government at my university has stepped up to offer some grants to students to make off-campus life more manageable and affordable.

Simply put: can you imagine living thousands of miles away from your friends and family and being told that you need to go into quarantine? If you think you are lonely in your quarantine or stay-at-home order because you can’t see your friends or family, imagine being halfway around the world from them, too!

To support my students in this new situation, I’ve implemented mandatory office hours appointments with my students. These can be as short as 5 minutes or up to an hour. I made this decision because I wanted to provide my students a dedicated time for private conversation with me about how things are going. I ask them how things are going both in-class and outside-of-class. I make sure they have groceries, working internet, and basic household supplies. I check-in on their workload to see if they feel they are still getting the amount of coursework and attention they had signed-up to receive.

My students have responded very well to these meetings. It gives us a chance to just casually speak with each other. To many of them, even before this pandemic, I had become more than an instructor. At times I’m a friend. Other times, a confidant. That’s what it’s really like to be a teacher. It’s not always just about sharing knowledge with students, but offering all the support you can.

Faculty

There are two primary approaches to online instruction: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous teaching is holding live classes on a visitation conference software during your normal course hours. Asynchronous is prepping your course in a way that students can access and complete the assignments on their own time, within reason.

In preparing to move to virtual instruction, instructors in my department were encouraged to maintain synchronous teaching because our students “needed the hours”. From administration, this seemed like an easy move to online instruction, but it really wasn’t.

It’s not easy to just “convert” your course from an in-class session to an online session. Online teaching requires different types of activities, different modes of delivery, and different types of feedback. Since moving to online instruction, my preparation and grading time has nearly tripled. I’ve learned that less is more and that asynchronous activities provide real benefits to my students–often times more-so than a synchronous course.

Nothing makes you feel like an incompetent instructor than being forced to move to virtual instruction without any formal training in it. Sure, I know how to use the internet and the various platforms that we are given at my institution, but I have never taught online. So much of how I do my job and provide feedback to my students is in the moment. I’m not able to do that in the same way that I have in the past. Now, I provide written feedback, but it has to be much more detailed since they cannot immediately ask follow-up questions.

In addition, now that we have made the switch to online instruction, we find ourselves not “working from home” but “at home working”. “Working from home” entails working for your employer while at home without other duties. “At home working” entails that you are not only doing your job, but everything else that is on your plate–caring for children, caring for pets, amazing a clean household, etc. Many faculty who are now working from home are not only an instructor to their students, but also playing mom/dad, caring/helping their partner, and even teaching their own children at home. That’s a lot to do while also managing a full-time job during normal working hours.

In short, instructors are exhausted. Every one week of teaching has begun to feel like three very, very slow weeks. Between internet issues and making sure things are set-up properly in the online platforms, everything is just taking much longer. Some people think instructors have it easy because we “only work 9 months out of the year”, but that’s not true. We’re always working to make things better for our students, and some of us are having a very difficult time with this new reality.

What have I learned so far?

Zoom is pretty amazing. Same with GoReact and Canvas. These three programs have really made my switch to online instruction much easier.

People in power (i.e., large publishing and educational technology companies) have the ability to make eduction and more affordable and accessible whenever they want. It doesn’t have to be in the face of a pandemic.

Our students need extra support. Check in with them. It doesn’t always have to be about coursework or their grades, but just about life. Make sure they have everything they need and where to go to get the things they don’t have.

The faculty also need extra support. Just simply telling them that “everything will be okay” is not going to cut it. Take time to check in on your faculty and colleagues and make sure they have appropriate resources to crease a successful online instruction environment.

I’ve been experimenting with a bunch of different programs, activities (both synchronous and asynchronous). In the coming week, I hope to be able to write a new article breaking down what has worked and what hasn’t in my switch from classroom to online instruction.

Don’t forget, though, you’re not “working from home”; you’re “at home working” in the face of a pandemic.

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