Video Killed the Radio Star

My new stylish shield.

It’s almost time to return to fall classes, such as they are. I feel very lucky to be where I am: my institution is not forcing us to teach in person if we do not want to. The students also are under much more control than at other universities; they all are undergoing a mandatory 14-day supervised quarantine after a tiered and staged arrival, and they all will be issued masks which they literally will be ordered to wear. I also am very lucky to have a decent personal supply of Clorox wipes, gloves, masks, and even a face shield.

Having said that, I made a very difficult decision not to teach in-person.

A large part of this came down to “consistency.” Because of the quarantining of the students, the first two weeks of our 16 week semester were to be exclusively online. Fine. There still has not been a decision made about Turkey Day, but it is official that should the students be allowed home then the remaining 3-4 weeks of the semester will be online. That means 12.5-37.5% of my class is guaranteed to be online. And the idea of starting online, THEN switching to in-person (where only a third of the class could physically fit with social distancing measures so that would be a fun circus to ring lead), THEN returning to online…it sounded insane, unnecessarily chaotic, and counterproductive.

And this saddened me. I love teaching and know that I’m better at it than I am at most other things. I love the pre-class banter with students. I love taking questions on the fly as they come in. I love office hours, and even keep cookies and puzzles in my office for a more “chill” vibe. Had I been able to start my semester in-person, things would be different. I would have wanted to at least meet my students face(shield)-to-face(mask). Show them that even in a pandemic I’m willing to “show up” for them, so then maybe—just maybe—they would feel a little more of a moral obligation to “show up” for me.

Once my decision to teach solely online was made, I sat through multiple teaching seminars where people talked about how we could recreate in-class experiences online. Everything from group work, to clicker-style polling. From a traditional lecture to student presentations. From Panopto to QuickNotes, from Procreate to Keynote. I’ve Zoom-ed, and Google-met, and Face-timed, and even Skype-d about all this.

And after about my third such meeting, I finally started to think:

Why are we even TRYING to mimic an in-person classroom online? Why do we believe that online can do exactly what in-person can? ”

I felt so silly taking so long to come up with that realization too. I’m not new to online teaching: I’ve been a course instructor for five years at The Art of Problem Solving (AoPS). That exposure and seeing first-hand as a teacher how online can function probably is what kept me so relatively cool, calm, and collected when we all had to go online in March. Not only are AoPS classes online, but the classrooms themselves are video and audio free. That’s right: there’s a company out there, that by many measurements would be called “successful”, that gets 5th thru 12th graders learning non-trivial math at 75-120 minute stretches and it’s completely text based. No cute backgrounds or avatars. No videos and colorful graphics. No polling apps or breakout rooms. Which also made me wonder how AoPS can be so entertainment-free with 10 year-olds while we feel obligated to barrage constantly the senses and minds of 20 year-olds.

But that actually might be how AoPS can get away with being so “bare bones”: their student body is younger. The younger the students, the fewer preconceived notions of what a math class should be. AoPS kids learn very early-on that you don’t need videos, and polling, and group work. They learn quickly to use discussion boards, and unlike one of the primary selling points of platforms like Piazza these kids don’t need anonymity—they learn it’s OK to make a (public) mistake.

I started to think that this may be why in part things are so chaotic for us as college instructors: not only do the students have 12+ years of notions of what makes a “normal,” “successful”, etc., math class, but we as faculty are also set in our ways. We’re not just dealing with the math right now—we all are having to spend nontrivial time learning a new format. A new way of thinking about the dissemination of math.

Online learning cannot replace in-person learning. And so while I find it noble that many are trying to simulate a more “normal” classroom environment, my goal for this term is to embrace that which online provides that in-person specifically never could. What are those things? I’m still trying to formulate a list (and encourage others in comments to add), but here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Ability to pause. With a video, say, you literally can click pause if you’re overwhelmed. You can rewind. You can turn up the volume if that’s your only issue. Students can’t do these things (easily) in-person in a more traditional lecture setting. It may even be embarrassing for some of them to ask you to repeat or go back.
  • Texting. This is an eye-opener to me, but seems to hold true based on my spring semester. Students are remarkably comfortable texting. Even students who struggle with math have few problems typing “bulky” equations in a side window. And they are so fast at it. Chat rooms and boxes FTW. And if students are also at their homes, they may not want their microphones on because of background noises or feedback. Having an alternative way to ask a question live, let alone in a way that students are comfortable using, is fantastic.
  • Immediate humanization of the instructor. When I’m on campus, I control what I talk to my students about and it’s on neutral territory: either a classroom, or my office at work. But a lot of students don’t think of their professors as human, almost especially science professors. When we are teleworking, we are in our homes. My students have seen more of my apartment than some people I’ve dated. I’m automatically more human to them than I ever could be on campus, and there has to be a way to channel that into something productive and mutually beneficial.

Good luck to those teaching this term, whether in-person or online or some “hybrid” of the two. This is a new era of teaching and learning, and we may not be able ever to return (psychologically, if nothing else) to “the good old days.” We should lament, perhaps, but I encourage us also to move on. That actually was why I chose “Video Killed the Radio Star” as the title of the post. And so, to bring this entry to a close (and perhaps to reemphasize earlier statements), here are some lyrics:

And now we meet in an abandoned studio.

We hear the playback and it seems so long ago.

And you remember [how] the jingles used to go…

(Video killed the radio star) x2

In my mind, and in my car

We can’t rewind. We’ve gone too far.

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