You Can’t Always Get What You Want

My online “classroom”…before any students show up.

A few months ago I said it was “noble” that some were trying to recreate as exactly as possible in-person experiences online. Multiple weeks into the new semester, I no longer think this is noble. And anyone who is doing a “hybrid” by choice I truly do not understand. I think these moves of mimicking in-person experiences online and going hybrid are done predominantly out of denial. They are done out of fear of the unknown, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable (to the faculty). To be quaint, I just keep saying to myself “Bless their hearts.” To be more realistic, I have to laugh in order not to cry.

And I hope at the end of this you’re laughing too. Because you couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s hilarious if you can remove yourself, even for a few minutes, from the horror that it’s actually our reality.

Let’s analyze some of these hybrid/in-person-but-online attempts and parallels. First, though, some ground rules. “Hybrid” I am taking to mean $\neg$ (100% of the students complete 100% of the course 100% online). [Yay for $\LaTeX$ compatibility!] Next, let’s assume for simplicity that the students are all roughly in the same geographic location. That they’re either on or near campus, or at the very least all in the same time zone. Because if they’re all over the place, go ahead and start laughing because none of this is feasible, even as a thought experiment.

Now for some major problem areas:

EXAMS: Again, blogged about this one before. But now I see some are using a hybrid model to go back to paper exams. This could be due to the belief (which I find naive) that students will be significantly less likely to cheat if not on a computer. More likely it’s out of frustration in having to or attempting to learn how to grade and write new content in online portals like Blackboard or WebAssign.

But let’s think about the hilarity of the administration of these exams. With hybrid models, often either half your class is online anyway or your class is likely to be in multiple rooms at once. If you’re in the first scenario, you’re either going to have administer one test across multiple days (think of the cheating scandal THEN!), or you’re still going to have to write an online edition regardless and it’s actually paper that’s causing you more work. If you’re in the latter scenario: you can only be in one place at a time! How do you proctor? And what if a student in the room you’re not in has a question on the wording? If you’re like me, a 20-student calculus course due to social-distancing purposes is split into two 10-student classrooms…in different buildings. What if your rooms aren’t close to each other? Or maybe you intend to use technology, and have the students you’re not physically watching log in to some Zoom session or Google Meet; then if they have a question at least half the class could hear your response—it’s not like “the good old days” when you could just walk over to the one student and whisper. Or if they use the chat, again a lot of people are going to see the Q&A. Unless you have an individual Zoom/Meet for each student in which case you’ll have to check all the different browser windows regularly…Oh, and then let’s think about what you could see if the student is Zoom/Meet-ing from their dorm. What if their roommate is changing in the background? What’s more important: pretending to make sure they’re not cheating, or specifically not watching an 18 year-old get dressed?

Laughing yet?

Continue the thought experiment. At some institutions, like my own, faculty are discouraged from traipsing across campus during class change. Avoid the high-traffic times filled with students. We are to show up 15 minutes early for hybrid classes, and leave either 5 minutes before the period ends and hightail it, or wait until the next class in our room starts and sneak out then. So now, back to the thought experiment where we’re using this hybrid model with paper exams to create a sense of the “before times.” Which students are going to get extra time on the exam simply because you have to leave the tests unattended to go proctor the other half of the class? Which students are going to get extra time because they’re not in the room where you’re starting to collect? Please don’t mention “honor code”, either: we’re having this conversation in the first place predominantly because you don’t believe students really adhere to that.

Last but not least is the actual grading of paper exams. I started guffawing when I read on Facebook that some academics I know are using PPE to collect exams and then before grading baking the papers in an oven at 300*F for a few minutes to eradicate germs. I mean, as long as you don’t go up to Fahrenheit 451, right? And still others are collecting student addresses and literally snail-mailing assessments! If your exams start to rely on oven mitts or the efficiency of the USPS, then I’m going to go out on a limb and say you should abandon that ship.

GROUP-WORK: It’s practically impossible to do group work in-person right now. How can you keep six feet of distance in a group (or get anything accomplished in the CDC recommended 10 minutes with masks on but less than 6 feet, or whatever the current numbers are)? How can your group all present at the board? It’s never going to happen. So group work basically has to be online now.

But this causes quite a few issues. First, of course, is the whole Zoom/Meet breakout rooms concept, creation, and management. The add-ons you may have to install that may or may not work on a given day that randomize the groups and assign rooms. Think of the learning curve and cacophonous fiasco as you have to remind students to mute themselves in this space, but un-mute themselves in this other space. Think of the audio kickback you’ll receive as you move from breakout to breakout. Then there’s calling the groups back and making sure everyone successfully returns to the main room. And these problems are just on top of the usual ones group work creates like “is the group actually working and staying on task?” or “are the members of the group appropriately matched and all contributing?” This is on top of the online issue of “How much bandwidth is used being in one or more video chats for an hour or longer?”

Next, think of how the groups are actually going to communicate. For advanced classes, maybe (and this is a BIG maybe) the students all know $\LaTeX$ and can use overleaf or a similar program. Chances are, though, they don’t know $\LaTeX$. So then to communicate with each other they’re going to have to hold up pieces of paper or hand-held white boards to a camera—and we all know how efficient and effective that is. Or they’re going to have to use a google doc and type math in equation editor (that’s fast…not), or they’re going to have to use something like Jamboard and potentially draw with a trackpad or with their fingers on a cell phone if they don’t have a mouse or stylus.

But then, just like with hybrid/online exams, imagine where the students are when they’re doing their group work. If this is a hybrid model and they’re physically in classrooms, imagine them all being on their laptops (battery power, anyone?) and in their breakout sessions. Do all of the students have headphones? Because if they don’t, what’s that room going to sound like with multiple people speaking simultaneously into a laptop microphone while wearing face masks, struggling to listen to others through the same laptop’s speakers? And if they’re not in the classroom, where else would they be? Their dorm, possibly with other roommates who may not even be in class, but rather playing video games? A library, which last I knew was supposed to be a place of peace and quiet? And again, this is assuming the students are in some area devoted to higher education—what if their location is actually less conducive to this work and more disruptive?

Seriously, this could be an SNL skit. In fact…it already kinda is, though it’s not exactly safe for work.

From Wikipedia. The Titanic musicians. Do we want to be called heroes for THAT?

Of course, more and more are using the argument that despite all the hassle and craziness of hybrid models, psychologically being in-person, however flawed, could be comforting to the students. Frankly, I think it sounds about as psychologically comforting as hearing classical music play as the cruise ship you paid way too much money to be on sinks. Is it really that comforting being in a room with Xs everywhere to mark where you can’t sit? Is it nice to see people, but only from a distance? You can’t even fist bump your friends! Is it calming to see everyone cover half their face and struggle to be heard through necessary PPE? I’ve had colleagues (broad sense) remark that it’s hard in hybrid to get those students who can’t be in the room to feel a part of the room. I’ve had students remark that it’s pointless being in the classroom because the professor is constantly checking the chat and the screen to make sure the online students are being attended to.

What’s the solution? You’re not going to like hearing it. The solution, I believe, is to try your best not to get the tools to conform to your will, but rather to get yourself to adapt to the tools at your disposal. If, for instance, you’re an IBL/group-work lover, I’m sure this semester is hell for you because technology wasn’t designed with that in mind. But you know what? While it may not be what you think you’re best at, while it may not be what you think is ideal for your students, it is possible to learn without group work. Case in point? Probabilistically, you and all of your colleagues! If you’re a traditional lecturer and paper lover, it may be challenging for you as an instructor to “have” to change how you present the material and structure your course, but this is why you get paid the big bucks. If you’ve been reluctant or scared to learn how to code in any of these learning management programs, now’s your time to buck up and buckle down. You’re not afraid to learn in a research setting—you get PAID in part to learn. Plus, think of all the trees you’re saving!

If you don’t think this is a laughing matter, quit treating it like one. NO ONE is getting what they want right now. Accept, adapt, and realize that if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.

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