Limitations of the Fall, Possibly by Design

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot, reflecting back on the Fall term, is a conversation I’ve heard both at my own institution and in a number of online settings. It boils down to the observation that in a hybrid course setting, many students who in theory should be coming to class in person (are living on campus or have indicated they will be attending in-person in some manner) have settled into attending remotely as the semester progresses. A question that arises is: does this bode ill for in-person learning in the future?

My opinion is – no. Or, at least, the fact that students are opting out of the classroom experience right now doesn’t necessarily mean they will always devalue a classroom experience. To me, the key observation is that the classroom experience they are opting out of right now is limited in ways that make it less clearly better than the remote experience.

In part, this is by design! For equity reasons, we spent the summer trying to ensure that our in-person and remote learning experiences were as comparable as possible. And at my institution, at least, we were told not to accomplish this by developing separate in-person and on-line experiences, but rather to design from an online perspective first, and then adapt to an in-person setting as possible. If the end result is an experience that students feel they can benefit from equally whether they come to the classroom or stay in their dorm room, that could well be a natural result of the task we set ourselves.

Additionally, there are elements of the current situation that make in-person learning lesser than what students are used to. For my classes, I simply can’t interact with students the way I usually would. I can pair students up to work together, but they can’t share a notebook to work an example or stand at the whiteboard together – they can talk to each other from opposite sides of a long desk while typing into a shared file.  With the need to clean surfaces, it isn’t realistic to rotate through work partners the way we might usually. I cannot walk around the classroom looking at their code while they work – I can view them with monitoring software from the lectern. I can be in the same room as them, but I must be distant, even if I can see they are frustrated or upset. When I would usually walk over, squat down to eye level, and talk them through whatever they are struggling with, now I have to try to do so loudly through a mask from the front of the room, or through text chat if I sense they’d like a less public conversation. In that setting, how much is really lost by being in their own room, with the computer setup they prefer, and all the same abilities to screen-share and talk with me through text or video?

In a usual semester, I spend a lot of time in class trying to get students away from their computers, exactly because of the type of engagement it creates with their classmates and the problems they are solving and myself. I’m hopefully that when that’s what an in-person learning experience looks like again, students will welcome and value it. In the meantime, I’m focusing on the fact that (counting both in-person and remote synchronous participation), my attendance was outstanding this past semester and however they were present I was able to regularly get my students engaging with each other. They were part of a classroom community and they learned and I’m pretty satisfied with that.

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