I’ve been teaching at the college level for over 30 years. Back in the late 1990s as a young assistant professor at a community college, I was introduced to teaching online. Those were the days of WebCT as the platform and AltaVista as the most popular browser. We were told that online was the future and that community colleges needed to take the lead. And though we questioned the pedagogical benefits of online learning, we had our marching orders. We suspected that teaching online was a strategy to reduce costs (and faculty) and increase class size. Years later, I have not changed by view as to the motivations. I suspect because of the current coronavirus crisis these concerns will be resurrected. Having said that, I’ve seen online learning improve in its functionality and ability to offer benefits to non-traditional students. I still believe that learning is done best in an environment where humanistic engagement is at the core: seeing students’ faces, watching them struggle with an idea, and using various communication-based techniques to promote knowledge growth is best. Learning by reflection on experience, as John Dewey argued, is optimal. And I believe that learning by experience is best nurtured in face-to-face settings. In the courses I teach now, I rely much on simulation, role playing, and other types of active learning approaches.
I’m an adjunct at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (soon to be the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution) at George Mason University. This semester I taught a noncredit career seminar and a credit graduate course on facilitation skills, a required course in the MS in conflict analysis and resolution.
For the career course, I needed to cancel the remaining site visits to agencies, think tanks, and employers (being in Washington, DC, these visits are indispensable) and move the final class to WebEx. Because the course focused on resume development, networking, and other job-hunting strategies that could accomplished through web-based instruction, the transition was not difficult. However, to move my facilitation course online required a bigger lift. For that course, I used Blackboard’s Collaborate Ultra.
There were both challenges and opportunities for my facilitation class. Here are some of the lessons. First, the challenges.
NUANCES ARE LOST
As any conflict resolution educator will tell you, the subtle and nuanced communication that takes place in a classroom is essential to learning. Picking up on gestures – such as rolling one’s eyes – tone of voice, physical posture, and other ways in which we signal, need to be discerned and responded to. A student’s body signals, which might be below the neckline, can be lost in an online meeting. Virtual classrooms have not been able to show us what can only be noticed in a face to face setting. I only saw my students’ heads, and even then, because of how far some would sit from the camera, I didn’t feel I had eye contact with most of them. This was frustrating and hampered my ability to respond to them.
TECHNOLOGY THWARTS SPONTANEITY
I seek spontaneity in learning. I’ve never really been good at requiring students to raise their hands. If a student blurts out, I usually can work with that. And often, I will call on students who seem to be troubled or are in “thinking mode.” This creates a fluid environment and energizes learning. This is difficult to replicate virtually. The “raise your hand” feature in Blackboard is the preferred means to engage in a synchronistic course. Of course, the chat box allows an alternative means for sharing, but it is a clunky way of expressing one’s views. And it didn’t allow me to be spontaneous: sometimes emphasizing a student’s point or even cutting them off at times. I do interrupt students: often when they go on too long. And in a chat box, students can go on too long.
SUBSTANCE CAN BE SACRIFICED
Finally, educators in a classroom should spend minimal time changing the room temperature, fixing the lighting, or adjusting the seats. We need to focus on the substance of what are there for. With my students, it's role playing and debriefing. We all know how we can get easily side lined by the PowerPoint not working (which I rarely use in any case), or the speakers going offline, or just the inability to log onto the computer. I’ve learned that teaching online guarantees that there will be tech issues that need immediate attention (without the ability to call tech support). Though I would check my virtual room before class, and give students tutorials on being the “moderator” there were always some issues: some related to listening and seeing (“You need to mute your mic!”), internet connectivity (“My home Wi-Fi is unstable”), and just overall student frustration (and with some, even helplessness).
Were there opportunities, beneficial outcomes if you will? Here are a few I saw.
ALIGNING OUR WORK WITH THE TECH WORLD
Experiencing conflict is inherently a humanistic experience. Of course, we fight with inanimate objects (like our computer), but at its core conflict and peace-building is about people and their feelings, emotions, safety, hopes, and identity that require (we believe) personal engagement. But the world has changed around us. Parts of our field, especially mediation, has embraced the virtual world. Though this may be still a minority of conflict resolution professionals, the Covid-19 crisis has forced us all to figure out how to do our work in virtual spaces. We may be uncomfortable with it, and yes, nothing can replace sitting down in person with two individuals needing to make peace. But we are operating in a new paradigm, and we can grouse about it all we want. I want my students to be conflict and peace-builders of the future: so this semester has been about getting them ready.
The saying “necessity is the mother (maybe parent) of invention” couldn’t be more true right now. I was (pleasantly) surprised that my students were far more eager than I to try various functions. They were eager to set up groups, upload documents, and create polls. I suppose their willingness might be a result of their own relationship with technology: my younger students were raised with it and are at ease with it. We weren’t using Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram, but their tech facileness transferred well to our virtual classroom.
GOING WITH THE FLOW
Probably most significantly, the challenges with technology led to building confidence and professional resilience with students. Students were very forgiving of each other, and especially me (thank you) when a “hand” wasn’t recognized, or a person was inadvertently disconnected. Take a deep breath, I would tell them, and try again. The road to peace can be obstructed by minefields (in this case, figuratively). Finding inner strength, patience, and determination were important outcomes of this semester. In the end, students remarked about how much self-confidence they developed. In this case, the confidence related not just the ability to hold a contentious gathering where emotions were running high, but to do so in less than optimal circumstances online.
It’s a brave new world for educators and in particular those of us teaching in a field where technology has been at times perceived as not pedagogically sound. Sure, I still prefer a face-to-face classroom. But we have been pushed into the deep end of the pool. After thrashing around a bit, we will swim.