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Today we're covering COVID-19 and how it impacts the education system. Depending on when you're listening to this podcast, you're likely facing your school's physical environment shut down, or soon to be doing so. In Ohio, all schools are now expected to have at least three weeks out starting on Tuesday - and schools are frantically trying to prepare how they'll tackle this shift.
Most districts across the United States are continuing the expectation of academic coursework across this disruption - and we have no idea how long it will last. Most teachers do not have formal training in adapting their class to a virtual environment, nor does everyone have even close to a 1:1 environment. This episode will assume that educators are dealing with a virtual shift, and looking for a place to start, further resources will be posted in the show notes concerning paper-based methods.
Jesse Stommel, a leading expert on digital critical pedagogy, hybrid pedagogy, and assessment. He is the Digital Learning Fellow and Senior Lecturer of Digital Studies at University of Mary Washington. Further, Jesse is the co-author of An Urgency of Teachers: the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, and a documentary filmmaker.
Chris McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I want to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's fantastic patrons. All of our work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast, are available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Bradley Hinson, Monty Sirey, and Aaron Dowd. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello, and welcome to Season 3, Episode 23 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast of the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Today, we're covering COVID-19 and how it impacts the education system. Depending on when you're listening to this podcast, you're likely facing your own school physical environment being shut down or soon to be doing so. In Ohio, where I teach, almost all schools are now expected to have at least three weeks out starting on Tuesday, and our schools are frantically trying to prepare how they're going to tackle the shift. Most districts across the United States are continuing the expectation of academic coursework across this disruption, and we really have no idea how long it's going to last. Most teachers do not have any formal training in adapting their class to a virtual environment, nor does everyone even have close to a one-to-one environment, and this episode will assume that educators are dealing with a virtual shift. They're looking for a place to start to transition their classes. Further resources will be posted in the show notes concerning paper-based methods. Our guest today, Dr. Jesse Stommel, is a leading expert on digital critical pedagogy, hybrid pedagogy, and assessment. He is the Digital Learning Fellow and Senior Lecturer of Digital Studies at the University of Mary Washington. Further, Jesse is the co-author of An Urgency for Teachers, the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy and a Documentary Filmmaker. Jesse, again, thanks so much for joining us here, and I really just want to dive right into where do we start. Obviously, this shift has been very rapid. People are still trying to figure out what to do. Districts are, in many places, in disarray, but everyone wants to do what's best for students and figure out the best way to make all this happen. Where should educators start when their schools close and move online?
Jesse Stommel: One of the things that I think is interesting, just in the question itself, is that you used the word shift. I've been hearing the word pivot quite a lot, and I really can't stand the word pivot. I think that the word shift is slightly less problematic, but I think one of the first things that we should recognize is that we're not taking, we can't just take something that happens in a face-to-face classroom and neatly pour it into an online environment. It just doesn't work that way. It's a lot more complicated than that, and in some ways, more simple than that. But I think what we need to first do is recognize that something different happens online and that it's important for us to recognize that as we start to move our work online. If I had to say where I think teachers should start is I think they should start by being incredibly patient with themselves. The work of teaching is incredibly hard. The work of teaching online is incredibly hard. The work of teaching in the midst of an emergent crisis like this, incredibly hard. So being patient with ourselves is probably the first step, and then finding ways, finding really creative novel ways to be patient and compassionate with our students.
CM: With that being said, obviously, students are going to be stressed, anxious. They're not really going to know what's going on. What are some specific things that educators could then do to be more compassionate when they're not seeing their students face-to-face?
JS: So one of the first things for us to recognize is that when we're not seeing people's face, we're losing a lot of the nonverbal communication that we have in face-to-face environments. We're losing a lot of the, most of the informality that happens in the classroom, sort of that moment just before class starts as people are filtering in where there's a hum in the room and you're talking about, you know, you're overhearing conversations and you're sharing things about what you did that weekend, that moment ends up being lost. And that's a moment where so much of the relationships get formed and developed. So we have to find ways to bring that, that sort of casual, organic quality into our written interactions with students. And I think more often than not, we're used to writing much more formally in education environments. We, you know, syllabi are more formal than the kind of talking that we do in a face-to-face situation. So figuring out ways just to start with our tone and our language and making sure the first words we utter to students are reminding them that they're human beings, that we see them as human beings and reminding them that we are caring people on the other end. And so honestly, some, you know, a lot of people have already had to say those first words to students, either when school was canceled, when class was canceled, when classes shifted online, or even just when the conversation about that started. But I think those first words end up being really important. And if you haven't uttered those first words, taking time to, you know, to really think about how you're going to do that, how you're going to set the tone for your students. It's almost like, it's like the first day of class again. What do you say in those first few minutes of class and how does that impact everything that happens throughout the term? And so again, we're kind of at that moment again, how do we set the tone for the rest of the work that we do with the students? And I'm just gonna actually read what I wrote to my students. I wrote the day that my institution made the decision to pivot online. I didn't write to them immediately and tell them what our online class was going to be, how it was going to function, what they were going to be doing. I wrote to basically say, hey, I see you, I hear you. I wrote, I'm here to support you however I can. Take care of yourself and your family first. Our class should not be your priority. Everything about this class is flexible. Whatever happens, we will work it out. And I actually very deliberately didn't follow that up by making changes to the syllabus or tell them when we would interact. I just left it at that for almost 24 hours. Before I then went into the syllabus, we already had an online syllabus so that helped a bit, before I went into the online syllabus and started making changes. Because I really wanted just that to sit in the room for as long as possible before it was like, okay, now down to business. Because the truth is that there is no business as usual in this situation. We can't actually pivot, we can't actually have continuity. That's another phrase I've been hearing quite a lot. We have to recognize that this is actually a moment where there will not be continuity. And that I think will help us better deal with or address the situation we actually find ourselves in.
CM: When I hear you talk about flexibility, I think there would be teachers listening in that have to feel like at least they're balancing flexibility with accountability. So in my context in Ohio, the governor actually just had an address a couple hours ago. And we just closed for three weeks. And he said, note that teachers are still going to be holding students accountable. Learning is still going to be happening. Even though there's really no formal plan in place in virtually any place in Ohio. How can educators ensure that they essentially have documentation or they have accountability while simultaneously recognizing that not all of their students have easy access to the internet or maybe don't know what's going on. Or maybe there's like there's mental health. There's so many different variables that can occur. How do they balance those two things?
JS: You know, this is a bit of a tangent or a bit of an aside, but I was talking online with staff, about staff folks at institutions who aren't necessarily being given the flexibility that they need in this moment. So to some degree, we're shifting and pivoting what's expected of students, but not in all cases are we seeing faculty and staff getting the same flexibility. So I've heard of institutions where the teachers are still required to show up on campus, even though classes are canceled and even though school is closed or school or early school is closed to students and their coursework. And one, I find that problematic, too. It's a little strange. But one of the things that I saw was someone saying our institution is not approving work from home applications because they don't know how they would deal with the administrative burden of tracking those work from home agreements. And I just thought to myself, the administrative burden of tracking the work from home agreements is this moment where we should be thinking about tracking is this. And then to go pivot back to your question, is this the moment we should be thinking about documentation and thinking about accountability, at least in the in the way that I think that governor was using the term accountability, or is this a moment we should be thinking about having real human, messy, complicated interactions with our students? And at the end of the day, certainly we have jobs and we want to keep those jobs. On the other hand, I think our first priority has to be to the students, if we're teachers, if we're educators. I think that we've made a we sort of made a pact or an agreement with the universe that are that our first priority would be the students. And so finding a way to make sure that we start from a place of having those real honest, messy, complicated interactions with students and then worrying about documentation or accountability, whatever that means in this particular moment, which honestly, I don't think it means much. I think what we'll have at the end of this at best is a smoke and mirrors version of accountability and not actual accountability. And so trying to it's the same thing with the word continuity to try and hold ourselves to continuity to suggest we could just continue business as usual is it's a it's a farce. And so I don't think that we help ourselves or our students or our institutions or even accountability if we maintain those kind of forces. Right. Right.
CM:And I want to get to the issue of access here in a second, but I think that it would be useful for educators to find at least in tangible terms what the first thing is that they would do other than just securing the learning environment, talking to students, connecting with them, etc. When we're looking at structuring a course that goes online or a virtual learning environment, where do educators even start to think about how they are going to translate their complex course into like an LMS, what would be the defining line? Because I don't think that most educators have any background or very little background in making that happen.
JS: Well, I mean, the one thing that I have been advising people is if you're already using the learning management system, if you're already using a virtual learning environment, great, keep using it. If your students already are oriented to it and it feels comfortable, it feels like a place they recognize, great to keep using it. If you're not using it already, whether at the institution or even in your individual class, I personally don't think now is the time to start. I think now is the time for us to turn to tools that we are comfortable with and tools that come naturally to us. And so I don't understand why we would put a whole bunch of time into recreating what we do, the fascinating, glorious work that we do in face to face classrooms and the hard work that we do in face to face classrooms. I don't know why we would do the work at this moment to try and take that and port it into a learning management system. I think better to start with the tools we're already using and are comfortable with. So email, text messaging. I even thought to myself, if you're really comfortable with Facebook and your students are really comfortable with Facebook and your institution would allow it, a Facebook group. To some degree, that's going to be a much better place to try and recreate the relationships that we have in face to face classrooms in an online environment than trying to get people to understand what a learning management system even is if they don't already.
CM: And two, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but part of the things that we've been attempting to plan is taking things at least from a content perspective that used to be incredibly complex and shifting them to being more of like, hey, I'm just going to introduce this thing to you. Here's some things that we can do with that. And let's just talk about it and making it a lot more simplistic while still being meaningful, as in instead of giving out like a 20 page workbook over here's how you do X, Y and Z. Hey, I'm just going to take a few minutes here, explain to you how to do this, give you some time over the course of the day, tell me what you think about it and let's talk about it, keeping things really simple. Is that type of activity structure that makes the most sense where we're currently at? Well, it's interesting that what I think that you just described is that in some degrees, I think that this will lead to some potentially really good pedagogies, sort of the pivot or the shift at its best will lead to some great peer driven student centered activities. At its worst, the moment will lead to us just trying to recreate, for example, lectures. I saw someone talking about, well, what tool am I going to use to capture my lecture? And I thought to myself, yes, if you thought that lecture was an extraordinarily important component of your class, this might actually be the moment to say, I can let go of that. I can. It's possible to teach this without a lecture. Potentially, it would be different. You wouldn't teach it as well, quote unquote, you would teach it differently. And so I think letting go is another thing that I would say becomes really important. So the simplicity means giving students work to do things that allow them to find their way into the topics or the content, but not necessarily imagining that we're just going to get all of the same content covered over the course of the rest of the term.
CM: Right. And I don't want to go too deep into this line of thought because it could be a whole podcast in and of itself. But that idea of there is kind of a silver lining, if this is done correctly, in the sense that whether it be through workplace culture or educational pedagogy, the idea of teaching online, communicating online, working from home, all these different things does have some really interesting implications for how we view content and how we view assessment, especially in standardized testing, which might get canceled at the current rate. It might not be able to happen. And then it's like, well, what was the point of preparing for it in the first place?
CM: I think that the one worry I would have is that to imagine that somehow we're going to get this big test of the capabilities of online learning, it's a false test. I mean, we're dealing with a crisis. We're dealing with an emergent situation. This isn't going to let us all see what would happen if we just all taught online. Now, what we're going to see is what would happen if we were all forced very quickly in a matter of days to suddenly start teaching online with little to no preparation in the middle of a crisis where students and faculty and administrators are facing other personal, professional issues happening around them. I mean, so it isn't a real test of anything. It's a real test of our ability to be compassionate with each other in a moment of crisis. And that, I think, is the first thing that we have. That's our first task to figure out how you do that.
CM: Right. And actually, I think that's a good segue into talking about the issue of access. We're not really prepared for this. And obviously, if you're switching to a virtual environment, not all students are going to have access to Internet or reliable Internet. What do we do in that situation? I can say really quick that something that our administration has done, which I think will ultimately prove successful, is we took all of the funds from what would have gone to like field trips or other things that we would have done at school and invest in hotspots, which is at least a start. They sell like, you know, these little hotspots, they're not that expensive for what they do. And we can just distribute those. We have their address, go drop them off and say, hey, this is something that's something we can do. Are there other things that we can do to ensure that students have access to the things that we're doing? That's an absolutely wonderful suggestion. I love the idea of actually just delivering the Internet to the students who don't have it. The thing that I would say is that the bulk of students, depending on that, depending on the age that we're talking about, but a lot of the recent statistics show that cell phone and particularly smartphone adoption is pretty widespread. Students are much more likely to have a smartphone than they are to have a computer at home. They're much more likely to have a smartphone with unlimited data than they are to have broadband Internet at home. And so thinking about making our courses and the sort of communication tools we use available to students on a device as simple as the smartphone ends up being a good place to start. Ultimately, if the VLA or the learning management system isn't mobile friendly, that's a problem. And so I think making sure that anything that we do works on mobile devices is a good starting point. But I think more important than that is making sure that anything that we ask of students has flexibility built into it. Flexibility so that every student, irregardless of their access issues, and we might be talking about their access to technology, but we might also be talking about neurodivergence. We might be talking about learning differences, learning disabilities. We might be talking about physical disabilities. And to some degree, I think what we need to do, especially when we're moving this quickly and designing this quickly, is making sure that there are tons of options and flexibility built into the course. And this means letting go of standardized learning outcomes, letting go of accountability to standardized learning outcomes. Because at this moment, what we can have is students having interesting learning experiences. We can also have students being engaged in learning in the midst of a crisis, which can be potentially good for them. I'm going to find myself at home a lot. And so having things to do is a good thing for me and also making sure that things are flexible so that at the moment that something does happen at home, at the moment that they find themselves caring for a sibling or caring for an ailing parent, that they have the flexibility already built into what we've asked them to do for them to make decisions about what they can do, when they can do it and how they're going to do it. And so this is as simple as when we ask students to do things, making sure the things we're asking them to do have alternatives already built in. So it's not here's the 10 things that you have to do and figure out a way to do it and then ask me if you need an exception. It's here are three things that you might do. Pick one of these three. Once you've picked that, go to step two, which has you doing one of these four things. And it doesn't necessarily have to be that complex. But thinking about some either or branching in our syllabus so that we're making different pathways for students to potentially go down.
CM: Right. I think that that key point of flexibility to dives into things like flexible deadlines as well as asynchronous learning. So if you're going to have like something that you post online or like you have like a conference or something that it's recorded and students have the availability, it seems I think with attendance policies, because as you just said, there's a lot of students who take care of their siblings. There's a lot of students that still have to work or they have things they have to do that they can't be there during the school day or the traditional school day. So finding ways to restructure the system itself so that it fits the need of the current societal demands just seems necessary.
JS: Well, I would say one thing that I would say about that is I think our tendency is to I've seen people talking about how many days or how long, how many hours it's going to take for them to shift their syllabus into an online environment. I think if we think about it as our goal is to create as much flexibility as possible, to be compassionate with the complex lives of our students, to some degree, simplicity ends up being our friend. And so when I just shifted my course to fully online and the thing that was easy for me this term is I already had a hybrid class, so we already had a Web page. We were already doing some things online, but we had a whole bunch of face to face stuff scheduled for the next three weeks. And so I did have to change it. But when I went into my course, I didn't add all kinds of words. Instead, I kept it as simple as I could work on your big project. It's a project based course. They have a project they're already working on. And so their activity for this week is one and only one thing for the week, work on your big project. That's the week's instructions. And I think that to some degree, that's almost absurd in its simplicity. But when we think about writing things like that that allow students to find their own way into the work, for next week, it says we'll have an open discussion about we're going to have an optional synchronous chat. We can talk maybe about synchronicity and asynchronicity because I think that's valuable to touch on. We'll have an open discussion about whatever you all need to talk about. But consider me a sounding board for any challenge you're facing with this or your other classes. I think making sure that we're creating space for students to just reflect on what's going on and reflect on their own learning. Obviously, reflecting on our own learning is good no matter what. But at a moment like this where your learning is suddenly changing and your environment is changing and your day to day life is changing so rapidly, having some moments where we just talk about that, I think becomes really important. And is that one of the learning outcomes that was in my course before today or before last week? No. Is it now? Yes. And I think it's one of the most critical ones.
CM: It's interesting to note, too, and I don't want to derail that line of thought too much, but there are many who maybe are not familiar with the technical language to communicate any of this, especially those who have never been really technologically advanced. They haven't done a lot with anything online. So when we talk about asynchronous, synchronous learning, as well as just talking about doing a conference online, that's like a whole new game for them. They're just not used to it. If you're someone who, let's say, knows someone who's not technologically capable, because I'm imagining if you're listening to this podcast, you probably are, at least to a certain degree. What suggestions would you have to help those people adapt their course in a way that makes sense to them?
JS: The thing I have already started to advise folks is that my online courses are already pretty simple. I feel like I'm pretty technically adept, but I also like to just keep technology not at the center of the work that I do. I like my courses are actually about technology. This course is digital studies, applied digital studies. So it's actually about technology. But I try to keep the technology we're using incredibly simple. So I think about having one place where you have the course live. And in this case, it's just a page. It's just a Web page. And there's lots of places that people can put up a website. And for example, if they didn't have a way to get a domain name and put up a blog, they didn't already have that. A Google document has a web link. And so just having a syllabus inside of a Google Doc ends up that can be the home base for the course. And then the other thing that I have is I have a place where I'm talking to the students. And for my course, we were already using Slack, which is a communication tool that is pretty, pretty popular in business and becoming increasingly popular in education. And so having a tool like that, Microsoft Teams, Google Chat, Google, Google Groups and Google Groups are still a thing. Odds are that your institution already is using some sort of chat functionality. And so relying on that and in lieu of that, like if that doesn't work or if that doesn't come naturally to you, email can work. You could have a whole course by email. Sure, reply all would get a little bit exhausting, but the most important thing is that you have a way to communicate and stay in touch with your students.
CM: Right. And I think there's something to be said, too, about the simplicity and just the fact that probably most likely every single teacher in the United States or close to it are going to be accessing these EdTech tools. And as a result, there's going to be a lot of traffic, a lot of bugs. We already started seeing that today. There were some teachers messing around with like Flipgrid and like those different EdTech tools, and they were crashing, bugging out. It was a disaster. So I would imagine if you were trying to do synchronous learning over an EdTech tool, expect some difficulties as we already saw some some weird stuff today.
JS: It's interesting, actually, when we talk about synchronous learning, I've seen some institutions saying that none of the online will be synchronous and other institutions saying that all of the learning has to be synchronous at the usual meeting times. And I think that is just bizarre and absurd. Like, I mean, send all the students to all parts of the you know, if they're college students, they're not residential in the state that they're not always residential in the state where their institution is. And so they might go end up in a completely different time zone and your class might have been meeting at 8 a.m. and then all of a sudden they find themselves having to get up at 5 a.m. in order to show up for the synchronous chat. I also think synchronous technologies don't necessarily they don't have the effect that people want them to have. You want to be like, how do we best make it feel like we're still in the room together? Honestly, I don't think synchronous video conferencing tools are the best way to make it feel like you're in the room together. Honestly, a Twitter chat, a Slack chat, a Teams chat, just all collaborating inside of a Google doc. Those aren't those don't involve video. It's text. But I find those to be just as intimate and just as immediate as using a video conferencing tool. And then the great thing about some of those tools is that if a student can't make it, say you do a live chat, a text chat, I'll do one in Slack next week. So all the students students show up at a particular time, start typing to each other. If five or eight of the students can't make it at that time, they just come later and they show up and they find the wreckage of our conversation and then they get to jump in and start adding their own thoughts. So there's a way in which those tools can function both synchronously and asynchronously. So you can have 50 people collaborating in a Google doc for an hour and then the other 10 people who couldn't make it can pop in later.
CM: I think that that mirrors a lot of at least what districts in our area are doing that are one to one, which is like a hybrid model. Basically, like there is synchronous learning and there still are like periods, quote unquote, but you also don't have to be there as long as you come sometime during the day and you look at everything. I mean, as we were talking about earlier, it's an emergency situation. No one really knows what to do. So we're just kind of throwing everything up against the wall and hoping that there's something that comes out of the wreckage and something that makes something some kind of sense that we could show the state government, hey, we taught school.
JS:: Well, and also that's the reason getting back to the first thing I said, talking about patience, like being patients with ourselves and with each other. Some of this is just going to be a mess and it's not going to work. And that's really OK. And honestly, I don't think that the state government's ever going to come knocking. And so to some degree, I think letting go of the idea that they are because what are they going to do? They're going to come knocking and they're going to double check everything that you did and then and then decide that some students get credit for the work that they did, but others don't. Some teacher like I like I don't see that happening in this particular situation. I think that there is a lot of oversight and I think way too much oversight of the work of teachers. I think teachers should really be trusted in order to do the work that that we do in classrooms, whether online or virtual. But I think at this moment, I don't think there's going to be as much oversight as people are worried about. Knock on knock on all the wood in my house, though.
CM: Sure, sure, sure. I agree with you, especially as the situation progresses. I mean, I don't want to sound alarmist, but realistically, it's going to go longer than even three or four weeks. And that's going to be I mean, there's no possible way to track that. So, I mean, we'll take it as it goes. Jesse, I've made up a lot of your time. I don't want to go too far over. Is there anything else that you would want to add that we didn't get to?
JS: Yeah, I think that I started with this idea of patience and now I'm thinking about how important trust is. I think one of the things with this idea of documentation or oversight or tracking is that it relies on an idea that we don't trust our students to actually learn when our eyes are not on them. And I think to some degree, that's what we have to also do is just trust that students are going to do work for the course, that if we ask students to do continue learning, they are going to continue learning and that we just trust it's going to happen and that we don't actually have to see it to prove that it happened. And I think the same thing with teachers. I think that we need to trust that teachers are going to muddle their way through and they're going to figure out stuff to do in this moment with students, stuff that matters, stuff that's meaningful, stuff hopefully that's pleasurable. I think we definitely still need learning to feel pleasurable at this moment. I really hate the idea that students will just get 10 or 15 worksheets that they have to do in the midst of all of this. I think what we need is we need to hold on to the parts of learning that that excite us the most and that we enjoy the most.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope that this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.
“Friggin’ Packets” Blog and Podcast from Cult of Pedagogy - for ideas on alternatives to masses of papers
UNICEF - Learning Through Play - for ways to introduce play-based learning to the home, primarily aimed at younger students