While every industry, every economy and every sphere of community has been challenged and transformed by the Covid 19 shutdown, it’s hard to imagine that any profession was thrown a more complicated curveball than education, which has had had to respond more decisively and with more lives affected as the true shape of the crisis and the state-mandated response became clear.
Mass decentralization happened swiftly. In mid-March, most schools at all levels added a week to their spring breaks and used that interval somehow to conceive and implement a plan for moving the whole enterprise from its ivory towers, art rooms, playgrounds, and science labs to online delivery via Google classroom, Zoom, and other overtaxed platforms.
In many industries, remote collaboration was already the norm, and business proceeded more or less seamlessly. In others — music clubs, for example — there were clearly no satisfactory alternatives to the old model. Education sits right in the middle. Of all the professions bound to brick and mortar, schools were fairly well positioned to make the leap. But it was hardly a simple matter.
At the college level, for instance, distance learning and low-residency programs have been a booming business for years, and are a component of virtually every institution. An infrastructure, a methodology, and a generally savvy teaching force were already in place. Of course, teaching writing online is a natural and may even offer some advantages over classroom instruction. A pottery or theater program, on the other hand, had some problem-solving to do in order to keep the class of 2020 on pace.
The further down the educational ladder you go toward pre-school, the messier the transition, and the more complex the student and family situations that the system had to accommodate. Finally, everyone is dealing not merely with the delivery of curricula and the march toward exit exams, graduations, and other educational turnstiles but also with the complex psychological reality of these times and its impact on young people. To a degree, everyone is the school social worker now.
In part one of Teaching from Quarantine we speak with Gowri Parameswaran, professor and chair of the Department of Educational Studies and Leadership at SUNY New Paltz.
Take me through this transition-by-fire to online teaching. When and how did you find out?
Since New York is at the center of the pandemic we found out almost immediately. As soon as the social-distancing mandate was imposed, we knew that something earth-shattering was happening. I kept coming to school and doing all of the things that I normally do until things became very clear and everything started shutting down one by one.
It seems a blur now because there were just so many simultaneous wheels turning that we were not quite sure what was going to happen.
I remember the morning I said goodbye to my secretary as she was being asked to work from home for the next few weeks. We have worked together for a couple of decades, and even though we’ve gone weeks without seeing each other it felt a little different this time, as though the butterfly had flapped its wings when we weren’t looking and our lives had changed in ways we are yet to fathom. “I love you, Gowri,” she said, and I had to choke back tears as I whispered back “Love you, too. Big social-distance hugs to you.”
How have you and your colleagues transitioned to online delivery? What are some of the challenges you have faced?
I’ve taught online and hybrid classes for many years, so it wasn’t a big transition for me personally, but I’m also the chair of the department and there were many people who were not familiar with online teaching tools. To their credit, the college administration started offering tutorials and workshops for getting faculty prepared almost as soon as the distancing rules were imposed. It seems ages ago now, but even last week one of the adjuncts told me that she is choosing not to teach in the fall because of the uncertainty around the teaching platforms.
As I speak to the people in my department there’s a sense of panic both for their own teaching, but also even greater concern for the students who did not quite sign up for online teaching. There is a huge divide in both the technical savvy that students have as well as the digital tools they have available to them.
Do you have concerns about what this development means for the long-term future of academics?
At a larger level, there’s been discussion about how Google and Microsoft (and other tech companies) are already planning a more dominant role within educational spaces by using this pandemic to propagate or to popularize the tools that they have.
Admittedly, there are now great tools to use online. I cannot deny it. They are easy to use. However, people are worried that this might become the new normal. I have mixed feelings because I don’t mind teaching online.
Many of our graduate students can avoid long commutes, and online classes offer them a great way to enhance their careers. However, at the larger level I feel we really have to watch out for where we are going with this and to not lose that personal element of teaching. I think it is possible to do good online teaching with some work, and if students are self-motivated and prepared, but it’s a slippery slope when this is used to justify public universities going totally online.
What’s a crisis for you seems like an opportunity to other interests
As you know, many of our educational institutions are under assault because of lack of money, lack of support, and a lack of perceived value for education. Across the country colleges are laying off workers. In Missouri, one institution laid off more than a quarter of its workers. The University of California system is laying off hundreds of people. I worry about people not having jobs or huge wage cuts across the country. Big institutions might survive but smaller ones may be closed.
Just like during other disasters, there may be creeping privatization of services in the educational sector at all levels. Naomi Klein calls this ‘disaster capitalism.’ It refers to a process where any kind of calamity is used to privatize and to bring about profits for the investor class because people unconditionally accept that somehow the private sector does the job better than the government. I work for a state institution so that is really at the top of many workers’ minds. So now is the time I think to really put up a united front to oppose those kinds of trends.
Generally speaking, how have your students handle this complete life disruption and all of the change and uncertainty is has introduced?
It has been hard for the students. Many of them come here at the age of 18 or 19, and they don’t have the skills to keep on top of their tasks and to keep with the deadlines. Regularly being in class with their teacher helps them be on task and submit their assignments on time. During the crisis, they have had to move back home where they’ve had other responsibilities, maybe looking for other jobs or taking over family responsibilities. Their parents have lost jobs so college does not seem important and then there are the smaller disruptions of the class itself.
The digital divide around the whole thing is another common issue. Students feel frustration and panic at not being able to get clarifications and confirmation from their instructors. Some of them are choosing not to come back in the fall. For a few, learning completely online may be too big of a responsibility at this phase in their lives and especially with the uncertainty around jobs and the payback a college degree would get them.
The teachers’ job during the pandemic has involved being friend and guide for their students, especially those that they’ve developed relationships with over the year.
As I mentioned before, online teaching works well for the more mature and non-traditional students. They often have full-time jobs and families, and this allows them to continue to be in college while working. In fact, our online sections at the graduate level always fill up before the face-to-face section, even at the undergraduate level.
I think the best option would really have a mix of face-to-face and online classes. Being on campus is so important. Students have an enormous opportunity to connect, network and work with other people. The future for many of these young people is very uncertain and college provides an opportunity for them to ask those big questions. At the same time, online classes provide a level of anonymity that allows students to be honest, and online classes give everyone opportunities to participate.