In defence of just doing what you can during COVID-19

It’s been a tough semester. And, as it comes to an end we may feel the urge to look back on what just happened. The speed of change has been disorientating, the semester feeling like the moment right after you trip and your body can’t decide whether it’s going to fall to the asphalt or recover its balance. Yet, even before we have regained our footing we are already barelling towards semester 2. As we’re tripping over ourselves, looking backwards to see how we might move forwards, the internet and social media have gifted us an increasingly dizzying assortment of guides, articles, surveys, and op-eds on how to think about and approach ’emergency remote teaching’.

This sea of advice is not always clear or unanimous, moreso due to the lack of precedent. True there are those who are experienced in researching and supporting online learning. These educators, who have lived and breathed ‘online learning’ for years, have come up with a lot of the advice and guidance backdrop. Then there are others who have argued that what we are doing is not ‘online learning’ but emergency remote teaching and that if we were doing online learning then students’ learning experiences would be much better. Then there is the great synchronous vs asynchronous debate. One argument seems to be that synchronous teaching (e.g. a live Zoom session) is much more effective for building all-important social connections between students and teachers in the absence of face-to-face classes, as raised by one well-meaning article which then triggered rebuke and caution. Proponents of asynchronous teaching emphasise that live sessions introduce a number of cultural, technological, socioeconomic, logistical, linguistic, and other inequities for students, going as far as calling these videoconferenced classes “elitist”. Asynchronous learning (e.g. discussion boards, recorded material, Twitter chats, etc), they propose, promotes deeper reflection and engagement, and suits a wider diversity of students. If the experts can’t seem to work it out, then where do we start? Who do we trust? What is the best design for that unit we are supposed to be teaching in semester 2? Which design, tool, pedagogy, strategy, framework should we apply? What did our students think about semester 1? How did they learn most effectively?

Even mentioning this to colleagues brought out numerous similar stories of exhaustion and fatigue.

This is not to say there hasn’t been some good advice; for example, that we shouldn’t just try and replicate online what happens face-to-face, and that social connection is important. However, what many don’t seem to mention are some of the negatives: students seemingly not motivated to engage with asynchronous content that has taken us an inordinate amount of time to produce; talking to rows of dark name boxes on Zoom with a distressingly empty chat window; having only two students post to a discussion board and not knowing what the other 298 are thinking. Granted, there may be things that we could do to address these: designing feedback-infused activities that step students through pre-prepared content; using well-placed breakout rooms with engaging activities which students report back to the class on; building peer structures and discussion prompts that promote interaction and an expression of self. But perhaps the problem isn’t asynchronous vs synchronous per se, or any of the debates about what we are doing or what we call it.

Perhaps what is missing from these narratives is a bigger dose of reality around what educators are doing and experiencing while teaching during COVID-19. Educators are burning out (or already have burnt out but may have just kept going for the sake of their students). Speaking personally, by week 9 I couldn’t bring myself to enter a Zoom breakout room because I felt flat, like I had nothing to contribute anymore, and would be a further burden on my students rather than the teacher that they deserved. Even mentioning this to colleagues brought out numerous similar stories of exhaustion and fatigue. In this state the thought of moving into semester 2 is daunting to say the least. Yet, it seems we already need to start thinking about HyFlex as the campus re-opens, being even more inclusive in Zoom classes to help students better connect, designing multimodal assessments that work online, moving content to asynchronous delivery to be more equitable, all while reading about and, for many, experiencing the doom and gloom facing the higher education sector. Our students are also experiencing unprecedented and unimaginable stressors in their lives, especially international students.

So, what are we to do? We are tired, our students are tired, and we grieve for the connections with others that have been degraded through extended but necessary lockdown. What if we can’t bear to think of another discussion prompt or make another video or create another activity or enter another breakout room? Honestly, I don’t have any answers.

Perhaps just doing what we can, instead of what we could, is enough for pandemic teaching. Maybe it has to be.

In discussing this recently, my colleague Jess Frawley said: “Sometimes I feel like there is the expectation if we just find more tips, more articles, more information, improve the course more, provide more pastoral support etc that we can overcome everything. Except that we can’t.” She was referring to an article by James Lang which highlighted that students’ expectations and experiences of university druing COVID-19 went far beyond their courses and the classroom. We can apply this more generally to teaching during COVID-19. Faced with an avalanche of resources, guides, and (soon) USS results, what do we take forward into semester 2? As hard as it is, perhaps it is the acceptance that we can’t fix it all. We can’t make everything as great for our students as we would like it to be. As students face hardship and worry, it is impossible and undesirable for us to negate these emotions or assume that a tip or a trick might easily solve them. And maybe that’s OK. Perhaps just doing what we can, instead of what we could, is enough for pandemic teaching. Maybe it has to be.

… all our educators should be celebrated because we have done what we can.

In her article, In Defence of Small Teaching, Jess writes, “In these instances it may be useful to focus less on exceptionality and rather on what is good and, more importantly, what is feasible.” While she was writing in 2017 about balancing teaching and research, the same lesson could apply to teaching during COVID-19. Throughout this crisis, our team has had the privilege of not only trying to assist the University in distilling and applying the avalanche of advice, but the even greater privilege of seeing educators from all faculties and schools make incredible shifts in their teaching. Some of these shifts have been sizeable, but we have been even more encouraged by the shifts that are relatively more feasible but have had important impacts on students. From seismic transformations of large swathes of assessment online, to simple approaches that keep Zoom classes human, all our educators should be celebrated because we have done what we can.

As we move into semester 2, our team’s aims include bringing to the University ideas and approaches that will hopefully be, above all, feasible and human. The symposium that we are planning for 8 July focuses on ‘ordinary people teaching well during extraordinary times’ – things that are simple, effective, and a little bit different because of COVID-19. The winter intensive of the Modular Professional Learning Framework will also focus on small but hopefully impactful things you can do in your teaching, as well as providing wider ideas if you ‘can’. In planning for semester 2, maybe we can apply the simple lessons from this US academic about avoiding COVID-19 burnoutfind your purpose, practice compassion, seek out connections, and strive for balance. Focus on just doing what we can – perhaps this is modeling humanity in your Zoom classes instead of developing whiz-bang breakout activities; or helping students to see a purpose in their classes instead of recording hours of flashy PowerPoints; or just asking how students are doing when responding to their queries.

It’s not easy learning nor teaching during COVID-19. Let’s take it easy on ourselves and just do what we can. You will be great.


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