Sharla Berry, an assistant professor of educational leadership and expert in the dynamics of online classes, talks about teaching through and beyond an emergency.
It turns out that videoconferencing is exhausting. Are people learning this with the pandemic, Dr. Berry, or did we already know? Sure, if you just look up Zoom fatigue, it’s a real thing. We’re doing different things to our eyes, to our backs, to our bodies. When you’re teaching a physical class, you’re walking and moving around. When you’re sitting at a screen, that’s a different experience overall.
Each time you log on to a class or a Zoom meeting, you probably have other tabs open. People might be messaging you. It’s really hard to stay focused in 2-D versus 3-D. It’s just a different type of engagement.
And mind you, we’re at a time when not only are our professional interactions being transferred into this way of communicating, but so are our personal ones. Many folks might start off the day with a phone call to family members in another state, a Zoom call to the students, and text messages.
We’ve already been hyperconnected, and now, if my friends want to hang out, that’s on Zoom, too. There’s no break. Everything is through the screen.
Nobody wants that. We’ve never been at this point in all of human history. Think about it. Until March, we’ve never been at a time where we communicated exclusively through screens. In fact, in early talks about the internet, that was the horror: People would be so connected to their devices they wouldn’t connect with other people. Now, our primary form of interaction is through the screen, and it’s disorienting.
What are you hearing from other educators, and does your research help you to make sense of it? This has been a big shock for everyone, as folks are being forced to make major adjustments to how they teach. But there is a difference between emergency remote instruction and online teaching. My research is really about contexts where folks had planned to use technology to teach. Now we are using technology to teach through an unprecedented context.
It’s worth noting that the technology is the easy part. We can do webinars and we can use Zoom, but teaching through a crisis is the harder part. My research is about creating communities in online classrooms. Community is at the heart of a successful experience, and that’s what most educators want to know how to create and maintain. Educators are asking questions like, “How do I connect with my students? How do I support them? How can technology be a facilitator of that?”
You write about a need to replace certain social interactions. There’s no water cooler in an online class. There’s no “We’re all getting coffee before class” or having casual conversations about the basketball game. So, as an instructor, you have to put some of that in your class. In a synchronous class, that might mean ceding some of your class time to letting folks share what’s going on. In the asynchronous class, it might mean using discussion boards to allow students to check in and share personal updates. It’s about creating intentional opportunities for personal interaction.
Doing this might take more time in the beginning. You’re reestablishing norms. You’re building a different type of rapport. You’re also tending to folks during a crisis. So spending time checking in and helping your class bond as a group becomes even more important.
How else do you build community at a distance? One of the best practices around building online communities is to reach out early and often through personalized messages.
I teach in our doctoral program. We’re smaller, so I can email each student and say Hey, how are you doing? I can check in with them on a more personal level. If instructors can’t do that, they can use the discussion boards that we have in Blackboard and post something like: How is everyone doing? Please share a personal or professional update about your week. The instructor can follow that up by commenting on posts and encouraging students to comment on their peers’ posts.
Allowing students to share and then responding to what they share lets them know that they are cared about, and that the class is not just about submitting an assignment, but about having a shared supportive experience.
Please explain what “social presence” is. Researchers Garrison, Anderson and Archer use this term to talk about the ability to establish yourself as real in a virtual environment. When we’re thinking about it in a classroom, it’s this ability for an instructor and the student not to feel like either person is a talking head. When social presence is cultivated, you feel like you are in a virtual space with a person with real interests, a real background, real feelings and to whom you can make authentic connections.
Have software tools evolved so that social presence is easier to produce than it once was? Absolutely. Some of the students I worked with in my early research had received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the ’80s and ’90s. They had seen distance learning through a lot of iterations including VHS or literal correspondence courses, where you listened to an audio cassette or videocassette and dropped your assignments in the mail. What we have access to is far more than that. Just the ability to see someone in real time is a great connector. With the technology that we have now, there are many more opportunities to connect.
During this crisis, what advice are you giving other educators? Be flexible. Anticipate that the crisis may require a streamlining, a reduction of curriculum or how you deliver your content. It doesn’t mean a total reduction in quality, but we are going to have to be realistic about how our courses may be altered. When we’re realistic, it opens up space for students to also be realistic and honest.
Our students and instructors have done a wonderful job in trying to rise to the occasion. On top of work and school, we all have families and personal commitments. None of us knows what each week will look like. So faculty and students have to try to keep lines of communication open. They have to be open to constant negotiation and renegotiation regarding what a class might look like, when assignments might be due, and other things.
This may last a long time. What should we expect from remote instruction months after the emergency started? It is my hope that faculty, staff, student communities come together to co-create the kind of experiences that would serve all of our students. It’s going to take flexibility and open-mindedness.
The stronger we become with online teaching and learning, the better positioned we will be for the future. As our students enter the workforce, they may well be on international teams. They will have to use technology to make connections. Or, they may be on a domestic team but be a remote worker. So, the ability to teach and learn in virtual environments will continue to hold value after the current crisis passed.