Virtual Class Reality: Mastering the Transition

Dan:     American education has obviously undergone a transformation in light of the Coronavirus, and the impact on higher education is part of that. Most of the attention in the media has been focused on K through 12, rightfully so, but I thought it might be worthwhile to get a glimpse into what it’s like at ground zero in the classroom with some teachers who have to implement the complete change to online instruction. To that end, I have two teaching professionals on the line with me. I’m delighted they’re here – I know both of them and think the world of them. Heather Mydosh has her MFA in poetry from the Stone Coast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, and a Master of Letters in comparative literature and thought from the Center for Modern Thought at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She currently teaches composition and literature at Independence Community College, where she serves as the Chair for Arts and Letters. Margie Yaroslaski has her MS in management from Friends University. She’s been teaching full-time for over 16 years. She currently teaches communication and leadership courses at Independence Community College. Thank you both for joining me.

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Dan: I can’t imagine that the shift to all online has been easy. Marg, let’s get your take first. What was it like for you personally to shift over?

Marg:   I was grateful that I taught a lot online, but I think there were many hurdles, both psychological and then just technical, to get over. I was really attached to my face-to-face classes, and to lose that attachment was really very sad, and then just moving technically a course over to online requires like a million buttons to get pushed in the right order. And so it just was tedious and time-consuming to make the actual shift.

Dan:     Heather, what was it like for you?

Heather:           Well, first of all, thank you for having me as, isn’t that what they always say on NPR when you have a guest on like All Things Considered? (laughs)

Dan:     Well, we are delighted you’re here. (laughs)

Heather:           It was an interesting it was an interesting challenge. I also have taught both of the major courses that I am currently teaching online in previous semesters. So there wasn’t as much flailing perhaps as there would have been if I had to take a course that I had not previously offered in an online modality to an online delivery method over the time that we had. But as Marg said, they talk in the medical industry about the, you know, death by a thousand clicks. And that’s really what the switch over was – completely overhauling how we interact with our students and doing so in the midst of being really actively worried about them. You know, our students have gone out into an uncertain world with huge demands on them, and we’re then trying to figure out how we will both uphold rigor and support them while also teaching them. We were very fortunate in that we had an air gap provided by spring break, and then an additional week over which to puzzle and to really cogitate and think on things and then make some well -out decisions, which I think everybody took really great advantage of. Being conscientious and flexible with our students is really the backbone of what we decided to do.

Dan:     I’m really glad that you brought up the issue of the students because I think that’s where I really want to go next. All of us who’ve taught at the community college level know that student access to technology varies widely. So Heather, start there. What’s been your experience in the last couple of weeks about your students’ ability to switch to this new way of doing business?

Heather:           Most of my students are interacting with our learning management system on their phones, which makes it difficult for me to offer them advice because I primarily interact with it on my laptop. I grade on my laptop – that’s fine. But it means that I can’t figure out how to tell them what thing you click here and then you click there. So that’s been problematic. I am very, very grateful that all of our students have access to Office 365, which means that they have access to their One Drives and to the Microsoft Office Suite. That makes my job as a composition teacher quite a bit easier. It doesn’t fix the issue of trying to type a paper on your phone. Our students have, like I said, gone out into a world where maybe they have access to the internet, maybe they don’t.

They’ve become full-time caregivers; they’ve become the pillars of their families and societies that they were, but now in a very immersive way. They don’t have the time that they would have had when they were safely on campus. So the switchover for them has been technologically disadvantageous, let us say, but the greater issue is that they’re nervous. They don’t want to screw it up. So they don’t trust that they understand when as a teacher is an interesting thing; yes, I want to have you ask that question, but I also want you to have a sense of your own agency. You can figure it out. You are smart, more brave, you are kind, you can do it. But right now, I think we’re all just a little shaky.

Dan:     Actually, I have no doubt that this is a little tough for you. Some of our listeners may remember Heather from season four of Last Chance U, in which she has shown as a very caring, involved teacher. I can certainly attest to that, having worked with her at independence community college. And actually, although our listeners did not get the same chance to see Margie Yaroslaski in action, I know that there’s the same kind of heavy, hands-on interaction with the students. Marg, can you talk a little bit about your experience, how your students have dealt with this change?

Marg:   So one of the things that’s been really interesting is creating face-to-face time with them. Because one of the main things I’m teaching is public speaking. If we had started off teaching online public speaking, and we handled it in a very non-face-to-face way, but all of these folks had been in a face-to-face classroom and developed a classroom culture. And I felt like that face-to-face need was critical for their success. And so we’ve been coming into Microsoft teams and doing video conferencing with them, and it’s been a joy to see them reconnect with each other and being so glad to see each other. And I think it’s been kind of affirming for me to see them. Like, they’ll come on, and they’ll be like talking to each other and checking in with each other, and today they all had to practice kind of putting on their camera and their microphone because next week they give their first speech. And it was so funny because some of them couldn’t do it. And again, like Heather said, I’m not seeing their view, I’m seeing a different view. My students immediately reached out and helped each other problem solve and talk through it. And I had a student kind of having a panic attack, he couldn’t figure it out. And one of his classmates was like, okay, this is what you need to do and talked him through it. And it’s been astonishing to see them do that. Currently, out of my 60 students have only had like two, not in my public speaking class, not make this transition. And I have phone calls with both of them tomorrow to get them in. But they are a tenacious, stubborn group of people, and they’re going to get this done.

Dan:     That’s terrific. I’m smiling the whole time you’re describing this. The now just to make sure the listeners understand the timing of this podcast, the college, as Heather mentioned, had a week of spring break to sort of ramp up their sort of online instruction. So the people who weren’t teaching online could make that transition. And I believe you are just finishing the first full week?

Marg: So this is our second full week of the new system, the new paradigm.

Dan:     So, Heather, can you follow up on Marg’s answer? She was explaining how the students were struggling and achieving success. What’s your experience been about the kinds of struggles or successes that you’ve seen across the college?

Heather:           Well, my students in composition… writing is lonely work, and it’s you and the paper and the midnight oil. So we elected not to go with synchronous communication because I have that luxury because I’m not teaching public speaking, and I can encourage them that you can work on this when you have time and not on a set schedule, because they’re all pulling crazy hours doing shift work and, and helping out and doing all the wonderful things they do. What I’ve been really heartened to see is that on the couple of discussion boards that I have put up, all of the comments back and forth between them, they ask if their classmates are okay? Are you okay? Are you safe? What’s it like there? How are you doing? And so it’s interesting, delightful, it’s heartening. It’s heartwarming to see them reach out to each other and offer really genuine encouragement. Yeah. I’m really worried about this too. Yeah. I don’t really know what I’m doing either, but we’re going to figure it out. It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get back. And that’s been over and over and over again. I’ve had brought home to me how generous of spirit so many of my students are and that’s, that’s really helped when I’ve gotten a bit down in the mouth.

Marg: My students do not start or end a conversation with me without checking in on my safety. Are you okay, Miss Marg? Everything okay there? And that’s been a consistent presence with them. And so it’s just been amazing to see.

Dan:     I was delighted to hear that because of course, I was wondering about, aside from the technology barriers, how your students are coping? I’m delighted of course that they sort of reach out to each other, but I’m wondering, what’s your assessment about how they are coping in internally with this?

Heather: We’re having some really open conversations about anxiety. We’re having some very open conversations about from students who have struggled with depression and who have lived with it, who are saying, today was rough. Today I was sad. Maybe they dropped me a text and say, Hey, today wasn’t great. And I say, okay, that’s okay. I think it’s really important that we not diminish their fears or dismiss them. But I’m not a licensed counselor; I’m not a therapist. I’m not pretending to offer any kind of mental health guidance, other than trying to be a good teacher and carrying them at least a little bit through it. And I have also found that my students do the, No, I really do want to work on this. No, I don’t want to withdraw from this class. No, I want to keep going because this is what’s going to help me make it normal. This is the thing I can, this is the thing I can control. I can write my research proposal. I’m not sure how to write it. And I’m going to ask you a million questions about it, but I’m going to write it, and it means I’m still a college student on that part of my identity hasn’t been stripped away by a virus.

Dan:     Marg, what do you think?

Marg:   So the thing that I’ve observed is, if you think about kind of stress responses, sometimes students’ higher-order thinking isn’t as accessible for them. So problem-solving becomes a little bit of a challenge. I had a student today who’s had a really hard time getting into the video conference, our team meetings and he’s just pissed. He’s like, I’m losing points, I can’t handle this. And, I was like, okay, it’s fine. We’ll just set up a phone call and we’ll fix it. And as soon as I offered him a solution, he calmed down and, and we talked on the phone and we worked out some solutions. But I think when our students feel threatened there, like I said, their higher-order thinking kind of gets blocked. And we have to, as the faculty, you have to put them in a situation where their brain can calm down and quit surviving, and really start thinking through solutions. And when we create that space for them, I think it’s a huge trust fall on their part to do it, right? So today when I was like, he was texting with me, and I’m like, it’s going to be fine, we’re going to fix this, you could see him start to calm down. But that meant he had to trust me that I was going to offer him a solution and not just, you know, hand ’em out zeros. So it’s a bit of an interesting relationship test, I think, that we’re going through with all of our students.

Dan:     Thank you. You know, when you talk about that kind of struggle, it makes me think about this… I know this is an unpleasant subject, but retention is an issue throughout higher education. Retention in community colleges is particularly an issue; retention is typically lower in community colleges than throughout the rest of higher education. And you’re both experienced community college teachers; what do you think will be the impact if this continues into the summer or, God forbid, into the fall?

Marg: I don’t want it to go into the fall. No, Dan, that’s not okay. (laughs) My students have all said, okay, I don’t like this. I want to do this in the classroom. I’m not happy about this, but I’m going to do it. And I think we talked about it today in one of my meetings. I’m like, you guys are, you know, your goals are in, in good order, you’re marching forward. This is going to end. But these are people who thrive, I think in a classroom environment that’s designed to kind of support and help them. These are not the students that thrive regardless. And so I am worried this doesn’t get resolved. We’re going to reach the end of their gas tanks, and they will – I have a guy that’s working at 13-hour shifts every day. He emailed me, and he’s like, when am I going to come to class? I’m working 13 hours a day, and I’m like, okay, well, which days are you off? And he’s like, no, in March, seven days a week. I’m working, Sundays is short day, he works four hours. So what does he do? He’s moving parts in a warehouse and apparently is classified as essential. I asked him this week, are you still working? He’s like, yeah. So he comes home at the end of a 13-hour day, and he’s taking five classes at this college. Five. So you know, I don’t know, I’d be curled up in a ball if I were him.

Dan: I know! I want to give him a hug! (laughs)

Marg: (laughs) I mean, that’s the thing. I was like, I, I don’t know how you’re going to do it. And yet Monday night at eight o’clock his team met, he showed up in the video conference, was cheerful, ask questions, helped other people in the process. One of my students was having a hard time coming up with what he was supposed to do, and the student jumped in and gave him advice, and I’m like, yeah, I don’t know why this guy isn’t running the country.

Dan:     Heather, Marg described how her students do best in a, I don’t think she used this this phrase, but the traditional sort of classroom environment where they’re directly supported in person. What’s the experience like from your perspective? I know you’re teaching a different subject. I know that you may have a different group of students. Can you comment on what she said?

Heather:           Composition is something that a lot of my students come in with a great number of hang-ups about. They’re convinced they’re bad writers. They’re sure they can’t possibly find enough to say, to fill a page, not unlike what I think a lot of Marg’s students feel about their discomfort with public speaking, or we do not teach necessarily the sexy subjects at community college. My students are used to being able to walk in and show me a draft, and that’s harder now they’re coping with it, but it’s harder. And when we talk about retention, I couldn’t teach the way I do it at ICC at a school where I had 300 students in a section. I couldn’t track them down in the same way because there aren’t enough hours in the day. So I don’t know. I don’t know what our numbers; nobody knows what our numbers will look like. Certainly, if this whole situation continues into the fall, I am sure that there are students who I had who I will never see again. And that saddens me. I am doing everything in my power to make sure that this isn’t the end of their college career. And that’s what that translates to is the individual messages, the conference thing that Marg is talking about where we figure out, okay, what is your situation? How can we, how can we come up with a solution for your problem? How can we work through this? I have students, now literally around the globe, who are trying to figure it out for themselves with me and each other. So to that end, their resilience is just remarkable. These are not students who had it easy before, and they don’t have anything now, but that’s what they’ve cut their teeth on. I do worry about the ease of ignoring an online class, because we all have a limited amount of bandwidth, and once your bandwidth is soaked up, you can’t take in anymore. So I do worry about that a little bit. But that’s where our persistence shows up, and we’re very lucky at ICC to have a network that really does support student success. There were students who I had not had any success in contacting to see whether or not they have their textbook for our introduction to literature class, and our navigator team, who are our advisors and sort of life coaches, helped me track them down. They helped me make calls and find them. And we did, in the space of about 36 hours, identify who amongst my three full sections of introduction literature didn’t have the textbook and we got them their textbooks. ICC is nimble in a way that I think a lot of other academic institutions are not. And that nimbleness means that we are responding to this situation in real-time, which I very much appreciate.

Marg: Yeah. I had some students not come in, Dan, and I reached out to coaches, and within 10 minutes, students had responded to me, and it was hysterical because the coaches are like, get into Miss Marg’s class and they did it. And you know, that was really helpful for me because it completely reduced my no-show number down to almost nonexistent.

Heather: I mean it does make your email notification sound like they’re, they’re having a tiny little rave, you know, the bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, they all come in. (laughs) I would much rather have that than silence.

Dan:     Heather mentioned having students around the globe, which is a good segue into my final question for the both of you. This podcast is heard by educators in, at last count, 29 countries, many of whom are facing the same challenges, the same sense of isolation. Both of you are experienced teachers. Can I put you on the spot and ask you to put that experience to work for your colleagues? What advice would you give your colleagues, the listeners to this podcast? Heather, what do you think?

Heather:           I think in this time we have to be, yes, flexible, but also kind. We need to be kind with students. We need to be kind with our peers and our administrators, and perhaps most essentially ourselves; be kind to yourself. Is this how you thought this was going to go? Of course not. Is that the way you wanted to deploy that assignment? Not in any way. Is it going to be okay? Will the students learn things? Yes. Will they learn them in the demonstrable way that you had hoped to assess? Perhaps not. And that’s okay, letting that be okay. We all pride ourselves on our rigor and our dedication to student learning. Just be gentle.

Dan:     Thank you. Marg, what do you think?

Marg:   So a couple things to add to what Heather said: First of all, I think we have to acknowledge some loss here. I am experiencing incredible loss as a result of this change. And I think then it has to be kind of acknowledged, and for a moment kind of pause and, and see that. I think sometimes Midwesterners are just like, no, no, just suck it up and move on. And I think some kind of moment of, almost moment of silence, let’s mourn this semester we thought we were going to have, that could be really helpful. And I think that one of the things that I see is that because we’re working in isolation, we tend to lose some empathy. I’ve had some emails or text responses telling me how busy somebody is and kind of coming across as maybe I’m bothering them with my request because they’re just so busy. And I’m like, Oh yeah, I’m just sitting eating bonbons and having a spa day, so tell me how busy you are. And I think that because we’re working separately, we forget the other people are working their asses off too. And so in our moment of separation, I think we have to really remember the other person is under strain. And I think that one of the things that I wish everybody would do is ask me what I need, not tell me what I need. I’ve gotten many emails saying, Oh, here’s something you need. And I’m like, Nope, don’t need it. Don’t have time to even read the email. And what I’ve really appreciated are those emails that have come in saying, Hey, what can I do for you to help you be successful? Asking that question and opening that space has men really meaningful for me and helped me kind of slow down and really thoughtfully answer that.

So those are some things that I’ve kind of observed in this transition on things that I think could make a difference as we’re doing this. And then one final thing I’m going to say, is that I don’t want institutions around the world to make knee jerk responses to this as though it’s a new paradigm. We’re in the middle of a crisis. This crisis is gonna go away and we’re gonna return to kind of business as usual. I don’t want us to pretend this is the new normal. So as an example of what we were talking about, I was with the VPAA in a phone conversation. He’s like, Oh, well, maybe we need to hire a specialist in online learning. And I’m like, no, we need to hire an instructional resource person that can support all kinds of learning. I get we’re all online right now, but that’s not the permanent state of our college. A very small portion of our college is online. We don’t need a full-time online person. We need an instructional support specialist. So I get very nervous when I hear people based on this kind of crisis wanting to permanently shift to support the needs of this crisis and spending resources. And then you’re committed to it for a year, when in September I need somebody to help me design a class that meets somebody that has dyslexia or those kinds of things. So that’s kind of my advice.

Dan:     Thank you. My guests have been Heather Mydosh, who currently teaches composition and literature at Independence Community College, where she serves as the Chair for Arts and Letters, and Marg Yaroslaski, who has been teaching full-time for 16 years and currently teaches communication and leadership courses at Independence Community College. Thanks to both of you for joining me.