Opinion: Teaching online and teaching remotely are not the same. I was terrified to start. But we adapted and thrived, even. And the experience itself proved to be a lesson.
Teaching college journalism remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic forcibly separated me from my students, who scattered from Mexico to Canada and throughout the United States.
To my surprise, I got closer to them.
The intimacy of entering their homes twice a week revealed things I might not have learned in a traditional classroom. I learned a student’s sister is a nurse whose hospital did not have enough N95 masks, that a student’s father was delivering mail without protective gear and that another is dating a San Francisco 49ers wide receiver.
I also learned that my undergraduate and graduate students, including a “dreamer” and a former U.S. Marine staff sergeant assigned to a reconnaissance unit in Iraq, were capable of submitting excellent work despite the sudden upheaval.
My curriculum did not change, although some of the ways they completed assignments did.
We had 5 days to make this shift
Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism announced on March 11 that it would start teaching remotely five days later. Our dean, Chris Callahan, directed the staff to ensure that faculty and students would get the support they needed to maintain the same high level, deep learning. I had three Zoom meetings on how to do this.
I was still terrified. Teaching online and teaching remotely are not the same. Teaching remotely for me involved a live classroom with 33 students in one class. That’s a lot of little boxes displayed across multiple screens. It’s easy to get lost as you navigate those screens while monitoring student live chat.
At the beginning of one class, I played the final moments from the movie “JoJo Rabbit,” in which the only piece of dialogue is: “What do we do now?” The response of the two characters, who realize the war has ended in Germany, is to slowly nod their heads and move their hips until they’re both dancing with confidence and joy.
I told my students, “We are going to dance through the rest of the semester. I am just not sure of all the steps right now.”
How do you tell stories from home?
Students in my reporting class were prohibited from leaving their homes to tell their stories. They would no longer have access to the school lab’s equipment. But they still had to deliver clear pictures and crisp sound from their phones and laptops. The writing had to have focus and structure — the very thing their lives now seemed to lack.
Their first quarantined assignment was a video diary called “Life in Coronavirus Land.” One student opened her piece with a shot of her alarm clock and the caption, “Time to do nothing AGAIN.” Her track said she didn’t know what day it was, she had lost all three of her part-time jobs, and this self-realization: “I miss social structure.”
The classes helped give the students – and me – some of the normalcy we craved. We learned the pros and cons of teleteaching together. I reminded students to mute their microphones but not their cameras; I wanted to see them.
Yet students adapted and performed
My business journalism class had to do group presentations – now in different time zones – on how to improve content and increase revenue at two news outlets. They were still expected to give a seamless presentation before managers from those very organizations.
The chief strategy officer at a Midwest radio group asked students to contact him directly to work with him on one of those ideas.
There was always the fear that the internet would go down. It did — just before class. I hosted a class with 37 people on my phone thanks to several urgent consultations with the trained therapists also known as the school’s IT staff.
All this adversity provided a valuable life lesson. My students had to adapt and perform in spite of unwelcome living arrangements, restraints on their social lives and endless questions. What about my summer internship? Are there going to be any jobs when I graduate? And when can I go out with my friends again for Taco Tuesdays in Tempe?
We didn’t know all the steps when we were first thrust into the remote classroom, but by semester’s end, we were dancing in sync.
Susan Lisovicz is a Donald W. Reynolds Visiting Professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University. Reach her at email@example.com; on Twitter, @SusanLisovicz.