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CAEL Pathways Blog

The Present Environment of Not-So-Online Learning

The 2019-2020 academic year was like none we have ever seen before. There were already concerns about a decrease in first-time, full-time freshmen in undergraduate programs due to the decrease of actual freshman aged students. The truth is that many freshmen in the class of 2019 were just never born. The decrease in enrollments was the concern for fall 2019. Spring 2020 was to take a turn like no semester ever. Physical campuses were closing, and faculty were asked to pivot to digital remote learning quickly, most often without training. Students, parents, faculty, and administrators all entered unchartered territory. There was only one truth that everyone could share; no one has experience facilitating learning in a global pandemic.

Flash forward to fall 2020. There was still a great deal unknown about how the pandemic would affect the 2020-2021 academic year. Would institutions start fall 2020 late or end the semester early? Would the resident halls open and if they did, would they only allow for single occupancy? Would faculty be able to choose to teach in a remote digital format or have the mandate to teach in a traditional face-to-face modality exclusively? A new term, hyflex, entered the academy vernacular that allowed students to decide if they would attend class virtually or in person. And still, the truth remained that no one has experience facilitating learning during a global pandemic.

So where are we today? If you follow the narrative within the academy, it seems that higher education has now accepted the fact that digital learning and the use of technology is going to stay. This causes a pause and a question. (Queue the accreditation discussion.) What about the quality of instruction?  Where do synchronous deliveries using Zoom or other media fit in digital or remote learning?

Enter "Hamilton." Yes, the Broadway musical "Hamilton." This Tony-winning musical changed the landscape and parameters of the Broadway musical genre. The choreography, lighting, staging, and let's just be honest, the environment of the theater just made the experience of seeing Hamilton like no other. Then COVID. The theaters on Broadway closed as New York was hit hard due to the pandemic. How could you experience "Hamilton now?" Say hello to Disney +!

There was such excitement about Disney streaming the live production of "Hamilton." Now people who could never attend the live production could experience the Broadway musical from their home environment. This is where the quality of the "Hamilton" experience starts to diminish. You see, "Hamilton" was intentionally designed for the theater environment. At home, there are distractions. Children have demands. Knocks at the door (yes, this just happened as I was writing this very document). The kitchen, laundry room, vacuuming, and general housekeeping that is completely visible while watching the TV version of "Hamilton" calling us to take care of the responsibilities of life. Do not get me wrong. There are pleasure and knowledge to be gained via the home viewing of the Broadway musical. It is just not the same as experiencing Hamilton in the environment in which it was designed.  

This brings us to the present environment of not-so-online learning. Just like "Hamilton" was intentionally designed for the theater environment, online learning was intentionally designed for distance and remote learning using technology. The asynchronous nature of online learning is the foundation of online pedagogy. Live streaming lectures and Zoom meetings are not pedagogical online learning foundations. Just as we enjoy "Hamilton" in our home and on our TVs, it is nothing like the experience of going to the theater in the environment in which it is designed.

Understand, we did the best we could at the beginning of the pandemic. We Zoomed, texted, emailed, and found other ways to facilitate student learning. Students carrying a full credit load noted another new phrase, Zoom fatigue. Zoom fatigue is real and students have distractions at home that is just not found in the face-to-face classroom. We sent students home not understanding some of the challenges faced. Food insecurity, lack of technology, and sometimes even abuse kept students frustrated and distracted. So where do we go from here?

Digital and remote learning is not the same as online learning. There is a concern that both faculty and students will confuse the emergency interventions of the last year as intentional online program delivery. It is up to us in the academy to help train faculty in intentionally designed online learning courses with student support services front and center for the student. We go forward. Tired but with lessons learned, we go forward.

Dr. Tammy Shelton is with CapEd

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