Zoom with Benefits

We keep missing the point about online learning

| 22 Feb 2021 | 02:45

For the past 11 months, I’ve taught college classes thanks to Zoom on topics as diverse as, well, diversity and inclusion and leadership to Bob Dylan and The Beatles. All of the classes have taken place on Zoom (which I just designated a destination!), which has meant very definite challenges in teaching.

When we started working on Zoom, just after spring break last year, I sized up the confusion in the students’ eyes. That was the right word, all right. We were too new at it to feel trapped yet. I thought about this brave new world and stressed at the start of my first Zoom lecture:

“It will be easy for all of you to feel sorry for yourselves, whether this is your first or last semester, or something in between. But understand that your challenge is to stay focused. If your enthusiasm for learning and your grades suffer, grad schools and prospective employers will see the proof in your GPA and they won’t care that you had to experience a pandemic – so did all of the other stellar students who toughed it out. Use this time as a challenge, not a source of excuses later.”

I believed every work that I spoke. The students did, too. Am I a brilliant orator? Am I a gifted communicator? Nah. Hardly! I mentioned the magic words – “your grades.” By jove, they got it!

Much is being made in the media about the pitfalls and perils of a Zoom education. Most of it is negative, too. And I can see why. Online learning is a poor substitute for the real thing, in a classroom. Students are cheated out of having real interactions with their teachers and classmates. Since learning is not as much fun, it becomes naturally more difficult for the kids to motivate themselves to do their best work.

But that’s missing the point. From where I sit, I notice something that is right in front of our eyes and yet we keep missing the point. The good kids, the ones who can push themselves to excel, will do so either in a classroom or in a Zoom situation.

Likewise, those students who prefer to be passengers on the train of education will virtually sit in the back of the online classroom and busy themselves on Instagram and Tik Tok.

My point is that the students won’t suddenly get religion and find new ways to inspire themselves on Zoom. And the kids who were pulling down A grades in a classroom won’t be likely suddenly to pack it in because they are going to school while sitting in their old bedrooms in their parents’ houses instead of a classroom on campus.

Teachers constantly beat themselves up for the deficiencies of their students. We should give ourselves a break because we don’t deserve the abuse. All we can do is try to light a fire under our charges and tell them what we think they need to know.

I try to give students the benefit of the doubt and quietly extend the odd deadline when warranted. In some small way in mid-February, I had to help two of my students who were stuck at home in Texas and coping with horrific burdens as the residents in the state lost heat and water. (The drama hit home to me in New York, a thousand miles away, when a freshman student in Houston agonized that he couldn’t attend this week’s class because of the hardships and he was typing this email very quickly because he feared that his Internet connection would go dark at any minute.)

All we can do is try to gear Zoom to fit our needs. It won’t be this way forever. I suspect that teachers and students alike will happily fall back into our old ways not long after we re-emerge in classrooms.

Anyway, we should count our blessings that we weren’t suffering during the hard times this winter in Texas.

The kids who can push themselves to excel will do so either in a classroom or in a Zoom situation ... All we can do is try to light a fire under our students and tell them what we think they need to know.