Doctor… Can you hear me?
Having gone home after the 12th of March 2020, I couldn’t help but wonder how my students would ever cope if we had to close down. On Thursday before we left campus, and to most of my students’ surprise, I insisted we do a dry run in class where everyone would have to download, install, and join a trial Zoom meeting. I’m sure at this point no one had the slightest hint how our well over next 9 months would be spent.
As I had always felt comfortable using technology in teaching my entire life, I assumed if we had to implement a fully online approach, I’d automatically be doing great. I normally use the online/technology modality to enhance teaching and give my students an opportunity to be independent. Over the week that followed, like most faculty, I attended the CLT workshops intended to help us with the switch. I felt all questions were answered, but something was incomplete. Basically, Zoom was going to substitute for the face-to-face instruction; other tools, such as Padlet, hypoths.is, and Google-based products were to help provide other forms of support for students. In the Department of Rhetoric and Composition, a wide array of skills and competencies are addressed during the course of one semester. College-level composition, research, presentation skills, and critical thinking skills are some. In all circumstances, a high level of engagement is required for students to guarantee skill acquisition. Interaction in the form of class discussions, debates, teamwork, and one-on-one meetings are incorporated in the context of traditional face-to-face instruction.
The first week of online instruction went by; few students had serious connection issues. I sent recordings to those who requested them. Did they view the sessions they missed? Did they have friends in class they could ask for help? I encouraged students to post follow-up questions to the class platform in an attempt to foster a healthy online community; very few complied, nevertheless. I thought this was an indication everything was under control. It wasn’t before the end of the third week that I realized some of my students were present during the Zoom session, but could be missing most of the instructional content. I wrote to those I thought might be struggling in silence and started to set one-on-one meetings through Zoom. It was only then that I realized everybody was struggling.
Students, please join the breakout room!
A casual email I received from a student indicated he was experiencing severe anxiety and was prescribed medication, but he never knew if his case should be reported in case he needs accommodation. I am sure among the many pamphlets, brochures, and flyers the students received during FYP, there was one referring those who needed it to the Center for Student Well-being, but it must have slipped him. Due to the lack of interaction, my students were not aware of the many services available to them. Before lockdown, a lot of random, but very useful, information was exchanged. A student would make a random comment about a problem; others would make recommendations or share experiences. This was no longer there and was replaced by the many links to online content sent by the different offices at AUC. Using Zoom breakout rooms to share university experiences as a practice I tried to introduce to substitute for this missing aspect of communication. Students might feel exposed if they share their personal struggles in the presence of the instructor, so in breakout rooms, they might feel a bit safer. We then come back to the main room and share the findings. Nothing can replace face-to-face communication, but at these times, students needed a venue to discuss personal experiences and to learn there were solutions they might not have thought of or were aware existed.
My students surprising me on the last day of classes with notes that expressed appreciation
An email by the Provost addressed to all faculty contained “a personal plea” to “exhibit more sympathy and empathy” for our struggling students (E. Abdel-Rahman, personal communication, November 12, 2020). I know we are not doing it intentionally, but sometimes we go overboard - both within and beyond our classes - which might not be in the direction the students need the most at these critical times.