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21 Mar 2020

Semester, interrupted – I’m pretty sure everyone is feeling the effects of COVID-19 these days. For me, the biggest change to life has been the way the spring semester has been conducted so far. Even before the Daegu outbreak, SNU had pushed back the start of the semester by two weeks. We then received notice that the first two weeks of class would be conducted remotely (or, literally, “not face-to-face”). We were given three options: 1) to post materials to the online class management system, known as eTL (for electronic Teaching and Learning), and evaluate student performance through various written assignments; 2) to record our classes in advance, either using full video or syncing up audio to a PowerPoint presentation; or 3) to conduct live classes on a conference-calling platform.

“My frustration here is probably mostly due to me being old and preferring to do things the ‘old-fashioned way.’”

The first two options did not appeal to me at all, as they basically eliminated any sort of instructor-student interaction. Neither of these options would work for my graduate seminar, which is predicated on such interaction, or my undergraduate class, which is also usually a very interactive affair. As far as I was concerned, live online classes were really the only option. I took some time last week to learn the system that we would be using, and it seemed fairly straightforward. I wasn’t too worried about the technological aspect of things, but I was a little worried how much interactivity there would actually be with a class of fifty students.

I am now at the end of the first week of classes, having survived two sessions of the undergraduate class and one session of the graduate seminar. I only have two students in my graduate seminar this semester, which is the fewest students I’ve ever had in a class, but this might actually be a blessing in disguise, as it is relatively easy to conduct a live online class with only three participants in total. The only difficulty we had was that one of the students was having problems with her headset mic, but hopefully that will be fixed by next week’s class.

The undergraduate class was a different story. Like I said above, there are about fifty students in the class—I actually started with 54, but I’ve lost a few due to exchange programs being canceled, etc.—and this makes for a very different experience. In my first class on Tuesday, I spent a half hour calling roll. That probably sounds ridiculous, and it is, but in addition to the time it usually takes me to confirm how to pronounce students’ names or determine which names they actually go by (this class is mostly exchange and foreign students from around the world, so proper pronunciation of names is a real challenge) I also used roll call as an opportunity to have each student test their mic and video to make sure I could hear and see them. Thursday’s class was a little more frustrating because I wasted about ten minutes attempting to launch a poll for the class; despite having changed the settings to allow for polls, and despite having created a poll that actually appeared on the meeting page in my account, I could find no way to actually launch the poll during class. I eventually gave up in frustration and did things “manually,” reading out the options and having the students use the “raise hand” option (a little hand icon appears next to their name in the participants panel) to vote.

This is one of the primary sources of frustration for me so far: Things that would normally be relatively simple to accomplish in person become much more difficult in an online class, even with all the functionality that the platform offers. Take writing on the chalkboard or whiteboard, for instance. The program does have a whiteboard function, and I can share this screen with all the students, but one downside of screen sharing is that you cannot have the participants panel up at the same time. My original idea for the poll was to have the options up on the whiteboard, but then I realized that I wouldn’t be able to see the students raising their hands. It is niggling little things like this, things that I could not have predicted but which are gradually making themselves known as I attempt to do things in real time, that frustrate me.

Also frustrating is the nature of the interaction with students. Technically, I can see students if they have their cameras on, but with fifty students only so many students can be on screen at once. There is a little bar of tiles across the top of the screen, but this can only fit three or four tiny tiles, so most of the students are just names in the participants panel. The platform also tracks whoever is speaking at any given moment, switching to their camera so that they occupy the center of the screen, which makes sense if you have a limited number of participants. With fifty students in the class, though, I found the focus jumping back and forth between students whenever they made any little noise. One of the methods of interaction we had agreed on on the first day was to have students raise their hands and then speak when I called on them (much like you would do in person), and in situations like that the shifting focus works great—the student asking the question appears in the center of my screen, so I can see them as well as hear them. The random jumping around was far more common, though, and very distracting. I told students to mute their mics when they weren’t talking, but somehow this did not seem to help. I guess some students forgot to mute their mics again after speaking, and I can’t be spending all my time policing this.

The other method for asking questions was to simply type questions in chat. I was much less enthused about this method, as I feared it would make me feel like a streamer and be even more distracting—and I was not wrong. The raise-hand-and-speak method is not too clunky, but for a generation raised online, it is definitely more inefficient than just typing directly in chat. The problem with that is that I had students interrupting me frequently. Granted, most of these interruptions were either valid questions or helpful comments—like when a number of students were trying to help me figure out the polling—but it is still the virtual equivalent of having numerous students shouting out simultaneously in class. I was also surprised to see students typing things in chat that were neither questions nor helpful suggestions. I wasn’t too bothered by students replying to other students in chat, but occasionally students would just post random comments or jokes—like the student who, when I gave up on the polling function, typed: “Technology 1, Professor 0.” OK, I’ll grant that it was a little funny, but it was also a little frustrating at the time. I’m willing to admit that my frustration here is probably mostly due to me being old and preferring to do things the “old-fashioned way.” I don’t blame my students for taking advantage of the affordances of the platform—I wasn’t angry at the student who posted that quip above or anything. But that doesn’t stop me from being frustrated with the whole experience.

And although my students are probably not having nearly as hard a time as I am—partly because they are more used to this type of interaction, but mostly because they don’t have to lead the class!—I know it can’t be easy for them, either. This is not what they signed up for when they registered for the class. They wanted a more interactive, personal experience. They are also uncertain about how things are going to go, and the questions they asked at the end of the first class reflected that. How would quizzes be handled online? What about the extracurricular activities that are usually part of the class, like museum and palace trips? I didn’t have any solid answers for them, because I don’t know how things are going to go, either. I am figuring things out as I go, just like everyone else.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, we are scheduled to have remote classes for the first two weeks of the semester. Last week, before classes started, I received an email from the administration that noted it was likely this period would be extended, but no specific guidance was offered. I imagine that they will let us know next week what the plan is. I do know that the College of Humanities has scheduled a disinfection of all college buildings next weekend, which would seem to indicate that they are at least planning for the resumption of in-person classes the following week, but who knows what will happen? I certainly don’t. Honestly, I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I want to get back to in-person classes as soon as possible, both for my sake and for the sake of my students. When I finished my classes on Thursday (the graduate seminar in the morning and the undergrad class in the afternoon), I thought I was going to collapse. The online class experience has been incredibly stressful for me, both mentally and physically, and it drained me completely. I don’t think I have ever been that wiped out after a day of classes.

On the other hand, though, there is of course the pandemic to think about. Korea has been relatively successful in getting a handle on this thing in part because of the stringent measures everyone has put in place. I fear that if we resume classes the week after next, we will just give the virus the opportunity to spread again, and all those gains we made will be wiped out in a matter of days. But how long can we keep this up? The thought that I might have to teach the entire semester online is, frankly speaking, horrifying. In my mind I have been working out a compromise—teach online through April, and then return to in-person classes in May. This will give us more time to make sure that we have slowed the spread of the disease, but it will still give me time to do the things in my classes that require in-person interaction. This is nothing more than rationalization on my part, though, and a grasping at straws. Will things be any different at the end of April? I have no idea. All I can really do, of course, is wait and see, and do my best to guarantee a rewarding experience for my students.

Last week, as I was preparing for the ordeal of teaching online, I was reminded of Ready Player One. Toward the end of my lengthy review of the film, I mentioned one thing that I missed from the book: the fact that the OASIS virtual reality also functioned as a school. I wrote about how neat it would be to virtually take students to places they might not otherwise be able to go, both in space and time, but in the current situation I realized that a virtual school would be useful in another, far more practical way: It would allow schools and universities to continue having classes “in person” while still maintaining that all-important social distance. The platform we are using does bring people together virtually, but it breaks down with a large number of participants, and there are still technological and design limitations that make it less than ideal for teaching. But if we could have a VR class, like in Ready Player One? One allowing for all the possibilities of a virtual environment and drastically reducing—if not eliminating—the risk of infection? That is an option I could get behind. This may not be a viable option at the moment, but there are ways of getting close—the game Second Life, for example, apparently has an educational aspect to it as well. I’ve never actually played Second Life, and for all I know the reality may not live up to my expectations, but I think I’d be much more eager to try something like that than our current setup.

I realize that this is all just a flight of fancy right now, but after a grueling week of online classes, I’d welcome an escape. For the time being, though, my feet will remain on the ground, and I will continue to hope for the best. I will also try to remember that I am fortunate to even have the option of doing my job remotely—an option that isn’t available to a lot of people. So, wherever you are, and whatever you might do for a living, I hope you’re staying safe and healthy, and washing your hands thoroughly and often!

Send me your thoughts.

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