Virtual teaching is unreal

“Is there anybody out there?” — Pink Floyd

Sometimes technology takes a long time to develop. One of my childhood memories is seeing the AT&T Picturephone at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The technology was also featured in the 1968 film 2001, where a video call was made from a space station. This early promise was never delivered on; almost no one in the late twentieth century had a Picturephone. Now a half-a-century later, being able to see who we are talking to has become a given. Whether it is Zoom, Skype, Facetime, or Google Hangouts, and no matter which of our myriad devices it is on, the ability to synchronously transmit voice and video is now easy for much of humanity. Like social media, it has unalterably transformed how we interact.

In my office, ca. 1983 and 2017. The technology has changed, but how I taught fundamentally did not (neither did I).

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The usage of technology in the classroom has likewise had slow progress over the years. There is a photo of me in my office sometime in the 1980’s, with a computer terminal on my desk. Not a computer itself, it allowed me to write programs (in Fortran) and have them run on our university mainframe. I could also do some cumbersome word processing. There is also a much more recent photo of me in the same place; the dumb terminal has been replaced by a personal computer far more powerful than the 1980’s mainframe, with a far wider range of programs and a much greater ease of usage. At the time of the earlier photo, I would have gone to the classroom to lecture in front of a group of students, using 35-millimeter slides or overhead transparencies as my media. In rare cases, I would show 16 mm movies. I would have only been able to communicate with students in person or over the phone. By the time of the later photo, slides and overheads were replaced with PowerPoint presentations; film was supplanted with online videos; and the phone would be superseded by e-mail and the use of sophisticated classroom software (in my case, Blackboard). All improvements. But I still would have been standing in front of my students, being able to see their body language and gauge their involvement in what I was saying. Questions and answers would be verbal and immediate. In the case of seminar classes, direct verbal interactions with and among the students would have been the same in 2019 and is was in 1985. Technology would have improved the classroom experience, but the basic structure remained the same.

And so it was until March. The edict came down, as it did at so many colleges and universities, that all instruction would now be online. At the time, I was teaching three courses: Introduction to Paleontology, which included lectures, labs, and a field trip; a Honors College seminar on the Anthropocene and Sixth Extinction, which met for discussion once a week; and a “dual enrollment” course for high school students, co-taught with three colleagues, on the Chicago environment. This was also planned to have a field trip as well as in-class projects and lectures.

We started spring break a week early to prepare; the last five weeks of the semester would have to be taught remotely. The faculty were given workshops on the principal tool we would use, an application on Blackboard called Collaborate. This turned out to be pretty flexible. You could give a lecture live, with students able to see you, your slides, and ask questions via a chat function. We were also able to record our lectures so students could view them later, although they would not be able to ask questions in real time. However, due to the bandwidth involved, you could not see them. There was a function so that they could “raise their hand” and ask a question verbally.

Blackboard Collaborate worked well enough for the paleontology lectures, although I could not imbed videos and they had to be posted on the chat area so students could click on them. I did find, as the weeks went by, that only about half of the students participated in real time (synchronously); the rest I presume watched when their lives permitted. In either case, there was no face-to-face interaction possible.

The real issue for the paleontology class was the lack of labs and the cancellation of the field trip. My TA and I developed online labs, but the experience of handling fossils and collecting them yourself cannot be replicated online. We prepared fossil bags from the field trip for the students to keep, but the campus was closed before I could get them to the students (they are still outside my office).

With the help of my colleagues, we developed a virtual field trip for the high school students. Based on their answers on the exercise, it would have been far better for learning if we had been physically out there, seeing the sites, and discussing it with them.

I gamely continued with my seminar class, where I blended short lecture segments with active discussions of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction. Although they had audio available to them, all the students used the chat function for discussion. I spent a lot of time staring at my screen, waiting for someone to type. They usually did, but it is not the same as the give and take of face-to-face interactions.

I also gave one exam, a final in the paleontology class. To do this, I was supposed to integrate Blackboard with an application called Respondus Lockdown Browser. This software locks down a student’s screen when they are taking a test, so that they cannot look at anything else on that computer (there was an add-on to this that used their computer cameras to watch them take the test; this was not only impractical, but far too invasive of their privacy). While trying to give the test, I ran into the issue of too much new software too soon. The test was delayed fifteen minutes while I tried to figure out which Blackboard button I had not pushed properly so they could actually take the test. Ended up not using Lockdown Browser at all.

A major issue for many students was the lack of reliable internet connections. For families suffering unemployment, internet was one thing that could be jettisoned. Students had to rely on neighbors, friends, or unreliable hotspots loaned by the campus.

More than anything else, I missed the direct interactions with students. As a teacher, I feed off their interest and excitement. Late night talk show hosts, comedians, and musicians have also complained that they lose the energy they get interacting with a crowd. Like Pink, I had to ask, “Is there anybody out there?” My experiences may not be representative; one colleague with extensive prior experience with online teaching handled it with aplomb. I was just glad it was over.

The university has just announced tentative plans for the fall semester. They include an extensive use of online instruction. But it is not my problem. After thirty-eight years, I am retiring from teaching. I think my timing is perfect.

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Paleontologist, geologist, ecologist, educator. Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Author of Explorers of Deep Time.

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Roy Plotnick

Roy Plotnick

Paleontologist, geologist, ecologist, educator. Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Author of Explorers of Deep Time.

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