Buddhism teaching

Teaching online during the COVID crisis: what we have learned

Last spring semester marked a heroic response to the coronavirus that has caused a sea change in the way much of higher education is delivered – a change that will continue to influence the way learning is accessed at from now. So what have we learned?

Above all, we have learned that we need to be prepared for future pandemics, natural disasters or other outages that disrupt our educational institutions and systems. Additionally, we have learned that in this case, we are prepared to launch remote learning initiatives across the country to help protect our students and staff while delivering the program, although in some cases in less than optimal presentations. We now have models that we need to improve and expand to ensure continuity of program delivery in the event of disruptions.

Secondly, we learned that during a disaster like this, which claimed the lives of more than a quarter of a million people and caused massive disruption with mental health effects in the lives of students, faculty and staff, the mental health ramifications continue. They are not fully recognized and reported. They vary greatly depending on family/social bubbles, age and social disposition. A multitude of mental health support sites and referral services are available, but it is unclear whether they fully meet the needs.

The most effective faculty practices in student engagement, active learning, simulations, compassion, and a focus on student well-being are practiced by experienced learning faculty members in online for many years. However, higher education faculty members are not universally grounded in these approaches and practices. Yet faculty are now on the front lines of monitoring student behaviors on campus that had been observed by resident advisors, campus health services, and other professionals who under normal circumstances pay attention to the student well-being.

We found that most, but not all, of our students had immediate access to at least high-speed smartphone access to learning management systems. Nevertheless, the expansion of wireless and cable access to meet everyone’s needs is necessary. Efforts in this area continue with 5G, 10G and the addition of Starlink and other satellite systems that are less vulnerable to challenges presented by geography and rural population density.

We now know that faculty and staff are not immune to the impact of the pandemic. We are poised on a tidal wave of burnout. Faculty and staff have been working extra hours and days, non-stop, to prepare first for remote learning and then for more robust online learning. As Colleen Flaherty writes in Inside Higher Education, “Pandemic teacher stress is chronic now”:

The early days of the pandemic took their toll on faculty members, but for many, the peak stress is now, according to a new study on faculty mental health from Course Hero. Researchers from the study’s website surveyed hundreds of faculty members on and off the tenure track, across all types of institutions, this fall. The findings suggest that faculty worries about the pandemic have turned into chronic stress — with serious implications for the mental health of faculty, their students, and the profession as COVID-19 drags on.

So we learned that there is a need for stress and mental health support for everyone in the education process: students, faculty and staff. We must be careful as we enter 2021 to ensure these needs are met.

We now have at least three different vaccines in the works that promise to help protect against the current version of the COVID virus. Traditional treatments are improving with reduced mortality rates. New antibody treatments have received emergency approvals for use. Yet producing, deploying and delivering these vaccines and treatments to billions of people around the world will take a year or more. We still face a distant spring and likely summer ahead for higher education in the United States

Is your institution ready to implement the practices and policies we learned from this human catastrophe?

Will you implement training and support for the effective teaching practices we have learned? Will your facility address looming mental health issues? In the fall semester and beyond, how will our higher education model have changed? Will HyFlex, blended and online alternatives be offered to teachers and students who do not feel safe returning to class? Will your institution be prepared for the next natural/man-made disaster?