Jenny Baker
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Max. Classroom Capacity: Back to the Classroom!

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

“Great Scott!”

Doc, Back to the Future

We’re going back…to the classroom! As many universities across the country are returning to in-person instruction, it’s a good time to consider the question of what the future of I-O psychology education should look like. I’m certain that many of you have spent the summer reflecting on this very question. For some reason this made me think of the classic Robert Zemeckis 80s movie Back to the Future. Much like that movie, there is something that feels strangely “retro” about going back to in-person instruction after our collective foray into high-tech online education. Are we in fact going back to the future, picking up where we left off in the spring of 2020? Or, like the photographed image of Marty McFly slowly disappearing as events in his past undermine his future, has the pre-COVID trajectory of education been irrevocably altered by the pandemic? As with Marty’s father, will all of our COVID shenanigans leave us with a better future? Or will we feel like Doc Brown at the end of the movie, speaking of another future: “It’s your kids, Marty. Something’s gotta be done about your kids!”

But before we get into the future, let’s raise a glass to the last year and a half and celebrate what we’ve accomplished (or at least, survived)!1 Many of us substantially increased our online teaching experience or perhaps taught fully online for the first time. We created workspaces out of strange nooks and crannies in our homes. Professional and personal boundaries were blurred. We learned how much more difficult it is to teach our own children than it is to teach strangers.2 Some of us stretched Zoom to the very limits of its capabilities (e.g., a Zoom dance party? It’s better than nothing, but just not the same…). Then the vaccines arrived, and we made it through! Good for us.3  The questions that I want to ask now are, of all of the experimentation and innovation over the last 18 months, what should we keep with us? On the flip side, what COVID-inspired innovations (or deviations) do we want to lose? I will start off this game of keep/lose but would love to hear your own entries!

1. Keep the vaccines. It seems obvious that the COVID-19 vaccines are responsible for the dramatic reduction in cases and deaths in 2021 compared to 2020. At the same time, the troubling rise in cases and deaths in July of 2021 (as I write this) also seems attributable to a large minority of people who are unable (lack of access, medical reasons, etc.) or unwilling to get vaccinated. The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires that employers provide “safe and healthful working conditions” for workers here in the USA, including those who work in private colleges and universities. It goes without saying that public institutions should be similarly concerned with the health and safety of their staff and students. Many questions remain regarding what colleges and universities can and should require of their students, instructors, and staff regarding vaccinations. Should proof of vaccination be required for all in-person instruction? According to a CNN count, more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities now require students to be vaccinated. By comparison, despite similar overall vaccination rates, Canadian post-secondary institutions have been more reluctant to require student vaccinations. If allowed to attend in-person instruction, should unvaccinated individuals be required to divulge their unvaccinated status, wear masks, or limit their interactions with others? How do we balance individual liberty and privacy versus the health of the campus community? Despite the fact that vaccines are required for children to attend school in all 50 states in the US, there is some uncertainty regarding the legality of requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. A judge recently upheld an Indiana University policy that requires students to be vaccinated before returning to campus in fall 2021. Many other work organizations are wrestling with similar questions. In the USA, organizations have been relatively more willing to require that their employees be vaccinated, with the legality of such a requirement being more (though apparently not definitively) established as compared, for example, to European companies. Regardless, the COVID-19 vaccines are safe for almost everyone, they are astoundingly effective at saving lives, and to the extent that things are getting back to normal we have the vaccines to thank for that—so let’s keep them!

2. Lose the social isolation. Who wants to continue to look at a matrix of screens in Zoom and wonder how many of the students with their cameras off are actually still listening or even in the same room? Yeah, me neither. How much worse (I imagine) it must have been for our students than for us! Yet despite this I looked forward to my synchronous online classes because for a long time they were the only social contact I was having with nonfamily members. Asynchronous classes likely provide even less social interaction. I have fond memories (or at least memories of some sort) of most of my in-person classes over the years. I taught 250 students in fully online, asynchronous classes in the past year, and I regret to say that I have very few memories of any of them (They probably feel the same way about me!). It’s not that I think that the asynchronous, online format is completely useless—far from it (please see my next point)! But I have come to believe that having ONLY asynchronous online classes impoverishes the educational experience for both students and instructors. Networking, building relationships, finding social support, forming friendships, finding mentors, building community—all of this seems most effectively accomplished via face-to-face interaction (maybe students immersed in social media would disagree with me4). Moreover, on balance, virtual formats seem to constrain the possibilities of class exercises, discussions, debates, and group work more than they create new opportunities for them. Also, I miss the joking around, the random discussion topics, and the creative ideas that seem to arise just from interacting with people in the same physical space. I’m not aware of any research that speaks to these views—I’d be happy to hear of dis/confirming evidence. In the meantime, social isolation: Why don’t you make like a tree, and get out of here!

3. Keep doing some things in asynchronous, online format. There is value to the new and improved technological tools that hang, shiny as a buffed DeLorean, from our teaching tool belts. Many of my students surprised me by saying how much they appreciate the flexibility afforded by fully online asynchronous classes and the agency that they had in organizing their own schedules, in figuring out the rhythms of the class, and how to best manage their own learning. Personally, I was pleased with how well my online discussions of assigned readings seemed to work, and I would consider keeping those for some classes—particularly graduate-level classes. I think many instructors are going to keep using their already recorded lecture material or continue to make and post recorded lectures online. It’s easy to recognize the value of putting lectures online in order to open up precious in-person class time for more impactful, interactive, and fun learning activities such as discussions, simulations, cases, exercises, and so forth. This practice of “flipped” hybrid classes is generally in keeping with research that suggests that such formats are the most effective—even more so than traditional in-person classes (e.g., Means et al., 2010).5 Some students gave me the very candid (and appreciated) feedback that video-recorded lectures allowed them to pause and take a break when they lost focus, to “rewind” when they missed something, and, for some, to watch at 1.5 speed (or faster) for a more efficient learning experience! Administrators have long seen the value of shifting some parts of education online to reduce the strain on campus resources. It seems like we were headed in this direction already, and I think the pandemic, rather than making us want to “pump the brakes” on online education, has had the opposite effect.

4. Lose class meetings that are entirely based in Zoom (substitute for Zoom any other video-conferencing platform). Look, Zoom is an amazing tool with a lot of innovative and useful features for video conferencing. I have less experience with other platforms, but I imagine they are all pretty similar to each other. I don’t think Zoom classes are as good as in-person classes, but let’s give some credit to Zoom. A case can be made for offering Zoom classes on some occasions, such as when instructors are attending academic conferences or when outside factors make it difficult for students to attend class in person (e.g., due to extreme weather conditions). Providing the option of attending class on Zoom gives working students with long commutes to campus 1.21 gigawatts of power to flexibly fit their classes into their busy schedules. It may also be critical for students who are immunosuppressed or unable to get a COVID vaccine, for whom attending class in person presents a significant risk to their health. However, the logistics are more complex for instructors, as they would have to simultaneously teach an in-person class while also taking part in a video conference. A simpler option may be to video record in-class meetings and make them available online for asynchronous viewing afterwards, though there are some privacy concerns with the even incidental recording of students and annoyances like wearing a mic and making sure that it works, staying on camera, and so on. Beyond convenience, video conferencing itself may provide some educational benefits compared to the in-person format. For example, Zoom made it easier for me to more equitably distribute among students chances to contribute to class discussions. Because of the unmanageable chaos of multiple people speaking simultaneously in Zoom, I had to establish clear norms in which students raised their hands (electronically) and were called on and unmuted before they could speak. However, I don’t see any reason why these kinds of norms and procedures couldn’t be introduced into an in-person classroom with a disciplined instructor (I have failed to do this consistently). Some students told me they felt less intimidated to participate in a Zoom compared to in-person class. Additionally, the option of a parallel communication pathway—the chat/instant messaging function—raised interesting new learning and peer-feedback opportunities (although I suspect students have been messaging each other during our in-person classes since long before the pandemic). Plus, I don’t mind not having to commute to work, and many of my students felt the same way. HOWEVER, without echoing many of the points I made in #2, learning is a social activity, and on balance, I believe that Zoom constrains social interaction more than it enables it, relative to in-person classes. Finally, I think in-person classes are more fun for both students and instructors, and preserving fun in education is a very serious matter.

5. Keep some of the existential drama that came with COVID. It’s good not to be too comfortable, to question fundamental assumptions, to think about what kind of future we want, and to contemplate what actions we can take to get there. COVID is just one existential threat that we face, and it has the virtue of demanding immediate action. Other threats that may be even more dire don’t have that virtue (e.g., climate change, growth-based economics in a world of finite natural resources, environmental degradation). One way or another, we’re all going to die pretty soon anyway (I hope that’s not too dark!). Let’s make the most of our time and create a better future!

Agree? Disagree? Was there something I missed? Please email me. I’d love to hear from you. Loren.Naidoo@csun.edu. In the meantime, dear readers, stay safe, get vaccinated if you can, gird your laptops for battle, and fire up your flux capacitor—we’re back!

Notes

[1] Yes, there is a nonzero probability that a combination of new variants, low vaccination rates, and an unwillingness or inability to put in place measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 may put us back in a very bad place. But let us be optimistic!

2 Please refer to this author’s “What I Learned by Failing Homeschool

3 It is also important to say that I appreciate that I am fortunate to live in a country in which there is widespread access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. This is not the case in most of the world, and there is a lot to be unhappy about regarding the inequity of that terrible reality. Thus, although things are indeed looking up for some of us, I don’t expect this column to resonate with the experiences of readers in many other parts of the world where the situation remains very dire indeed.

4 I can’t think of any sci-fi book or movie from the 20th century that depicts social media as part of our future. Why did nobody predict this? Is it because social media seem so mind-bogglingly useless compared to, for example, a flying skateboard?

5 I reviewed some of this research in a previous column.

Reference

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. U.S. Department of Education. 

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