By Kristi Kaeppel with special thanks to Asanka Amarasinghe for sharing his experiences
In a recent online teaching seminar I attended, the presenter posed the following provocative statement for participants to discuss: in-person classes are obsolete. If this were in-person and mics were not muted, I imagine I would have seen heads rise suddenly from their desks, hands shoot up, and eyebrows furrow in puzzlement. I suspect a few felt a surge of adrenaline, the fight or flight impulsive activated. I was one of them—before the presenter finished giving instructions to discuss the prompt, I had a number of protests at the ready, reflecting my own confirmation bias. And fair enough—educators were already exhausted enough from having to defend their work in an increasingly neoliberal educational landscape without a pandemic coming along and giving off the idea that our work is replaceable with a few technologies.
In the discussion that followed the contentious prompt (tip: this is a great discussion strategy), some named benefits of online courses, but overwhelmingly the discussion focused on the ways in which online platforms paled in comparison to our—let’s just say it— magical courses. We discussed these pitfalls not just in the situation we are facing now, which is not so much online learning as remote emergency teaching, but in general terms. Physics PhD student Asanka Amarasinghe listened as his peers named disadvantage after disadvantage of online classes and was astounded. He, in fact, was thriving.
As a person on the Autism spectrum, he struggles with in-person classes. Group work is a particular challenge. His comments and questions don’t seem to come off right; he finds himself feeling as though he has inadvertently insulted his classmates or the instructor. Now online, he is participating more than ever using the chat function. This gives him a sense of control over how he words his comments that he never had in in-person classes. As the instructor types in links and resources in real time during class, he finds he can do a little research on his own right then and there to explore the instructor’s remarks, reflecting the preference to process and investigate a topic before speaking. In asynchronous courses, he enjoys the freedom to do his work when his brain is at its most productive, which, as he noted, is particularly beneficial for students with bipolar or other mental health disorders.
Being a highly introverted person, I related to his comments. It seemed within a matter of weeks, the world had flipped upside down and the previously extroverted modes of working and interacting were now forced to give way to practices that introverts had long wished for, though they came at the terrible cost of a catastrophe. Some meetings became emails; we could type our comments in classes and in online meetings; we could record rather than give live presentations; we had more time to process information and engage in contemplative thought. While it’s often the case that students feel face-to-face communication allows them to express themselves more fully, a minority of students who are quiet in class for a variety of reasons are finding that they are communicating in a less inhibited way online.
Of course, there are valuable features of in-person classes that are hard to replicate online. I am a big advocate for the growth that happens when students exchange perspectives during in-person discussions. Interacting with diverse peers is a route to opening minds and building empathy with in-person communications being more likely to take us out of our echo chambers.
But this time of upended instruction allows us to reflect on who benefits the most in our in-person classes that still largely prize verbal participation and who might be glossed over. Forced to change practices, might we find a minority of students blossoming, and what can this tell us about how to build inclusivity when we go back to majority in-person classes?
For starters, as I wrote about previously with my colleagues Marc Reyes and Emma Bjorngard-Basayne, instructors might consider moving some discussion online and/or using a chat function during discussions. Most of us can attest to the tendency for a few students to dominate the class conversation; it’s estimated that the same 5-8 students account for over three quarters of contributions in whole class discussions (Howard, 2015). Students in racial minorities, international students, and women tend to speak less than their counterparts in class (Caspi, Chajut, & Saporta, 2008; Mori, 2000; White, 2011). Yet, interestingly, Blau and Barak (2012) found that text chat equalized participation among men and women and between introverts and extroverts. They also noted that across participants, people preferred using text chat for sensitive topics. This makes sense as there is a higher risk of offending someone and a greater need to take time to process your thoughts on contentious issues.
If traditional discussion boards seem too stilted, instructors can use apps like Slack that students post to throughout the week or live, in-class responseware systems like TopHat. Instructors can even go low tech and have students jot down thoughts during class then select a few as a jumping off point for discussion. Whatever the method, it is worthwhile to find multiple means by which to participate and increase instructor-student interactions as they are correlated with student success (McKay & Estella, 2007). Since schools shut down, I find that I am communicating more frequently and more substantially online with a number of students whose presences tended to be overshadowed in in-person classes. This allows me to track their progress and offer more tailored guidance. Allowing an alternative participation mode doesn’t need to replace verbal commentary. On the contrary, it can help students gain validation and comfort in their preferred mode of participating which later builds confidence for verbal discussions.
Seeing how the shift online is playing to the strengths of a previously overlooked group of students is just one way the pandemic calls on us to carry lessons from this time forward. More broadly, institutions and instructors are seeing the need for increased flexibility and empathy. They are offering looser deadlines and more options for completing work in recognition of the anxiety many are experiencing and the increased workload that accompanies caring for loved ones. Yet many people who experienced anxiety to the extent that it impacted their work prior to the pandemic were typically not given such accommodations, nor have the class divisions and home situations of students been cast in such a stark light before, demanding acknowledgement. As many have keenly pointed out, this pandemic has exposed fractures and inequities that existed all along in society, and our classrooms are no exception. The magnitude of these injustices can be overwhelming, but what we can do is work within our spheres of influence: the classroom.