Power Disruptions

As I read the weather forecast for today, I worried about the loss of electricity that is likely in my small town.  We have a lot of trees, and big winds tend to take out a few poles or power lines.  That will be a last straw from many of us. Our gadgets are making this quarantined life bearable. Losing them is likely to lead to a collective scream.  For the university, we may have to consider a lack of access to electricity as a snow day, and just pause for a day.  I’m hoping, whatever the disruption, that it is brief.

But as I continue to trouble shoot the many challenges that came with the COVID-19 realities – technological, financial, emotional– I realize that we are in another kind of power disruption, and it is pedagogical.

Education, at its core, involves a clear imbalance of power.  Faculty are in charge, not students.  It may be that faculty answer to accreditation standards, or department definitions of curricula, but in the classroom, there is no question of who is setting the parameters for success and the expectations for interaction.  Faculty sometimes try to shift more control to students, but it is never complete, and, frankly students don’t buy it. Even in a seminar where all dialogue is focused on discovery, rather than a fixed goal, faculty retain the power of the grade, which makes the transfer of power mythic at best.

This is not a terrible state of affairs. After all, faculty are the experts. They’ve spent years learning their subjects and students have not.  So, no matter how hard professors work to cultivate a classroom with open discourse or create materials that foster student-led discovery and independent learning, that role of expert is an essential part of the power relationship.

But here we are in a world where students and faculty have been forced into a learning in an unfamiliar environment.  While faculty are still the content experts, the control over the learning environment has been fundamentally disrupted.  The potential for error on the part of faculty is much higher than in the classroom – there are just so many ways a beginner can go wrong in an online learning platform – disrupting their sense of control.  For students, the lack of standardization that is only a small problem in face-to-face classes, is now a major distraction from learning.  They are spending a lot of time trying to find where each of their four to five professors has “hidden” their assignments. This too, is leading to a collective scream.

It would be wonderful if I could command everyone to a) use Blackboard Learn (Bb) only and b) lay out their classes the exact same way, but I can’t.  While Bb is our official online learning platform and everyone should be using it, the truth is, it is not an easy environment to dive into.  It has some nice features, if you’ve had time to fully plan and experiment with your courses.  If you are faced with moving to it in a week’s time with no prior Bb experience, you are sunk.  Starting from scratch it is confusing, at best.  Demanding that everyone use it is probably worse than letting faculty devise unique approaches that they feel they can manage (weekly WebEx meetings, and emailing notes and collecting assignments; or using features of Office 360 to achieve the same end – and there are more).  As for similar layouts within Bb – there is no hope, at least not in the middle of this crisis.

From the student side, though, this is a nightmare. Some students have let me know that they are now trying to learn in 5 different “places.”  And, they are writing to me for help.  Their expectation was for some predictability; they are finding none.  Although, each of us approach the classroom experience in our own unique way, in reality the classroom has a limited number of predictable configurations.  Students can spend more time thinking about the subject than the furniture. With the variability of our online environment, they are really focused on the furniture. And by the way, these so called digital natives are not particularly good at figuring out how everything works. They kind of want us to figure it out for them.

So, now what. Faculty expertise is disrupted because they are spending their days focused on technology. Students trust their faculty less, because they, too, are spending their days navigating technology that is often poorly or variably configured. This lack of trust is leading to a lot of reaching out to Deans, Provosts, Presidents, and Governors, that is out of proportion to the problems at hand. Something’s got to give.

With only four more weeks of the semester, we’re all just trying to get to the end in one piece.  So, I only have a little bit to offer faculty on this subject, but here it is.

1. Simplify – identify those critical elements of the course material that must be addressed in the next four weeks and leave the rest behind.  Don’t try to do anything fancy, just focus on the essential content, and provide as much feedback on that student work as possible.  This will help remind students that faculty are experts after all, and they will be grateful for the sense of connection and continuity, even if on a shorter list of topics.

2. Empathize – Since we cannot offer students a consistent or familiar learning environment, reassure them (often), that we know this is a problem.  Then give lots of chances for resubmitting assignments or handing things in just a little late if they missed something.  It is easy to miss something when moving between many platforms. Acknowledging that complication will go a long way to re-establishing trust.

That’s it. I do not think we can do more in this context.  There is a lot we can do later, but for now, this will have to do.

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