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How COVID-19 Taught Me to Embrace Academic Technology

Hands on a keyboard with book shelves on screens behind it.
Robert Simpkins in front of a ruin

Robert Simpkins has been a Professor of Anthropology at Porterville College since 2012, where he also is currently also the Academic Senate President and faculty lead for Guided Pathways.  He previously served two terms as the Social Science Division Chair, and organized PC’s CHAP (Cultural and Historical Awareness Program) series for five years.  Prior to coming to PC, he was an adjunct at De Anza College and at San Jose State University.  He has an MA and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and BA from San Jose State University.  As an Archaeologist, he is interested in the relationship between roads, architecture, cultural landscapes, and socio-political organization.  His particular focus has been the Golconda kingdom in the Indian Deccan region, which was the subject of his doctoral dissertation and on which he has presented his research internationally and published extensively, most recently in the article “Inferring Road Networks and Socio-Political Change from Elite Monuments of the Golconda Kingdom” in South Asian Studies in 2020.  Although a native of the Bay Area, he enjoys the farms and orchards of the central valley and the proximity to the mountains, and going on drives and exploring the region with his family.  He has a weakness for books, toys, classic movies and animation, art, stories, and anything that he finds amusing.

I was one of those teachers.  Despite two decades as a community college instructor, prior to March of 2020 there were a number of things I had just never done – foremost among them was to appreciate and utilize the potential of academic technology and teach a distance education course.  And then the day came, when after reading an email from Porterville College’s President, Dr. Claudia Habib, I realized I would now be doing those things, and without all of the time to prepare that I imagined I would need – and that had provided my rationale for procrastinating in doing it. 

Now let me explain that these were all things I was familiar with, and in some cases had tinkered with and had done some researching and thinking about, as well as observing what my colleagues who used these methods were doing.  But I had never actually done these things in my own classes.  So once I got over the shock of what I now had to do, I got to work like so many other instructors around the country, converting my classes to fully online experiences and getting trained in or teaching myself to be a distance ed instructor.  Thankfully, we had training courses in place, a talented Educational Media Design Specialist in Sarah Phinney, and a number of helpful colleagues.  In the process of my rapid education, I not only acquired a lot of valuable new skills, but I also felt an epiphany about students and education that re-energized my enthusiasm for teaching twenty years into my career and guided me through the pandemic journey until I felt I had changed my perspective on teaching so much that I no longer wanted to be the teacher I had been previously, even as I was still contemplating how to be the teacher I now should be – for the students of today, and tomorrow.

What did I learn?  Let me share a few things with you that may be insights you also have had – whether in the past two years, or long before – but which collectively add up to that new view I mentioned.  My experience may also be different than yours, in which case I hope sharing my examples and stories will help put your experiences into a new context, whether it is to give you direction if you are still struggling, or to feel good about where you are as a teacher now.

Using an LMS has a lot of upsides. 

Early in the period of our campus closure, I recall our VPI Thad Russell recommended to us all, ‘Put everything in Canvas’.  I was one of those who had to that point resisted using Canvas, or any previous Learning Management System.  I was happy with the system I had, and mistrusted the platforms that seemed to change year to year and school to school.  I kept my own gradebook spreadsheet, and wondered why students were always asking what their grades were – since all assignments were always returned promptly and they knew what I knew.  But once I started asking students to submit their assignments online, those questions disappeared.  And so did the piles of assignments on my desk, the late assignments stuffed in my office mailbox or stuck to my bulletin board or shoved under the door, as well as any chance of overlooking or losing a student’s assignment.  I also didn’t have to worry about having enough copies of the syllabus or any other handout, or replacing copies students lost.  Everything was there in the course shell, accessible to everyone at all times.  And I could fix mistakes if I found them later, and just send a quick notification about it that they could read at any time.  With the content provided asynchronously, it didn’t matter what they were doing when – the class was there for them, no matter what their schedule.  And for students who ignored campus emails, or weren’t even sure how to check their campus email account, after getting their ‘Online Ready’ badge (for those who weren’t already long-familiar with Canvas), they got notifications on their phones and responded quickly to class communications.  And once we established the boundaries of messaging (and that I wasn’t going to respond to questions sent at 11:58 p.m.), I found that I had more frequent and more productive communication with students than I had ever experienced before. 

Policies I thought were necessary to maintain rigor perhaps weren’t so necessary. 

I used to be a stickler about students turning assignments in on time – at the start of class, or there WILL be penalties (although it was usually just bluster), or NO late assignments, etc.  Tests MUST be done in class, make-ups MUST be completed promptly AND with permission AND evidence, etc., etc.  And then in the second half of the Spring 2020 semester, it just seemed like it didn’t matter anymore.  Tests were done online asynchronously, and once I had mastered all of the Canvas features to reduce cheating (like randomize objective tests, build bigger test banks, give time limits, use Turnitin.com, change written prompts regularly, etc.) – because cheating was at first so rampant – cheating started to decline and the quality of work improved.  And allowing late assignments to be uploaded to Canvas spared my hearing excuses or pleading, and as long as they were submitted, the students could proceed to the next assignment (using the Canvas pre-requisite feature).

There are benefits to recorded lectures. 

I was one of those traditional college instructors who enjoyed lecturing and having the luxury of being able to change the direction of my plan at any time, and incorporate student questions and contributions spontaneously.  I dreaded going online, and on the advice of colleagues opted for asynchronous classes but realized that meant that my traditional lecture style would not be possible.  It would just be me, telling a story to the camera with my slides, and having to remind myself that this was a performance – I had to imagine they were out there listening to me.  I hated the idea of them watching and listening to me anywhere, sharing it with anyone, and I had to hope what I was recording was compelling enough that they’d actually be listening (of course I had that concern in traditional classrooms too).  What surprised me was the positive response from students.  They liked being able to watch them over again, and to pause to take notes, or pause or stop just because they needed to.  And they shared my lectures with people in their homes, because they enjoyed them and thought others would too.  Captioning was time consuming (and even with auto-captioning, Anthropology classes are full of words that just don’t get auto-captioned correctly much – like changing ‘Neander Valley’ to ‘ninja rally’, or changing Gigantopithecus (look it up if you aren’t familiar with it) to 1) ‘gigantic pithiness’, 2) ‘gigantic papercuts’, and 3) ‘gigantic Pythagoras’; changing ‘Aztecs’ to ‘ass Texas’ and ‘Tenochtitlan’ to ‘too much too long’ – at least the tedium of correcting was broken up by unintended hilarity and tears of laughter to offset the exhaustion).

By embracing online course options and recommended practices, student success and equity improved.  

If I felt some initial skepticism that my online classes could not be as successful as my face-to-face classes, the sentiment passed after a year of teaching fully online.  It took a discouraging second half of the spring 2020 semester, a frustrating summer session, and several failed experiments through the fall semester before I felt like I was creating successful distance education courses that engaged students.  And that’s when I saw something unexpected: the retention rates were increasing, the grades were improving, the success rates were increasing, and the participation was improving in quality and quantity.  I was one of those teachers who imagined that when students failed it was their fault; when they dropped out, they weren’t up to the challenge; when they missed class or missed deadlines, they weren’t ready for college.  Yet in changing my policies and embracing features of technology, fewer students were giving up and more were achieving the goals I was setting.  And they thanked me for understanding when they struggled, and they rewarded my understanding in their work.  Yes, there were still those who were perpetually late, didn’t read directions, missed deadlines, etc.  But there were fewer of them, and my in box replaced excuses with stories.  They shared hardships, and I listened.  As long as they were getting the assignments in and making progress, I accepted their work.  In some ways, I was getting to know them better than in face-to-face classes with traditional office hours.  And I was seeing how my changes were helping them succeed.

Distance Education courses require higher standards, but standards that maybe all classes should have

I feel some regret at my earliest efforts teaching online, and that students did not get the quality of education I had come to expect they would in my classes.  I know many faculty have felt the same way these past two years, and I am grateful for those students who provided positive feedback and could see that I was doing everything I could to make the experience as painless as possible for them, while still meeting all legislative and Board Policy requirements for online instruction, no matter how many hours a day it took or how little sleep I got in order to do it, and while working at home with a family (and children also studying and Zooming from home during their school closures, and my wife facilitating to ensure their schoolwork got done while I was busy in Zoom meetings, or recording and captioning lectures) rather than in my mostly-quiet campus office (they did their best to give me space and I posted signs on the door so they knew when I needed to not be disturbed).  The training I received from my campus, as well as the additional research and webinars I attended to learn more, showed me that those requirements for distance education courses were meant to ensure equity and accessibility in ways that face-to-face instructors rarely have to consider, unless a specific student requests it through their DRC accommodations.  And the recommendations for course shell features were equally applicable to classes held in-person that also used an LMS.  As I undertook my online instruction training, I often at first thought, ‘this is a lot of work’, only to later think, ‘this should be used in face-to-face classes too’, or ‘everybody should be doing this’.  These elements I was now trained in weren’t just for online classes I could forget about when I returned to the physical classroom – they would and should be part of my teaching permanently.  My traditional classroom was less accessible and more inequitable than I had realized. 

At this writing, I still have not returned to face-to-face instruction and am still uncertain what those classes will be like when I do.  It is hard to imagine now just a simple return to how I used to teach.  Through this experience that would have been unthinkable two years ago, I was forced to change, and in doing so I was given a perspective on myself that I might not otherwise have had.  I was given a new toolkit, but more significantly, a new mindset about our work and the ways in which we might help students achieve success. 

Academic technology is not the domain solely of online instruction – it is a fundamental part of instruction in all modalities and as such, training in these technologies and corresponding pedagogies is essential for all faculty.  And like any toolkit, individual faculty may choose what tools to use and how to use them, and determine what kind of teacher they want or need to be.  But I now see the power of these new tools and new pedagogies, and a new future for teaching in using them.  This challenging, sometimes tragic experience over the past two years has also given me a new optimism about our profession.  Even if you are one of those who has been worn out by it, I hope you see how tomorrow might be better because of it too.

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