By Stacy Palen
I don’t know about you, but I have learned more about my students’ living situation in the last six weeks than I have any right to know. I learned that one of my students was homeless and living in her car. I learned that one of my students is living in his parents' unfinished basement with his wife and two children. I learned that two of my (senior-level physics majors) didn’t have computers or laptops of their own, and have always done all of their schoolwork on campus. I learned that several of my students have children and live in studio apartments (and I know what those children are studying in THEIR online classrooms). I learned that one of my students has two very young special needs children who refuse to wear anything but “Underoos” when they are at home in the house, even if mommy is meeting with her professor on Zoom.
And I learned that a whole lot of my students do not have reliable internet access. Of course, I suspected that already—because late last summer, a Facebook friend posted an article about students writing essays on their phones because they lack access to the internet in their homes.
A second friend who teaches English composition at a community college commented that she has a unit on “how to write an essay on your phone,” specifically for this reason.
Back in September, that sent me down a little rabbit hole to this blog post from 2018 which summarized a report from the US Department of Energy.
The take-home message is that while nearly all children ages 3-18 have a computer at home (94%), only 61% have access to the internet.
My University made what I consider to be absolutely heroic efforts to loan technology (tablets, laptops, and desktops) to students who did not have it. For weeks, they kept an office open on campus so that students could come and borrow whatever was available.
Many students were able to take advantage of this, but in the end, there was not enough to go around. (There is also a food pantry which has now moved to three locations off-campus.)
I thought a lot about all of this while I was (rapidly and unexpectedly) preparing to move my classes online. I thought about all of these problems for students:
- Lack of internet access.
- Having to share bandwidth with their school-aged children and their spouse working from home.
- Having to share space with children and a spouse who is maybe not working from home.
- Hunger, and the plain fundamental stress of major life changes brought on by a global pandemic.
And then I tried to think of the best way to ensure that this unprecedented situation “did no harm;” I wanted students to still be able to learn and make progress if they had the mental bandwidth to get it done. These problems were the primary driver behind my decision to make all of my classes asynchronous.
While I feel a deep sense of loss from not interacting with my students in real time, I’m convinced that this was the best decision for the majority of them. Many students “handed in” their homework in the dead hours of the night. Many students sent me emails at those times as well. Many students thanked me for shifting to asynchronous teaching, although some complained that they “were left to learn it all on their own.” It’s a fair criticism, especially since none of these students actually CHOSE an online course!
After I made this decision, I saw a number of articles from more experienced online teachers, who promoted the idea of asynchronous online classes. And several colleagues (here and at other institutions) reported that they tried to have synchronous classes, but attendance dropped precipitously, and they wound up shifting to asynchronous instruction.
As I think ahead to how I might best organize an online class in the next few semesters, I’ll keep these limitations for students very firmly fixed in the front of my mind.