image of a cup next to a macbook displaying a videoconference

The current world wide pandemic has resulted in an explosion in the use of video conferencing systems. Education, business and personal use skyrocketed. However, educational institutions, faculty, teachers and students all struggled with integration. Here are some of the issues that have come up.

How many choices do I have?

The VTC market, like any technology market that prior to the pandemic was considered niche, did not have a particularly dominant actor. While Microsoft Teams, Apple FaceTime, Google Hangouts all existed, they competed with more business oriented companies such as Cisco WebEx and Zoom as well as a multitude of other smaller companies such as GoToMeeting, BlueJeans and many, many others. This glut of choice left schools and instructors trying to figure out which one met their needs and which didn’t. Institutions already invested in the support of one choice over another found themselves under assault from faculty who preferred one system over another. Trying to decipher the differences in features became a chore that was not made easy by the charts and tables provided by each company.

Which features do I need?

Another issue that faced many of the instructors trying to understand how to make the sudden transition from on the ground to remote teaching was trying to figure out what they needed to conduct their courses successfully. Breakout rooms, locked rooms, virtual backgrounds all became features that many of us had not heard off but needed to suddenly learn about.

What’s Zoombombing?

As soon as we made the transition to remote learning another term that we all had to learn in a hurry was Zoombombing (which btw, my automatic spell checker is still highlighting as an incorrect spelling). While many teachers and students were trying to figure out how to use the platforms some users decided that the best use of their time and access to technology was to hijack remote sessions with obscene or racist attacks. While the term refers to Zoom, which became the most popular app during this time, no video conferencing platform was immune from such attacks.

What’s Zoom Fatigue?

To continue the list of new lexicon with negative connotations that was introduced with the pandemic we also have “Zoom Fatigue.” Students, teachers, and everyone who used video conferencing for extended periods of time started feeling more tired at the end of the day than they normally were. It turns out that Zoom fatigue is the culprit however suggestions to combat it soon appeared as well.

So are you tired yet? I know I am.

A community of inquiry, as described by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, is a community of teachers and learners that relies on the interaction of three core elements: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. As is emphasized in their article, and the many others that followed it, a successful online course depends on the development of this community of inquiry that successfully integrate all three elements. My own experience, as a learner and as a teacher can attest to this. However, it’s not an easy goal to accomplish and a lot of effort and thought is necessary to be successful.

As I plan my course for the fall, I am intrigued by how I can successfully develop a course that meets all the requirements. According to Garrison, Anderson and Archer, while cognitive presence, “the extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a community of inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication” is the most basic element, it is heavily dependent on the other two. Social presence, “the ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as ‘real people.'” Finally, teaching presence, is defined as the function of the teacher to design the educational experience and the shared function of the teacher and the learners to facilitate the course. So how can these elements be combined in a successful course?

The cognitive presence in the course will be constructed through the materials available in the course. The goal is to identify the essential learning that students should accomplish in the course. This, as my colleague Lauren Tucker explains, refers to identifying those things that we want students to be able to do when they leave the course. This will help define the learning activities in the course as well as how the students will demonstrate their learning. A careful consideration will help construct the learning activities in a way that stimulate critical thinking and a meaningful application of the concepts learned.

The cognitive presence will be supported by the social and teaching presence. By using another concept that Lauren Tucker describes well in her training video, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I can establish my teaching presence and encourage meaningful cognitive and social presence. By using multiple means of engagement, I can engage students in a variety of types of work, from group assignments to individual work, discussions and short lectures on the various concepts of the course. By employing multiple means of representation, I can provide students with a variety of resources to engage them with the class. I can provide text materials in the form of articles to read, I can provide presentations that use screen capture to show them different tools, and I can use YouTube videos that present the perspective and experience of others. By employing multiple ways of expression I can incorporate writing, video and text into the course. For example, faculty and student introductions, so essential to establishing social presence in an online course, can be done via written text, audio, or through the integration of a more whimsical technology platform, such as Flipgrid. All this is reliant on that teaching presence that requires the work in setting up the course, the involvement in facilitating student conversations and in allowing students to engage in conversations within the course that they themselves facilitate.

Creating a community of inquiry and conducting a successful course is not easy. I’ve both failed myself and have participated in courses where the community was not well established. I have participated in online courses where the instructor asked students to read the book and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. If we didn’t hear from him, everything was good. Clearly the teaching presence was not established in a course like this and it led to a lack of social presence and a minimal cognitive presence. However, these failures are not always easy to catch and understand. I’ve also conducted courses where the group discussions did not go as well as I anticipated or wanted. Group discussions in an online course are hard to construct and manage. They require a deep and thoughtful approach that combines both cognitive and teaching presence. Students can easily get lost in the demands of the topic or their responses to their peer comments can end up being minimal and consist of “I agree with…”

I’ve also taken online courses that were rewarding, where the instructor clearly established all three elements and the level of engagement from all students was great. That showed me that while on the ground courses are sometimes more comfortable to create and conduct, well designed and run online courses can work just as well if not even better. As the research shows, students in an online course can have the ability to interact with each other in an asynchronous environment that allows time for reflection and encourages critical thinking leading to richer discussions and participation from students who might not participate in a fast moving on-the ground discussion.

As Laura Gogia talks about in her blog, a Community of Inquiry has the potential of extending learning into the creation of Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) and e-portfolios.  The two tools, if employed correctly can lead to life long learning, the stimulation of ideas, and the creation of knowledge that is not necessarily possible when conducting scholarship within the closed walls of a classroom or office.

One of the most interesting things to follow during the pandemic has been the relationship between the media, education, and politics. When states suddenly closed in March, schools, both in higher ed and k-12, scrambled to move online. While most colleges and universities had at least some online teaching and learning presence prior to the pandemic, for most k-12 schools it was a brand new experience that they never considered. In addition to the teaching and learning considerations most schools, both in higher ed and k-12, bumped up against a problem that they had long ignored: the lack of equal access to technology. Some schools provided their students with tablets or laptops to take home and internet service providers promised free access for those who couldn’t afford it. However, not all schools could afford to provide their students with the technology or if they did, still had no access to the internet.

For those who were fortunate enough to gain access to a computer and internet, they quickly found out that the level of education was hit or miss. Many faculty members in higher education and teachers in k-12 had no idea how to teach online leaving parents and students frustrated. Some students stopped trying or couldn’t access remote learning and Zoom bombing disrupted courses. Higher education institutions had to refund dorms and meal plans.  Higher education students who realized they were not getting the experience they were promised started asking for tuition refunds from schools.

All in all, the remote teaching and learning experience was painful for most teachers and learners whether in higher ed or k-12. Unfortunately, the battle was just starting. While schools had no option in the Spring but to go online, the fall is another case. This is where the media, the politics, and the social are now entangled in an ugly war of words and plans, protests and threats, trying to figure out what education will look like in the fall. One thing that we’re fairly certain of, is that the pandemic will be with us in the fall as well. The Trump administration has threatened to withhold funding from schools that do not open in the fall. Some universities plan to open with limited capacity, others like the California State University System have long ago announced they would continue remote teaching. The administration first announced that they would refuse visas to international students who don’t have courses on campus and then backtracked on that decision. To make things even more difficult, the CDC has been withholding documents that may help in the reopening decision process.

Meanwhile k-12 teachers in some states where Covid infections are out of control are protesting against fall reopening and filing lawsuits. While some parents want their children to head back to school, others are protesting reopening plans. To compound everything, teachers in k-12 have limited days of professional development while in higher education faculty, who are not employed during the summer, are working on their own time to learn as much as they can about remote teaching so that they provide a better experience in the fall. Schools that are planning on reopening are cognizant of the fact that they may, at any point, return to online learning but are nevertheless investing in technologies designed to teach both on the ground and online. Students who had 60 days of free internet from ISPs will still have to figure out how to gain access to the internet again and schools that could not afford to provide technology to their students will have to try yet again to find the resources necessary. Colleges and universities are worried about funding and lost income, starting to turn to layoffs. College students want a discount for remote fall courses while faculty are worried about their health and some don’t want to teach in person.

Throughout all this, the media has generated a veritable virtual dump of articles around education issues with thousands and thousands of pages filled with opinions, announcements of doom and gloom, and taking of one side or another. They are a mirror of our society and leadership which provided more of the same. Now, more than ever, we need to be cognizant of the dangers and work towards constructive solutions to issues that either only arose because of the pandemic or were unearthed by it. We need to acknowledge the problems but try to find solutions. As a society, we need to curb our desire for schadenfreude and realize that the success of our society and our future, lie in the education of the generations that will follow us. Our students of today cannot become the “forgotten generation” because it will have an impact on all of us as well as our future.

Digital technology has long held the promise to “revolutionize” education. A quick search in Google Scholar shows articles going as far back as the 1960s. However, as much as the topic has been discussed, results have been spotty. The current pandemic has thrown both k-12 and higher education in a remote environment, trying to use digital technology to teach their students. Again, the results have been spotty. Students and faculty access to technology has been an impediment, as has knowledge of how to use digital technology to teach and learn.

So what can the future hold?

VR – virtual reality, AR – augmented reality, MR – mixed reality are terms that have been bandied about recently. While the many applications revolve around games, this virtual interaction with our reality can have powerful applications in education. Imagine that while sitting in your living room, you put on a pair of goggles and you’re instantly transported into your classroom. Every bone in your body is telling you that this is your classroom. You see your students, you see the desks, you can interact with materials on your desk, you pick up a piece of paper and you show it to the class. Teaching geography? Push a button and all of a sudden the entire class is transported to Antarctica. Teaching history? Push a button and your instantaneously transported in the middle of the battle of Waterloo, examining the unit placements of the British French and Prussian armies. Teaching biology? Be instantly transported through the human body.

With mobile technology available today, with the addition of Google Cardboard, most students can transform their smartphone into virtual or augmented reality viewers. For example, the Google Arts & Culture allows students to virtually tour museums across the world, Google Expeditions allows students to explore a wide variety of historic and geographic locations, and the New York Times VR can allow students to visit Mecca during the religious pilgrimage. How else could this technology enhance our classrooms? What potential might it have for our students’ future? What does that mean for learning and engagement?