Ida T. Fonkoue, Ph.D.
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Renal Division
Emory University School of Medicine
Ramon A. Fonkoue, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, French and Cultural Studies
Michigan Technological University
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a total and sudden reshaping of the academic landscape across the country, with hundreds of institutions moving administration entirely online and shifting to online instruction for the remainder of the spring semester or for both spring and summer. This sudden transition with practically no time to prepare has major implications for students and faculty alike, and poses serious challenges to a smooth transition as well as effective online teaching on such a large scale. Out of these challenges, two issues in particular are examined here:
- the disparity in resources and preparedness for effective online teaching
- the implications of the migration to virtual classrooms for diversity and inclusion
Disparity in resources and preparedness for effective online teaching
Teaching an online course requires just as much, if not more, time and energy as traditional classroom courses. It also requires specific IT skills to be effective. Some teachers have managed to achieve great success engaging students online. However, many challenges remain for the average teacher. While online teaching has now been embraced by all higher education institutions and the number of classes offered online has seen a steady growth over the years, it should be noted that until now, instructors and students had the choice between brick and mortar classes and virtual ones. Each could then choose based on their personal preferences and/or circumstances. What makes the recent changes so impactful and consequential is that no choice is left to instructors or students, as the move to online classes is a mandate from the higher administration. Whether one is willing, prepared or ready is irrelevant. It is from this perspective that the question of the preparedness to migrate online is worth examining.
With academic units ordered to move classes online, instructors who had remained indifferent to the growing trend of online teaching have had a difficult reckoning. They have had to hastily move to online delivery, often with a steep learning curve. This challenge has been compounded in some cases by the technology gap for instructors who haven’t kept their IT skills up to date as well as the school’s preparedness to support online teaching. But even instructors who had some familiarity with learning management systems (LMS) and online delivery have faced their share of challenges. We will only mention two sources of these difficulties:
- First, students’ expectations in a context of exclusive online teaching are different from when most online classes took place in the summer, and were attractive to students because of convenience and flexibility. With online classes becoming the norm, students in some universities are taking steps to demand that school administrators pay more attention to quality of instruction and maintain high standards to preserve teaching effectiveness.
- Second, instructors can no longer use LMS resources just for the flexibility and benefits they afforded, such as in blended classes or flipped classes. Moving everything online thus requires extra work even for LMS enthusiasts.
For students, there have been some interesting lessons. Until now, it was assumed that Generation Z students (raised in the boom of the internet and social media) we have in our classes have tech skills in their DNA and would be well equipped and ready to migrate online. Surprisingly, this hasn’t been the case across the board, and these first weeks have revealed real discrepancies in student IT equipment with varying consequences for online classes. Equipment failure and problems with access to high speed internet emerge as the most serious difficulties on the students’ side. Furthermore, online learning requires independence and often more self-discipline and self-motivation. Most online courses are not taught in real time, and there are often no set times for classes. While this flexibility makes online classes attractive, it can also be a drawback for students who procrastinate and are unable to follow the course pace. If left to themselves, only the most responsible students will preserve their chances of performing well. On this last point, one unexpected issue has been students who have virtually disappeared from their classes since the migration of courses online amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The current transition has thus presented major challenges for teachers and students alike.
Implications of the migration to virtual classrooms for diversity and inclusion
The second issue we think deserves attention is the way in which educational institutions’ commitment to diversity and inclusion would play out in virtual classes. While they are now among the professed core values of all colleges and universities across the country, implementing diversity and inclusion in an online environment presents a different set of challenges for both instructors and students. In traditional classrooms, the commitment to diversity and inclusion typically translates into the following:
- A diversity and inclusion statement from the school must be included in the course syllabus.
- Instructors must remind students a few rules at the beginning of the course, including: recognition that the classroom is an environment where diversity is acknowledged and valued; tolerance of and respect for diversity of views in the classroom.
- Sensitivity to and respect for diversity (gender, age, sexual orientation, etc.).
- Students are asked to be courteous and respectful of different opinions.
In moving into a virtual environment, instructors have to think about the challenges of virtual classrooms and their potential impact on diversity and inclusion. For instance, the faceless nature of course participation and asynchronous delivery may make it easier for participants to disregard or neglect diversity and inclusion rules. Teachers need to reflect on ways to ensure that the virtual space of online classes remains an environment that fosters diversity and inclusion. One drawback of online classes is the potential impact of the relative anonymity on social engagement. In a traditional classroom, participants are constrained by the physical presence of their peers in the confined space of the classroom. The closed physical space of the classroom, combined with the instructor’s authority and peer pressure contribute to fostering discipline. Reflecting on the way online teaching impacts the instructor, one faculty noted: “I didn’t realize how much I rely on walking around the room and making eye contact with students to keep them engaged.” As an online teacher, one lacks the ability to connect physically with students, to read emotional cues and body language that might inform about the individuality of a student. Moreover, a good grasp of the diversity in the classroom and of students’ learning abilities is needed to plan instruction, and give each of them the opportunity to learn and succeed.
Drawing from the above considerations, here are some key questions that instructors should consider as they migrate online: What skills do instructors need to properly address diversity and inclusion online? How do instructors include diversity and inclusion requirements in online course design? How to create an inclusive online classroom? How do instructors attend to diverse students’ needs during instruction? How do they monitor behaviors and enforce diversity and inclusion rules during instruction?
While the migration might have been abrupt, instructors need not seek perfection in moving their courses online. As in traditional classes, what matters the most, from the student’s point of view, is constant communication, clear directions and support from their teachers. Students understand the challenges we all face. They also understand the rules in virtual classes, provided we emphasize them.
Hill, Phil (2020), Massive Increase in LMS and Synchronous Video Usage Due to COVID-19. PhilonEdTech. https://philonedtech.com/massive-increase-in-lms-and-synchronous-video-usage-due-to-covid-19/
Greeno, Nathan (2020), Prepare to Move Online (in a Hurry). Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/03/10/prepare-move-online-continuity-planning-coronavirus-and-beyond-opinion
McMurtrie, Beth (2020), The Coronavirus Has Pushed Courses Online. Professors Are Trying Hard to Keep Up. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Coronavirus-Has-Pushed/248299
Dr Ida Fonkoué is a post-doctoral fellow at Emory University School of Medicine in the Laboratory of Dr Jeanie Park. She trained under Dr Jason Carter at Michigan Technological University, where she graduated with a PhD in Biological Sciences in December 2016. She teaches renal physiology classes and lead small groups in the School of Medicine. Her long-term research goal is to understand how the sympathetic nervous system, the vasculature and inflammation interplay to contribute to the high cardiovascular disease risk of patients living with chronic stress, such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr. Ramon A Fonkoué is an Associate Professor of French and Cultural Studies and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Humanities at Michigan Technological University. He is also a Visiting Scholar in the department of French and Italian at Emory University. He has been teaching online for 9 years and has experience with blended, flipped and full online classes.