Friday, September 18, 2020

The Beloved Community and Teaching

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a global vision, the Beloved Community:  

"In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict."

The late congressman and civil rights leader, John Lewis, dedicated his life's work in the pursuit of the beloved community. Many others continued this effort in a variety of ways, including the vital work of Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who founded the #blacklivesmatter movement, among many, many others that cannot be listed here across a spectrum of issues. Know that I acknowledge the variety and scope of the different struggles in society.  

What does the beloved community have to do with teaching? Superficially, perhaps not much. But upon closer inspection, everything, at least everything that matters. I fully understand why a person could say the following.

  • "I teach math [or fill in your subject], it's not my job."
  • "I don't want to be political..."
  • "I'm just a small person, in a small city, doing my thing. I'm not Dr. King or civil rights leader. What could I possibly do?"

None of us are being asked to do extraordinary things, march every weekend, and sacrifice all our free time. As a college math instructor, I don't feel particularly powerful or influential. I know I am just a small person on a small stage in a small city.  But if each of us pitched in and did our part, we'd be in a far better place. The lesson for me is that in order for us to create the beloved community, each and everyone of us must do our part with the people we live and work with in our communities. No hero is going to come save us from ourselves. 

We all have something within our locus of control that can be impactful.  For college math instructors this means doing something in our classrooms and our departments, colleges. We can center equity and inclusion. We can be visible about our values with our students and colleagues, and stop making excuses, such as "I don't want to be political." We can make equity part of hiring and retention processes, and we can insist that systemic biases, such as student evaluation of teaching, stop. Just stop. 

Active, student-centered, equity-centered teaching is a pathway forward. We can teach students the values of we seek in society. We can show by example and lived experiences that equity and inclusion benefits all of us and creates a better, stronger society, where we are all better off. While schools and colleges by themselves are not enough, I firmly believe that education plays a central role. If it doesn't happen in our classrooms, then it can't happen in society. Therefore, we have an obligation to do this work.

So, use your power! Do something small in your next class, and nudge someone in your circle, and keep on building. Connect with people on our campus and in your profession, who have experience and expertise with DEI. Then we can build brick by brick, classroom by classroom, and more and more people will join the movement to reimagine, to rebuild, and ultimately to move toward the Beloved Community.

Need a place to start?  Check out this self-paced workshop on Race in America (v1.0)


Stay strong, stay safe!


Friday, August 7, 2020

Virtual Teaching v1.0

This post is an update of a post from May (Virtual Teaching, Mixed Synchronous-Asynchronous).  Fall is approaching, and we're sadly in worse shape regarding the pandemic. My institution and others are going with virtual for fall 2020 and like the entire 2020-21 academic year. 

Last spring I taught Calculus 2 (quarter system). We started and ended virtually. My thoughts on organizing class are in the embedded slides below. Ideas apply to STEM and potentially HS.

Setting aside labs and clinical subjects, good teaching is good teaching. Whatever the format, we can teach effectively in virtual formats. It doesn't have to be horrible.  The false choice that is unfortunately presented in the media is (a) in person awesomeness and (b) deleterious virtual teaching.  We can do an outstanding job teaching Math virtually, and we can help and support students learn this year.

Quote from a student in Spring 20: “I actually took [Calculus 2] last quarter and got a D, learning hardly anything. This quarter though, the learning style you are using is super helpful to me. I am way less stressed…. also am significantly better at solving the very same calc problems!”

Slides on a virtual teaching:

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Devil Is In the Reopening Details

Let's say you work for NASA as a team sending astronauts into space. To launch safely, you need a "go" from all systems, not just one or two or 90% of the systems. Astronauts do not want to hear from mission control, "We got 9 out or 10 systems ready, so yea let's light this candle!"  They don't want to hear, "We worked really hard on this plan building the rocket, and there are a lot of people who want to see a rocket launch, therefore we need to launch today, even if conditions are not right."

Reopening a campus during a pandemic means you have to get all the details right. In this sense, we are like NASA. The core problem I see is that we are not taking the same level of attention to detail needed commensurate to the challenges facing us. Many of the plans to reopen colleges ignore key issues. It's not enough to have a good idea in concept or have consensus in committee/task force. The reason is because nature doesn't give partial credit, and nature does not care what we think or believe in. So it is not my opinion or other people's opinions that matter at the end of the day. It's whether we have solved the coronavirus problems.

And the astronaut analogy goes further. Building a rocket is a complex problem. It requires big ideas, vision, and crucially nailing every single little detail, otherwise things go wrong. Likewise in this pandemic, the devil is in the coronavirus details.

I wrote a blog post (link) and published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education outlining the case for not reopening. I don't think reopening is the right choice, and you can read my thoughts in the linked post or article. In this post, I take a closer look at the issues of reopening. I also note that I care about human lives and believe that humanity should be placed at the center of our discussions. I am also for using campus space as refuge, for instance, for students who do not have a safe home to live in. We need to set aside space for those who truly need it.

A partial list of some key issues not yet addressed or adequately addressed is provided below. I could add more items, but left this post at the current length to get across enough reasons to clearly demonstrate that important details are being overlooked. A comprehensive list is beyond the scope of this post. The list starts with "nuts and bolts" items and moves towards areas that connect with culture and motivations.

Bathrooms: Oddly, I see very little on bathrooms in plans regarding reopening campuses, yet it's something everyone I talk to is worried about. Many college buildings have one bathroom per floor, and are used frequently throughout the day. Ventilation is usually not good. Some have hand dryers, instead of paper towels, and toilets do not have seat covers (so when you flush droplets from the toilet could go into the air.)  The bathroom in the building where my office is has poor ventilation and no windows. There is no easy way to improve ventilation in many cases. 

Lack of Hand Washing Stations: This brings us to the next point. If the only place you can go to wash your hands in the bathroom, then you are sending all of the people on your campus into small spaces on a daily basis, multiple times a day, often with poor ventilation. One solution to this is to have available everywhere is hand sanitizer and hand washing stations. This means having stations in every class, near al offices, and so on. Not just a dispenser in a handful of places. 

Door handles/knobs:  Going to class requires me to open 5 doors each way. I need to grab the door handle/knob for the doors to the stairway leading in/out of my floor, the building door, the door to the building where my classroom is located, and then the classroom door itself. Each person has to use doors regularly. That's a lot of people touching the same door knob in just one period.

Hallways During Period Changes: I have yet to see anything written on this very basic thing that happens at schools. When the bell chimes, even if we reduce classes to 50% and have 6 feet distance, then everyone has to get up and go out into the hallway to get to their next class.  Social distancing in hallways is nearly impossible in this situation.  If a student goes to 4 classes, there will be perhaps 30 minutes of hallway time. That's a lot of exposure daily just in hallways.  Hallways are also not the most well-ventilated spaces usually.

Desks/tables in classrooms: I suppose the only way to deal with this is for instructors and students to bring sanitizing supplies to class everyday. I doubt colleges with shrinking budgets will be able to hire people to clean each desk each period. Students and faculty will have to bring their own cleaning kit.

Time: Classes are one to two hours long. This is a long time for people to be in a room. Even if people are wearing masking and sitting far apart, we have a room with people talking and breathing the same air for a prolonged period of time.

HVAC: HVAC systems need to be able to move air into and out of rooms. Some classes do not have windows, and some offices in the interior are sometimes windowless or have small windows.  Even determining if an HVAC system is "good enough" for the coronavirus situation would seem like an area that is not well-understood to the point where we could push this info out to all facilities departments across the nation, where they have the knowledge, skills, and materials to make it all work. 

Asymptomatic spread and the high cost of testing: Asymptomatic spread is an issue that I am really concerned about. When people are feeling symptoms it's clear what to do and how to behave. But if you don't know and have it, then it's a dangerous situation.  This means that testing needs to be broad, according to experts. So far, I have not seen good school plans on managing asymptomatic cases that is feasible. Temperature checks and testings students with symptoms only catch a subset of those who are spreading the disease. Some colleges have vast testing capacity, which is great for that campus, but not all campuses across the country.

With more testing comes high cost in money and moral standing. For the Cal State system, the WEEKLY cost for testing is estimated to be $25 million. We don't have a spare billion dollars in the system, when we are facing big budget cuts.  More damaging is the moral cost. Unless testing is widespread and cheap, we are taking useful testing capacity away from the healthcare system and from those working in essential jobs. Perhaps there will be big breakthroughs with testing capacity. But even in that case, the cost of many millions or billions could be spent on reducing fees/tuition and providing students in need or at risk with the devices and support they need. There are better uses of the money than the testing.

Other key questions...

  • How many positive tests will it take to close a campus?
  • Are you testing all students?
  • How transparent will this information be? 
  • If the institution is slow in responding, and where do students, faculty, staff go to report a developing situation?
  • What do you do when some refuses to be tested and has symptoms?
  • What is the contact tracing team and what is their capacity?
Masks and compliance: Masks and society are colliding right now in the US in ways they are not in east Asian countries. If we are to deal with asymptomatic spread, then we'll need masks for all students, faculty, and staff.  Then the question arises of whether we are we going to require students to wear gloves and masks.  If some don't, then the community is not as safe as it can be and risks go up. Wearing masks is a team sport, and at present the US is not united even on this basic issue. Hence, wearing masks is also a social problem, and this could lead to conflict in addition to increased health risk.

For example, suppose it is an exam day, and one student refuses to wear one. To keep people safe, you would cancel class.  One way around this is to give online exams. But then that leads us back to virtual teaching. And faculty should not be passing out paper and collecting it from all students for safety reasons anyways. Hence, electronic testing is the best solution, which once again leads us back on the path to virtual.

Libraries and Study Spaces: Libraries are not easy places to manage, because unlike a classroom, people go in and out when they want and linger. Students and faculty literally spend hours and hours in the library.  Like classrooms, each and every desk and chair needs to be cleaned after each use. This seems incredibly hard to manage and do well in a sustained and consistent way.

Compliance is an issue in libraries and other student spaces. If a person refuses to wear a mask, then what should the library or building manager do? Call campus police to remove the person or close the library/building? If this behavior is allowed, then risk will go over for everyone.

Staff who have to work the frontlines are especially at risk, and will also be tasked with making the call to campus PD or to close the building. It's not something people are trained to do, and they didn't take the job in the first place to be a bouncer.

Further, handling anything in the collections is also a concern. How does a library safely get materials to and from people?

Parties, clubs, and social gatherings: Social gathering is not addressed or perhaps can't be legally. Some students are going to hangout and socialize. Some will party, and these large gatherings are one way that coronavirus spreads quickly. Colleges seem to be hiding behind the phrase, "We can't control what people do..."  But this is incomplete, dishonest, and putting all the responsibility on the individual. Campuses control to a large degree whether students come to the area in the first place. Bringing people together in large numbers is giving tacit approval of convening and socializing. Colleges are cultural activities, and gathering people and then wondering why they are hanging out is abdication of responsibility or at the very least being complicit.

False comparisons: Comparing us to Sweden, France, or South Korea is inappropriate and wrong. These are countries with better healthcare systems, universal healthcare, and in the case of Sweden doing worse on a per capita basis. For countries like South Korea, yes they can try and reopen, because (a) they did their homework, (b) they hammered the curve to the x-axis, and (c) they are more coordinated and organized to do things like wear masks, testing, and prioritize community health. Cherry picking one small part of some other country's strategy is dishonest and bad science. I am all for learning from successful countries, but doing so in scientifically sound ways. 

Travel: While some schools are ending the fall term by Thanksgiving to try and surf the second wave, the broader issue is travel. Students travel from their home to residential college and then back, sometimes multiple times a term. Some are daily commuters, and some go back home on the weekends. Increase in travel raises the risk for the communities involved at both endpoints of the travel. Closing campuses before Thanksgiving is only a partial solution. If thousands of students travel, it is going spread the virus somewhere.

Colleges planning to go in person and end instruction by Thanksgiving are making a major acknowledgement. It's easy to not notice, but actually sheds enough light to throw some shade. Ending early is an acknowledgement that travel and in-person college increases risk. While it is an improvement to end by Thanksgiving, institutional values are revealed in this decision. That is, institutional values represented by calculations of acceptable risk and acceptable number of casualties. 

The devil, indeed, is in the details. 

A simple truth: Setting aside labs, arts, clinical classes, etc., if we are dressed in PPE, shielding instructors behind plexiglass, swabbing deep into our noses looking for viruses, and fearing for our safety, then the very thing we are convening for is dead on arrival. That is not a thriving educational environment. Students and faculty can't learn well when they don't feel safe. We're human. We want human experiences, not some twisted, dystopian experience.

Paraphrasing JFK, we go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard. For many institutions apparently, the moon shot is the journey to the moral high ground.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Virtual Teaching, Mixed Synchronous-Asynchronous (Version 0.9 Not Final Firmware)

Cal Poly SLO, where I work, is on quarter system. So we had the advantage and challenges of ending winter quarter in March, and starting spring quarter in April. It's been an adventure to put it mildly, and I am thankful that my family is healthy and safe.

This quarter I am teaching Calculus 2 to a group of 35 students. These students range from first year to third year, and span science, engineering, math, and architecture majors. I have not met these students before in person.  We started the term on April 6, and most all students left the area to go back home. Goal #1 is to build community.

Technology and internet are not issues in my class for students. I know these are issues that have to be dealt with, and this was not an issue this term for me.  My institution also did well to provide support for students and to get students, staff, and faculty the devices and connectivity needed. So I won't comment on tech issues.

The short version:  carefully craft "tutorial handouts" that guide students to the main learning goals. Work through some of it in class with regular student-centered activities. Students who can't make class at the scheduled time can work through the tutorial handout (where expanded solutions with insights are posted). Classes are also recorded so students who can't connect can view the class later.  Overall, class meetings are a mix of synchronous and asynchronous (75%-25% split).

Details in these slides below.

Earlier related posts:
  1. Draft Plans for Running a Virtual Class
  2. Thoughts on Human-Centered Teaching (Coronavirus)
Sample Handout (Clean Link, After Class Link)

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Case for Virtual Fall Term 2020 (and Probably Spring 2021)

These are my thoughts. I'm a Math Educator, speaking as a college faculty person. I'm using my own logic. I'm not an infectious disease epidemiologist. Some of my opinions will change as we get new info. This is written on April 22, 2020.


Emotionally what I want is to go back to normal. I am sure we all do.  I have been in lockdown for 6 weeks. I spent my birthday in lockdown. I am zoomed out. Virtual teaching is not why I got into the teaching profession. My kids miss their friends and teachers.

Despite all that we have to be responsible and meet this historic challenge. We have a moral responsibility to ourselves and each other to make good choices.

Risks are asymmetrical, and this is a key point I want to make clear. The downside risk of a contagion on a campus is far greater than the downside of virtual teaching.  Sadly, the range of choices we have is between bad and horrific. But people don't like bad, so it is understandable that we want something better. I fully understand that teaching via zoom in our bedrooms with kids at home is not a good situation. But this is the coronavirus era.

We are in a global humanitarian crisis. It’s a giant problem that unfortunately comes with a large basket of problems. The item in the basket this post primarily focuses on is in-person vs. virtual fall 2020.  I make a case for virtual fall 2020 and likely spring 2021.

A list of points and comments organized in a list.
  1. We don’t have a vaccine. ETA is March 2021, according to FDA (as of this writing). How we roll out 7+ billions vaccine is a manufacturing challenge, beyond the scientific challenges. Not sure we will get this before spring term. 
  2. Equity is a big concern in general in this crisis and specifically with respect to vaccines. When it comes to vaccines and treatments and access to healthcare, we will likely see income disparities. So if a college knows that vaccines are out, and plans to open in-person next spring, then will it also have in place vaccinations for low-income students and marginalized groups so that every students has access to treatment?  If not, then the college could force poor students to make the choice between missing school or their health. The children of NBA players and movie stars will get vaccines before the children of gardeners and housekeepers.  But schools might be wanting to open, when treatments are announced or starting to become ready, and leave behind or force into a tough decision students who are at the back of the line.
  3. Testing is still not up and running to a level where we can do surveillance testing as of this writing. In CA, we are testing people with symptoms, but will we be able to test all our students before they arrive, after they arrive, during the term,...?  If yes, then this is a good start. It is one of the things reported that we need in order to open up society.
  4. Treatments (other than vaccines) are being tested as of this writing. These may help, but they are not here yet and it's hard to plan on anything now for something that might help later. Widespread availability is another factor. Even if a treatment is shown effective in clinical trials, will your specific region have it in quantity and will it cover all students, faculty, staff, and the wider community?  
  5. Travel is a massive issue facing colleges that does not affect K-12 schools nearly as much. Merely getting college students physically to campuses in the fall is a significant risk due to long distance travel. Colleges and universities generally have students from different regions, some students are international. At the start of fall term, hundreds of thousands of students travel from their homes to different cities, often with parents or family.  The situation where millions of people traveling AND being able to do so without spreading the virus seems impossible. 
  6. Once on campus, hundreds of thousands of students across the US will live in dorms or apartments in close proximity to one another. Many eat in dining halls or other campus dining serving thousands of meals per day. The HVAC systems in buildings may be connecting the air between rooms.
  7. Even if somehow we get everyone to campus 100% coronavirus free, it gets messy from there. Do we let students go home on the weekends? What about Thanksgiving and winter break?  What if a family member of a student is in the hospital - do we let this student go home to see their family? And when the student returns is it to a 14-day quarantine?
  8. Students also do things like go into town and to the market. The university is not closed off from its region.  So the virus could be transported to the community or vice versa.
  9. Thought Experiment: How would a college town feel if 20,000 students from China and Italy are coming in August?  Ok, maybe not China and Italy, but maybe Los Angeles and New York.  We need to think about the communities around the colleges and their reactions (right or wrong). 
  10. Winter break is especially concerning without a vaccine. Are we going to send people home for 3 to 5 weeks in the middle of flu and possibly a coronavirus resurgence, and bring them all back again for winter quarter/spring semester in January? If yes, then we need to replay the fall scenario again in a tougher environment and less time to prepare due to the winter holidays and length of winter break.  
  11. Classrooms and labs force very close contact between students, with no option of proper distancing. Take a look at this image from one of our math classrooms. There's maybe two feet between desks. Plus we pack in 35 students into this space.  After you get a 6 or 7 people in there, you've used up "6 feet of distance" between people. Classroom buildings have HVAC systems that could be moving air from room to room.
  12. Classes are used multiple times a day. A single seat or desk may see as many as 10 or 12 different people using it each day. It seems unrealistic that we will sanitize each desk completely during each period. We'd need to hire hundreds of staff to do this massive cleaning job. This is unlikely given budgets are expected to go down. Given that we won't expand staff, then we won't do the cleaning needed. Therefore, we will have a petri dish in each classroom. 
  13. Thought Experiment: Student A sneezes on a desk. Gets up after class. Next class period, student B sits in that desk and gets infected. 
  14. Universities are not setup with staff and equipment for daily testing, tracing, isolating, etc.  One question is, "Who is going to do this work for thousands of people regularly?" And if a student has to go on quarantine, then what about their roommates, classmates, instructors?  
  15. If instructors get sick, then how does the class proceed, especially in areas that require specialized expertise, where there may not be a qualified expert able to step in? If staff get sick, then how does the university function if a large number are home sick?
  16. Each day, a university is like an all-day concert or sporting event. It seems more clear that we should not be having concerts or sports events until a vaccine arrives. The same logic applies to colleges and universities. Thousands of people engaging all day in close quarters, sitting in the same seats hour after hour, and then going to the library in close quarters. 
  17. College parties are another issue. Are we going to ban parties? Even if we can legally (not likely), then how will it be enforced especially if students live off campus? If it does happen, then what is the consequence? Quarantines?
  18. Thought Experiment: Suppose student A goes to a "corona party" and gets coronavirus. Student B sits next to student A in a class, and get coronavirus. Student B is in an at-risk group and is hospitalized or dies. Student B washed her hands, wore a mask, did everything right, but also depended on all other students on campus to follow through with the guidelines.  This then raises the issue of putting at-risk students into harm's way. And telling them to wash their hands isn't going to ensure they are safe, because safety in this crisis depends on everyone.  Even if student A was being responsible, student A could get the virus from the grocery store or a humanitarian mission.
  19. In Education we talk a lot about safe learning environments.  A psychological factor is also in play during the coronavirus era. When someone sneezes or coughs, it'll come with a tinge of fear. "I just sneezed - do I have coronavirus?" Or "My group mate just coughed! Am I going to get it next?”  The fear of illness and death is not a foundation to build a safe learning environment. It's literally a potentially physically dangerous learning environment.  It's hard to fully focus on a task or exam, when stressed about personal safety. 
  20. Will we enforce a no-attendance policy campus wide? What I mean is that faculty cannot have attendance as a requirement or part of the grade. Here's why this is important. If an instructor breaks ranks and requires students to show up for class as part of the grade, then the incentives for students to be in class are at odds with health concerns. Students in this case will be forced between choosing their grade and health. It's a horrible dilemma that students should not be forced into.
  21. Similar to above, but "attendance" replaced with "exams." What if a student is sick and it's midterm day? Then the student might have to decide between taking the exam and their health and the health of their class. And even if a college has a policy on make-up exams, how will it get monitored and enforced?                                                        
  22. Marketing Risk Thought Experiment: Assume a college rolls the dice and goes for in-person fall term. That campus then gets an outbreak in October, when thousands get sick and dozens die.  First and foremost, there is a huge human cost that could have been avoided. And second, there is the reputation of the institution, which will be trashed. Who is going to go to Coronvirus U next year?  Why trust what they do or say after that? What parent will want to send their kid to a place where dozens died unnecessarily.  It's very easy to destroy the reputation of an institution.
  23. If instead, the marketing is, "You will still have 3+ years of amazing, in-person, hands-on learning. But safety and health for you and everyone else matters most. So we will be working our hardest to do virtual right and then to open up when it's safe."  That would be more honest, and we'd get the kind of students we want anyways, who share our values. Those who are understanding and want to be at Cal Poly or wherever for what makes your institution special. That does not go away, if we hold true to our values. 
  24. Sports will likely be governed by conferences or NCAA. So I won't comment on this.
False Dichotomies
False dichotomies are bad. They also seem to have grown in number exponentially this year. Here are some examples.
  • The lockdown has created a rise in domestic violence. So we need to end the lockdown. (Choosing between lockdown and dealing with domestic violence).  
  • If we do not run in person, then enrollment will be down and budget will be a problem. (Trade lives for money.)
  • We need to save lives or save the economy.
All these are poor logic.  Pandemics are a basket or package of problems, not an "A vs. B" scenario. Pandemics attack your whole society from top to bottom, from left to right. It's a systemwide set of problems. This means every part of society gets affected and disrupted. So splitting up issues into coronavirus and non-coronavirus is poor logic, since it's all one giant set of problems, and more importantly these false dichotomies can lead to bad decisions.

Here's an example. Let's focus in on domestic violence issues. Domestic violence is a real problem and we need to fix this like right now. But the solution isn't to lift lockdowns early as a "solution" to address the rise in domestic violence. If we do that, then the disease might spread and you have more suffering in other areas of society. We should think of the rise in domestic violence as *part* of the crisis, and act accordingly. We should do both (a) reduce domestic violence and (b) keep people safe from coronavirus. For example, communities can start to do deal with domestic violence issues, by providing housing for victims in hotels, and offer moving services and security. A major conclusion is that false dichotomies lead people to make bad decisions, by improperly framing the problem into a choice between two (bad/incomplete) solutions.

Money Issues at Colleges
One major false choice facing universities are budget vs. lives.  It's not presented like this. We talk about it in terms of enrollment.  Lower enrollment should be expected for fall. Some students might prefer to take a gap year. Maybe their parents lost their jobs or have reduced income, and they can't go to college for financial reasons, whether virtual or in-person. Economic downturns of this speed and magnitude will create lower enrollments.  When 10%+ of workers have filed for unemployment in just a few weeks, that is going to affect college enrollments. I don't think virtual vs. in-person is the kicker here. It's more likely money and a tanking economy. We are in something like the great depression, and fewer people can afford college. That's just a fact. We should expect lower enrollment.

Colleges are not immune to broad, deep shifts in the economy like the one we are experiencing now. But some administrators may think virtual means lower enrollment and in-person means higher. I don't think that's a clearcut case or even true.  I understand budget concerns are real.  A real, systemic solution is for state and federal governments to bail out colleges and universities. We did this for airlines and other industries.  We did this for banks during the last financial crisis.  Why not protect the future of our younger generations?  Of course I am not naive. That's not happening. But this line of reasoning illustrates the folly of chasing dollars to address a wider societal failing, by trading the health of our communities, faculty, staff and the students we serve to run in-person classes during a pandemic (all the while assuming this is palatable to students and their families).

Some have argued on my campus that we need to keep businesses and the economy going. So bringing students here is worth it. The gist of their thinking is that some are going to die anyways, so you might as well save the local economy.  I think this is wrong and immoral.

Let's start with the fundamentals. Education is a social responsibility to our youth. It's not a business. We aren't maximing profits. Educational institutions do not have in their mission statements the goal of supporting and upholding the regional economy.  People try and spin education in materialistic terms, but education fundamentally is a social responsibility. Thinking of students as consumers or bags of money is wrong or at least significantly incomplete.

We also can't just ignore the bodies in the corner and get on with taking tests and doing labs. If people are sick and dying, even if it's "just a few dozen," it's not going to feel like a learning institution. At least it won't for me. Maybe others are harder and tougher that I am. But if I am losing colleagues and students to coronavirus, I'm not going to be all excited and happy to go to my next committee meeting and act like all is normal. The fear of death or illness has a way of souring the mood, amping of stress levels, and killing morale.  I can't think of many ways other to make a community feel more like a disposable cog in a machine than pushing them into the middle of a global pandemic.

If faculty and staff feel like they are disposable cogs, the ones with outside opportunities (i.e. the ones who get more grants and publish more) will leave or get poached by savvy institutions. It'll be harder to recruit good faculty and staff, and the quality if the institution would take a hit.  Students who don't feel safe will not attend or go elsewhere.  So going down the route of in-person fall term has serious long-term risks, beyond easily quantifiable things such as positive test cases and number of fatalities. 

Here's a hard pill to swallow. The key societal mistakes were made before we arrived at the present day. We did not invest in pandemic preparedness, we responded slowly and with disorganization as a society, and we have gaps in our society that are being laid bare. It's like we are on a raft and the river is leading us to a dangerous section. The college is in the raft and decision makers in the past put the raft in the river. We like to think colleges are independent from society. In some ways colleges are highly autonomous. But we are in the "river of the society" we have, and what happens to the world happens to us. The tough part is we can't do anything about upstream decisions. We are now left with a set of hard choices and tough realities, ranging from bad to horrible.

I don't like virtual college. We are not supposed to like it. It's going to be the hardest period of our careers.  I hate thinking of the long slog back up the hill, and this is if I make it. But this reality is the definition of living during natural disaster. In the grand scheme, we are the lucky ones, given that we live in a modern, advanced nation and still have jobs and paychecks. We have opportunities to revamp and update some things that need to be fixed. We can be creative and human for our students during this time, and teach them about morality, community, solidarity, and steadfastness during difficult times. There exist things we can teach virtually in this environment that are both sorely needed and would have been scoffed otherwise. So while I see virtual (and the pandemic) as an unwelcome reality, I also see upside in the opportunity it presents and most importantly a clear, moral case for why going virtual in fall 2020 is the right choice.

Stay safe and stay healthy!

Edit: An different version of this blog post is published in the Chronicle of Higher Ed

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Putting Humanity First

When you unfortunately need to go to a friend’s funeral, you also have to figure out how to get there.  You need to make arrangements for hotel stay, travel, find out exactly when and where the services will be.  Maybe travel won’t go to plan, and there are things you can rightly complain about. But the main reason why you go to the funeral is for your friend you lost. It’s about the celebration of life, not the travel details.

At present, we have a lot on our plates. Converting an in-person class to online/virtual format is a huge task, and all the more challenging under the weight and stress of a crisis. But in the big picture how we deliver our content online is like the travel details to attend a friend's funeral. We have a lot of huge issues now that we never had to deal with before.

Lots of things don’t compute right now, since coronavirus arrived. I don't have a lot of answers. I do have some thoughts. Our whole world, our daily lives, even potentially our very own health and the health of loved ones are threatened. We are witnessing leaders call for trading lives to save the Dow Jones average. We are hearing reports of healthcare workers on the front lines, without proper equipment and support. Family businesses are going out of business. We are also seeing racism against Asians and Asian Americans.

In light of this, going on with business as usual with our teaching is for me something I am struggling with. I know this is a personal viewpoint. Some may need to dive into the details of a class to cope and distract. I get that, and I’m not arguing against what others are doing in this same situation.  What I am saying is that I personally can’t just sit back and say nothing or just teach my spring quarter class just like I did the last time. The world has changed, and so have I. In April, May and possibly beyond, we’ll be in the midst of toughest part of the first wave of the coronavirus. You can’t just ignore all the bodies in the corner, while going on about integration by parts without acknowledging what’s happening.

At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the goals of our classes. We still need to educate. Students still need to learn and build up for their lives and careers.  I’m not advocating for not teaching content either.

The world has far too many damaging, false dichotomies. Choosing between lives and the economy is the latest, terribly inhuman example. Others suggest we must choose between skills and conceptual understanding. Some suggest, falsely, that the choice is between helping underrepresented students or white students, as if kindness and inclusion is like pie. False dichotomies are red flags. It signals an agenda, bias, lazy thinking, or unwillingness to dig into the details of a complex issue.

The question for me at least is whether we will choose to be responsible to each other and ourselves and behave like grown ups.  Responsible adults study the data and evidence, and get on with solving problems in this new normal.

Specific to education, teachers can inspire and attend to basic skills, as well as ask students in earnest, “How are you doing?” Teachers can be flexible with lessons because the news we all just received is truly bad. Teachers can keep the door open, create space in class and in office hours (even virtually), check in on students, and show their own humanity, reasoning, and maturity in the face of a global crisis.  We are all scared. We all feel a range of emotions, and none of us have it all figured out or know what the future holds.

I’m teaching integral calculus online starting in about a week, and I plan to create spaces to build some community and have time set aside for us to discuss the global pandemic and how students are dealing with it. We (students and instructors) all have smart things we can share that will help others, and we can teach and learn to be better to one another. I'll also spend a lot of time developing an assessment plan that is standards based/mastery based, so that the stress of testing is taken off. The focus should be on learning (as always and even more important now).  That in a nutshell is how I'll try to be a responsible adult in my role as a math instructor. I teach students first and foremost, with Math as the context.

Yes, we can teach the usual things, all the while putting humanity first.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Thoughts On Human-Centered Virtual Teaching (Coronavirus)

My head is still spinning. We're living through the start of a global pandemic. I've had to do so much at home and work to prepare, that's it's been tough to even get enough sleep and take care of myself. Or fold that giant pile of laundry that's been sitting in the corner for days.

On to teaching... I've read many posts on twitter, in email, and articles about what to do to go virtual with our teaching. These discussions are great, and I've already learned a lot. People are stepping up and sharing really useful, real-world advice.  In this post I'm going to focus on one aspect of all this. I call it human-centered teaching.

When we teach in person, it's easier to get to know your students, mentor during office hours, run into students on campus and have a conversation. All these things are part of the package of student-centered instruction and being on campus, and many of these things are harder or nonexistent or must be recreated in different way in online settings. I have not figured this all out by any stretch. I don't think it's something we should feel bad about, and I know over time we will develop and figure some of this out.

I'm on quarter system, so we actually start spring term in early April. But even if we were on semesters I'd do the same thing I'm going to mention.  On the first virtual meeting day, I have two main goals. One is to meet and set virtual class norms (e.g. everyone turns on video, raising hands, muting), and practice using the technology. All of this is new, so we're going to need to get comfortable with our new normal routines.

The second goal is to open up a space for students to share some of their thoughts and feelings and make human connections with their classmates and me. This is the most important thing, in my opinion, to accomplish on day 1 (and keep going). The context surrounding us is a global pandemic. Millions will get sick, and globally many will die or lose someone close. This is hard stuff, and it's desperately real. Students who are young and just at the beginning of their adult lives are dealing with the uncertainty and turmoil of an enormous natural disaster, all the while going through the disruption of having to move home and be separated from their friends. In light of this, it's even more important to try and create a team spirit in our classes.

How will I try to do this? I plan to set aside class time for students to share their thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic. One specific strategy I used to get people to participate online (zoom conference calls) is to use a google doc with a 3xN table (N= number of students +1).  Here's a hypothetical example:

Students pick a row and are paired with another student with the same number.  I give them a pronpt, and they type at the same time, while I observe and make comments. (Using this strategy also needs to be normed.)

Further, I plan to create a chat space on Canvas for discussion strategies for how to study, self care, random questions or comments. I'll send out regular emails to keep the door open for students, and invite students to virtual office hours (or 1-1 meetings) to discuss math, learning, be a mentor, just be there to listen. I'm sure I'll have to adapt and add more things, but these are my initial plans to setup a framework for human interaction.

Another important mindset I'll focus on is keeping a healthy perspective for myself. We are not trying to recreate our in-person classes. Almost all of us are going online for the first time. Trying to cover everything just like before and in the same way is not going to happen. My focus will be on being present in each moment, trying my best, and working to improve each and everyday (Shokunin Spirit).

Lastly, I'd like to mention that we should be gentle on ourselves. We all going through a lot, and we should allow ourselves to be human, to make mistakes or not have the "best" class session. What truly matters is that we care and our students know we care about them. If it doesn't go like we planned, it's ok.

That's my initial plan for implementing human-centered virtual teaching. Sending positive thoughts. Stay safe and healthy!