Reflecting on the Pandemic Journey

Anybody that is a frequent visitor to this blog probably knows by now that I like to use this as a medium to complete my coursework as much as possible. It helps me to think through the assignment when I reflect on it here, and I think it makes for a better submission than a plain old paper.

This weekend saw the start of my first summer semester of my doctoral program. I’ve taken summer classes in the past, but they were short, intensive 5-week courses. This summer, and my next several summers, will be filled with two full 10-week courses. And this summer, I’m taking Statistical Methods and Distance Learning. One of those courses is much more terrifying to me than the other. Can you guess which one?

Anyway, the first assignment in Distance Learning is to reflect on how the pandemic changed the way we used technology to live and interact in work and school, an apt and timely reflective assignment.

Pandemic Teaching: 8th Grade

When the pandemic first started, I was an eighth grade English teacher. I remember in the weeks before spring break, we heard students continually joking that someone should get the coronavirus so that they could have two weeks off from school. And then of course, it happened. We left for spring break, and we didn’t return to classrooms until September.

From March of 2020 until January 2021, I was a pandemic teacher. When schools shut down in March, we gained an extra week of spring break while administrators attempted to make plans, then we taught from home. Instruction through the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year was asynchronous remote – just one of a thousand new terms added to our collective lexicon. At that point, technology ruled every aspect of life.

As I was the English Department Chair at the time, I did my best to assist my group of English teachers acclimate to the technology tools. For the most part, we tried to stick to the tools that we knew and that students knew; pandemic teaching was traumatic for all involved, and we tried to avoid adding unnecessary stress by trying to learn new technology. From the Google Classroom LMS to Google Docs assignments, we relied on Google tools to teach. Google Classroom was already commonly used before the pandemic, so it was new to only a few. Many teachers already used Remind to communicate with students, and they continued to do so. My PLC frequently text messaged each other to stay in communication. I actually wrote more about this experience in this post, if you’re interested. Throughout that semester, my classes stayed asynchronous, where I posted an assignment each week, and they completed it on their own. We only met synchronously one time at the very end of the semester.

Nobody knew exactly what school would be like when we returned for the 2020-2021 school year. Our initial start date was pushed back a few weeks, and then we started the year with synchronous remote teaching. This was when things became much more difficult. My administration and district didn’t have the best communication with us, and things felt like they changed on an hourly basis. We all prepared to teach in “pods” where face-to-face students would remain in one classroom while the teachers rotated rooms. There was going to be one “online” teacher who would essentially livestream another teacher’s class to the online students, while answering questions in the chat, but just days before that system was going to start, we were told it was changing and we would stay in our own classrooms. We spent the first three weeks doing synchronous online instruction over Webex. For reasons that were not clear, we didn’t have any transition time between classes. That was one of the most stressful experiences of my career, teaching students I couldn’t always see, in a format that was new and unfamiliar, without any time to decompress and reset between classes. I knew after one day that style of teaching was not sustainable. I remember frequently thinking of my less tech-savvy teacher friends. If I was struggling with my background in instructional design and educational technology, I couldn’t imagine how much my friends were struggling.

After three weeks, we changed gears again. After spending three weeks working at building relationships with online students, we had complete schedule changes with a new bell schedule. Every class had some students in the classroom and some students in the Webex room. We continued using Google Classroom and Google Docs for our assignments. Desks in the room had plexiglass shields. Everyone wore masks. It was… weird.

Cisco Webex became the most important technology tool, and most of us had never used it before. I had experience with Zoom from collaborating with professors at the University of Houston, but Webex was new. I spent a lot of time teaching teachers to use this tool effectively, from screensharing to the best way to present a lesson to physical students and online students simultaneously.

My favorite use of technology from this time period was using my Kindle app to read books to my students. It took a lot of trouble-shooting to make it work perfectly, but in the end it was fantastic. I purchased the book Ghost by Jason Reynolds in both Kindle and Audible formats. This unlocked Whispersync which allowed me to play the audiobook while highlighting the words in the Kindle app as it went. I did all this from my iPad by joining the Webex room and sharing the iPad screen to the class meeting. I then showed the Webex screen on the projector so that my online students and my face-to-face students could follow along with the novel simultaneously. It was so perfect, we ended up reading the next book in the series as well.

Pandemic Teaching: Undergraduate

At the same that I was an 8th grade teacher, I was also an adjunct lecturer at the University of Houston. Teaching CUIN 3312: Educational Technology was less hectic than teaching 8th grade English. For the end of the Spring 2020 semester, we also shifted to asynchronous online classes, though I made myself available online during our regular class time, in a sort of virtual office hours. Many students logged in to ask questions about the assignments or just chat about what was happening in the world. The last class of the semester was a required online meeting and students delivered their own technology integration lessons to each other as we would have in the classroom. For having such a short amount of time to prepare, that final project went amazingly well.

When the Fall semester started, the course was officially a synchronous online class. UH set up a number of procedures and technologies to facilitate online learning. When my classes were set up in Blackboard as usual, they were also set up in Microsoft Teams. The class had the same one-night-per-week schedule that it always had, but now those weekly meetings took place in Teams. During the Fall semester, we didn’t have a breakout room capability, so I set up groups for students after the first week and created private channels for them. Each week consisted of an in-class activity that students completed in breakout sessions in their channels before rejoining the main class meeting to debrief and discuss. It worked surprisingly well. For the Spring 2021 semester, I brought back a tool I’d used in the past for communication with students – GroupMe, a mobile instant messaging app which I’ve studied in the past (check out my publications page for more info!). This allowed students to quickly send out questions to the class, whether about assignment due dates or expectations or sharing dates and times for educational Twitter chats. It added another level of communication that aided us in our online course.

Pandemic Instructional Design

In November of 2020, I completed a virtual interview with the manager of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at Houston Community College. Technology played a huge part in that interview, most obviously because it was an interview that took place in Webex (a tool with which I was incredibly comfortable by that time). The hiring process was slow, but regular updates to my status on the application website kept my hopes high. In January, I got the long-anticipated call with a job offer, and on February 1st, I sat at my desk in my newly renovated home office in yet another Webex room for a virtual version of New Hire Orientation, where talent engagement specialists fully utilized the available technology to bring in guest speakers, take us on a virtual tour of the many campuses that comprise HCC, and even complete new hire paperwork using Adobe Sign.

I’m in a strange position of starting a new job during pandemic remote work. Every interaction I’ve had in my position has been through Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex. Even still, with near-constant chatter in our Teams Chat, I feel that I am already a part of the team. I wasn’t expecting to feel so much a part of the family so quickly, and I certainly didn’t think that we would use Teams to constantly communicate in the way that we do. Teams has created a replication of the chatter that happens in a shared, open office that made me feel like I wasn’t miles away from my coworkers.

After months of teaching face-to-face and online simultaneously, focusing on just the computer has been a relief. I struggled a bit the first couple weeks with headaches from staring at computer screens all day; I started forcing myself to take little breaks where I would look anywhere except at a screen. Between that and possibly just building a tolerance, I haven’t had that issue in a while now, despite my workload increasing and multiple meetings per day.

Since I started, I’ve facilitated an asynchronous certification course in Canvas LMS, designed, developed, and delivered a professional development seminar, and have been working on various instructional design projects, from a Canvas training re-design to working directly with faculty members on the design of their online courses. The tools that rule my day-to-day are still Webex and Teams, but now with Canvas thrown in.

I’ve talked about my new job on this blog before (plus one post that is still an in-progress draft), so I won’t go on about how much I love this job, but I will say that I have thoroughly enjoyed working from home. I love being surrounded my animals, even when the dogs bark at a squirrel or one of the cats chooses my keyboard as the best place for a nap. The comfort and freedom of working in my comfortable home office has been amazing, and while I know it won’t last, I also know now that this is something I can do and can do well.

The Return to “Normal”

Today, I am sitting in Terminal D of the Pittsburgh International Airport typing this blog on my laptop. I have a mask hanging from one ear as I sit more than 6 feet away from everyone and eat a quesadilla. I am fully vaccinated, as is everyone in my family, and for the first time in over a year, I was able to visit with my mom and various friends from college this weekend. It was an incredible experience that I know I’ll never take granted.

In the Fall, my UH class will return to a hybrid format, with two hours face-to-face supplemented by one hour of online pre-work, all structured in a flipped classroom format. I’m looking forward to being back in my computer lab classroom with students, but a lot of the lessons learned through my pandemic teaching experience will continue to affect how I teach that class. Right now, we’re working on going through the full course to revise the structure and content as necessary. One lesson learned was about communication. Without explaining things in person to students, we found that our weekly handouts needed to be vastly more clear and concise. Our weekly handouts are now structured into three sections: Before Class, During Class, and After Class. For consistency, one week’s Before Class is identical to the previous week’s After Class. This way, the pre-work associated with the flipped class was listed on both weeks’ handouts.

The plan to go back to the office (or in my case, to the office for the first time) is a little less clear with HCC. I know that I’ll remain online through the summer. In the Fall, we’ll begin a rotation schedule in the office, with each of us there one or two days a week with very little overlap. Even then, all of our meetings and professional development will remain online. There are many aspects of remote work that I hope remain after we return. Meeting with faculty online has many benefits. They can share their screen so we can help them solve problems. We can meet without driving to another campus. Even if nothing remains, we still learned valuable lessons from this experience, and will be better instructional designers for it. And I know that our faculty will be better instructors for it as well.

The pandemic thrust technology into the spotlight, and while anyone could easily say that there were technological problems over the past year, technology got us through. It allows us to communicate in ways we never would have in the past. Everyone in the field of education got a crash course in distance learning, and while I know that many will say they never want to go back, I’m so happy to be a professional in this field at this pivotal time.

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