Like many law schools, my institution has decided to move all classes on-line, to the extent possible, at least until March 29. The Elisabeth Haub School of Law is located in Westchester County, New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo has deployed the National Guard and established a 1-mile “containment area” a few towns over in New Rochelle, New York.
These are unusual times.
Today is the first day that my colleagues and I started teaching on-line. My message, to myself and my colleagues, is to do what you can, with whatever technology you feel comfortable with, and strive for excellence but not perfection. In other words, we are all going to make mistakes in the on-line classroom, in the same way we make mistakes in the traditional classroom. (I made quite a few in my class this morning.) Many of us are feeling overwhelmed as we figure out the technologies that enable us to teach on line. It seems that at every turn, there is another webinar or click-through to consult.
We will get through this, with patience and good cheer. Our students want us to succeed; we want them to succeed. We will not leave our students behind. This will be difficult, for sure. But we will support each other and continue to grow as individuals and as communities.
But how to foster community if I can’t see my students and my students can’t see each other? There are technologies that enable us to easily have the equivalent of a massive on-line conference call. But what if students won’t turn on their cameras? I had more than one colleague say that fewer than half of students turned their cameras on. What if students have on their cameras, but I can see their messy beds, partially eaten meals and … less than professional aspects of their lives?
Every instructor must decide what message to convey to students about virtual “presence.” Mine is this:
I recognize students may not have reliable internet access, or may have internet problems at any particular moment. Not all students will have cameras or microphones on their laptops, especially if they have older machines. I get it (I’ve been there!). For these reasons, I’ll make sure that students can participate in the on-line session by phone. All students also will have access to a recording of the session. It’s not ideal; it’s not the experience any of us signed up for. But we will make sure that the students’ learning is not set back.That being said, I believe it is reasonable to ask students will use the phone option as a back-up measure, not all the time, unless they can let me know. Students who are physically and technologically able to attend the synchronous class in its regularly scheduled time-slot should do so.In my class, I consider it part of my student’s professional obligation to turn on their cameras, mute their microphones, and remain present for the entire time. Instructors certainly need to be understanding if someone needs to step away from their computer, just as we would be in a traditional class. But the expectation is that the instructors should be able to see the students and vice versa, as a matter of creating and building community. Very few people like to see themselves on camera (I know I don’t). By turning on the camera, we are showing up for each other and saying, “I’m a part of this. We’ll get through this together.”