In Defense of the Physical Classroom (by April Passi)

Several months ago, I had thought about writing a post in defense of the physical classroom. It seems that right now is the perfect time to write this post. We are all practicing social-distancing and many governments have closed schools. As administrators, teachers, and students grapple with moving their classrooms to the virtual realm, we might like to reflect on how this (temporary?) relocation will change our perspectives on what a classroom really is. 

I originally wanted to write a post in defense of physical classrooms because I was concerned with the neoliberal co-optation of education through Massive Open Online Courses. I don’t like the idea that a course can be created, packaged, and sold for a profit. I also have a strong belief that education and learning goes far beyond course content and is, in fact, more about the relationship between students and teachers. I see the learning process as a journey of self-discovery, in which the teacher is a guide and support for her pupils.  I also tangentially ground myself in theories about the physicality of sound and of being together. See, for example, the work of Dr. Ruth Feldman on synchrony. Humans are fundamentally social, physical beings. When we are together in a room, there are thousands of minute physical cues being passed between us, from sounds to movements and gestures, eye contact, smells, subtle shifts in posture, and more. Teachers read and respond to (or ignore) all of these cues, as well as give out cues themselves.

Yet here I find myself, a teacher without a physical classroom. For the way that I teach, and for many of you, transitioning to online learning will absolutely be possible, but I do believe that something special will be lost. However, is this the case for all courses? A friend of mine is currently enrolled in two university level math courses and a physics course, which have extremely large class sizes and professors that usually just lecture without much interaction with students. It seems that in this case, very little is lost by transitioning to an online setting where the professor can lecture for two or three hours, record the session, and then post it online for students to watch later.

So then, is there a difference between delivering course content and…teaching? I realize this is potentially provocative question, but I hope to spark some debate and reflection. I suppose the answer to my question really depends on one’s definition of what constitutes learning, and on one’s teaching philosophy. Will this migration to online content delivery prompt faculties and professors to re-think the purpose of in-person learning situations, and examine their teaching philosophies? I think that the current closure of physical schools and classrooms might spark a fear that teachers and professors can just be replaced with recorded lectures that students can simply watch on their own time. This thought has certainly crossed my mind. What if governments and administrators take this opportunity to move learning online permanently, since it could be much cheaper for them? Honestly, I think that the current health emergency may indeed be the death-knell for in-person lecture-based classes of hundreds of students. But my secret hope is that it will also spark some creative reflection, too. Years ago, I listened to a talk by a visiting professor in the faculty of law at McGill in which he described the success he had had in flipping his classroom – asking students to watch recorded lectures at home, and then using their time in the classroom to work in teams to solve complex legal problems. I hope that teachers and professors who mainly lecture will take some cues from professors like him, as well as elementary and secondary school teachers who must constantly think about how to catch their students’ attention by crafting engaging learning activities that draw on the power of collaborative learning, and tap into the ‘multiple intelligences’ of everyone in the room.

But what about those of us that already teach collaboratively, and rely heavily on the physicality of learning together? How are we going to handle this transition to online spaces? What will asking students to consult with their elbow partner look like? How about moving around the room to brainstorm or solve problems (see graffiti boards or  gallery walk type activities)? How can we manage jigsaw reading activities? Use art or music to prompt writing? Those are my concerns as a language teacher. But what about science teachers who want to run experiments? Another friend of mine is a lab technician in a university biology classroom. She and her colleagues had to frantically photograph experiments and specimens before the school shut down in order to try to continue running labs online, and even then, they are still not sure how they will proceed.

Well, I can’t answer for science teachers, but language teaching online is doable. I have been working with an online language program for health-care professionals across Quebec for the past four years. At first, I really hated it! Teaching online is so much different than teaching in person and requires a different awareness of your upper body and facial expressions than teaching in-person. However, after I got used to the online conferencing software, I came to really enjoy the challenge of teaching online as well as some of the fun things you can do when using online conferencing software. Online conferencing software that allows for the creation of breakout rooms (small groups), screen sharing, collaborative writing, polling, etc. can be really fun to use and to experiment with. For example, with breakout rooms, I can turn off my camera and microphone and go listen to student pairs as they practice speaking in English together, which has the added benefit of not making students nervous, which happens in-person when I am visibly eves-dropping nearby! There are also plenty of online co-working platforms that students will be able to use for group work, and other software we can use for generating and grading quizzes or creating other activities. Many publishers are making their online learning resources free for students during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many have online quizzes and evaluations built into their already existing online platforms.

Despite the abundance of online resources, the learning curve for teachers will be steep! School administrations will have to act quickly in purchasing software licenses for their teaching staff if they don’t already have subscriptions to these services, and then will have to provide some training. I can’t really give you an exhaustive list of online teaching resources, strategies and instructional tutorials here because it will depend on your own preferences, as well as  your school and what software licenses your administration decides to purchase, but I can say this: don’t worry! Try your best! Don’t give up! Approach online teaching with an air of playfulness. If you are not stressed out, then your students won’t be either. YouTube is your friend! Go to YouTube and type in the name of the software that your school has purchased for you, and see if you can find basic instructional tutorials, and then test out the software with your friends and family before you teach a class. We can do it!

Even though I am excited about the novelty of teaching online, I remain a committed in-person teacher. There are many things that are lost when I’m not in the same room as my students. I miss the ability to check in quickly one-on-one with students as I move around the room during an activity, whether it’s reading, writing or speaking. Quick student-teacher conferences about a piece of writing will be very hard to replicate online. I think for that we would need a holographic classroom – maybe the technology will get there eventually! In general, I think that content delivered via virtual face-to-face learning will need to be simplified and streamlined, and it will just be impossible to do all the things we would normally do in our physical classrooms.

While we ride out the COVID-19 pandemic, online resources will help us to stay connected and to maintain and nourish our student-teacher learning relationships. We will all get a chance to grow professionally and challenge ourselves as teachers. But, when this health crisis is over and our schools can once again open their doors, I think we will have a new appreciation for teaching in-person – and hopefully we won’t take that for granted.

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