As We Zoom into Online Learning….

tags: technology, teaching history, coronavirus, online learning

Norman J.W. Goda is Braman Professor of Holocaust Studies and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida and the author of The Holocaust: Europe, the World, and the Jews (2013).



“Zoom” – this playful kid-word, which once referred to fast cars, now signals a fast-approaching sea-change in higher education, unfolding before our eyes thanks to COVID-19 and the need to move live university classes online. Zoom, for those who do not know, is the video meeting platform by which faculty are all migrating our classes to on-line format.


We all might have larger things to worry about in the next few weeks and months, like our loved ones, our colleagues, and our students becoming terribly ill. If this happens, then the nature of online education will hardly be our biggest problem. 


But for the moment at least, as an academic who has been teaching at state universities for nearly thirty years, I am torn concerning the issue at hand. On the one hand, the students who signed up for my History of the Holocaust class this semester at the University of Florida did so because they were interested in the topic, some intensely so. As I try and move my lectures and discussion sessions from a classroom to a Zoom format, I want to provide something as close to the classroom experience as I can. On the other hand, I suspect, as do many of my colleagues, that university administrators and state legislators throughout the US will study this crash experiment in online education very closely one day. Are we academics showing them how they might replace us in the name of heightened efficiency? 


We can agree that some of the efficiencies are indeed desirable. Those of us who remember putting books on reserve in the library for twenty-five students at a time will attest to this. A certain number of online classes, moreover, have existed for the last couple of decades, helping place-bound students and those students, younger and older, who work full time. But what happens when everything goes online, and all at once? If we discover that all classes can be delivered online from a remote location, then what is the point of having lecture halls, classrooms, or for that matter a diverse faculty of broad expertise and talents? The arguments that have been percolating in universities for the past decade will intensify overnight.Yes, there are faculty who have put in an immense amount of time in order to develop fine online experiences. But I have also seen half-baked efforts over the years that are rather disastrous, even within the oft-cited rationalizing context of the apocryphal 1970s professor (I never actually had one of these guys) who mumbled through his yellowing lecture notes. 


My colleagues are proceeding cautiously. One colleague warned me not to record my lectures into the Zoom cloud, but to provide them live through Zoom. Everyone, I hear, is giving synchronous (“live” in Zoomspeak) as opposed to asynchronous (“recorded” in Zoomspeak) lectures. Anyone who has seen the infatuation with online learning in higher education administration over the past twenty years knows that this is hardly a paranoid reaction. The university would own the recorded content, as the work is done for the university in return for compensation. I actually recorded the first few lectures for my class. I needed to crawl with this technology before I could walk, and the students, I thought, would need time to adjust to the new reality of a full course load online as they simultaneously move from Gainesville back to their homes in Florida and elsewhere in the US.  Nonetheless, like some of my colleagues, I am uneasy even with synchronous content. If I have learned anything from other people’s travails with Facebook and Twitter over the years, it is that nothing put online, even briefly, is truly protected or truly deleted. 


And if I know what faculty will say once the experiment is over, I am less sure about the students.  I hope that they give a contextual yet roundly negative assessment -- something like, “I understand the situation, but I can’t wait to get back to live classes.” But today’s students are online-surveyed to death, starting with online evaluations of faculty each semester that most do not complete. Worse, twenty-somethings believe that they can effectively multitask–what others of us would call diffusing one’s focus. The professor telling them at the start of class to turn off their cell phones and laptops is now the professor who depends on these devices as we try to lecture or hold discussion sections from remote locations. Zoom actually has a feature that discloses a student’s level of attention—have they left their screen? Are they messaging? Are they watching Netflix? But I really don’t want to check that feature, and the fact that Zoom has it at all reveals the nature of the problem. Live classes promote a level of decorum that everyone in the classroom understands and from which everyone in the room benefits. But taking a class alone in one’s kitchen or bedroom? There is a reason that different rooms have different names, and in every language.


Finally, there is the quality of our own work, our pedagogical preparation. Like most of my colleagues in certain disciplines, I believe that each lecture and each discussion is the result of having worked at our craft over a period of years. What material shall we present to make a particular point about, say, Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, or about Reconstruction after the Civil War, or about Robespierre’s dictatorship? How shall we present it? What verbiage will we use? What visuals will we use? When will we leave the lectern for a stroll up the aisle? When will we pause and urge the the students think rather than just take notes? What questions will we pose to them when they discuss? How can we encourage them to interact and even debate with one another face-to-face-to-face, complete with expressions and gestures? How will we get them to understand that there are no black and white answers but only arguments, some thoughtful, some needing intensive development? 


These questions and many others form the very stuff that makes live higher education on a university campus an experience for faculty and students that cannot be replicated online, at least through the Zoom technology with which I have become familiar. Even if all of the technology “works,” how can our broader efforts, having been squeezed through the portal between a faculty computer and those of the students, come out undistorted on either side in ways that we cannot yet fully recognize? Zoom is fine technology—for conference calls. It enables business executives to talk to one another over long distances while presenting flowcharts and such. Academics can even have faculty meetings via Zoom, so that we ourselves can “multitask” to our heart’s content while discussing the minutiae of departmental by-laws.


But the real interaction that results in true learning? I am not sure at all. Zoom at its bandwidth-driven heart allows us to see one another and hear one another only to the point where we can talk to one another’s images (with cheesy optional backgrounds of the tropics or of outer space no less) and not speak to one another as human beings. We can see, but our vision is circumscribed. We can listen, but our hearing is muffled. We can connect, but our interaction is impeded.


For this, we all need to be, once again, in the same room. 


Let’s hope it is soon.

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