I am your instructor. In this letter, I will try to summarize my experiences of teaching an online course and your experiences taking this course, as I have known and understood them, during this global pandemic. I am sure you will notice that this is also a confession, and a plea for help.
You have been attending my lectures and office hours. I have answered your questions on the class discussion board, marked your assignments and replied to your emails. Still, we have never physically been in the same space. It is possible that we are not even in the same country. Regardless, as your teacher, it is my responsibility to help you, to the best of my abilities, to explore your academic interests and work toward your life goals.
We all recognize that this pandemic-driven, online teaching and learning environment is far from ideal, but we are trying to make things work the best we can. You and I face numerous challenges: adapting to (even more) educational technologies, meeting course demands and expectations, and coping with the effects of the pandemic on our personal lives, on our families and on our well-being. I am still struggling to keep up with major changes in my daily routines and I wouldn’t be surprised to know that you are struggling, too.
As your instructor, I depend on your understanding, maturity, patience and cooperation to be able to successfully navigate through this externally imposed, online education universe. Things that are happening are not just unfair to you or me, they affect every member of our university community – and, of course, everyone else on this planet. Quite possibly, teaching and learning online will be the new norm for some time, and we need to be smart and adjust as much as we can.
Preparing for the inevitable
From the moment our university closed in March 2020, I spent countless hours attending webinars and workshops to learn how to use various educational technologies, to find ways to enforce academic integrity, and to appropriately structure my online courses. I joined many “therapeutic sessions” offered by my communities of practice, where we shared our concerns, knowledge and experience, and supported each other as we prepared to face the inevitable but unforeseen challenges and frustrations in this brave new, online teaching world.
Yes, there have been problems and mistakes: from technology failing when it’s most needed, to me not thinking through all the possible ramifications of introducing new class components, to me saying one thing and writing another during a lecture (and with no one reacting to it). It is from our mistakes that we learn; however, because of the ways my mistakes are exposed online, I am feeling more vulnerable than in the face-to-face classroom. Talking with instructors from across the country, I am learning that many of my younger colleagues, and especially my younger female colleagues, feel even more vulnerable and anxious than I do.
Your peers posted memes and mean comments on social media about my teaching and personal life; some invited a “friend” to troll our class; others complained about how online education should be cheaper than in-person classes, without realizing how much extra effort it takes to deliver an online lecture. I have had to address a large increase in students’ demands for support, special considerations and accommodation, as well as to adhere to continuously changing, and sometimes inconsistent, university policies.
Not to mention, after exams were over, some of your classmates ranted online about the difficulty or length of the test, in some cases in a very negative and hurtful way. On top of everything else, these kinds of comments can make me sad and bitter to the point that I have considered running away from teaching for good. But, as a teacher, I know better: my job is to help my students mature and grow. And I am paying the price, in many ways, for being there when my students’ academic growing pains seem to be unbearable, and when they inevitably become my problem.
A depressing and frustrating reality
I know that you are stressed, but so am I. Over the last several months, my class time has consisted of watching a pattern of black tiles with students’ initials in coloured circles, with a line over the microphone icon. Talking to a screen and not seeing what my students are doing or if they are even there is a new, depressing and frustrating reality for me.
Maybe you noticed that, shortly after the first week of classes, attendance significantly dropped off in my live lectures. For me, this was disheartening, given how much time and energy I invested, behind the scenes, to make the live online experience as close to in-person as possible. And then, in real time, when my Wi-Fi connection drops or some glitch makes the technology malfunction, panic hits and the blood rushes to my head.
And, you know what’s the worst? When a student tells me that they cannot upload their solutions to an assignment or test and missed the deadline. So, on top of everything, I now need to become a global IT specialist, dealing with internet connections and VPN problems halfway around the globe.
The in-person energy of a classroom is gone. I miss hearing the shuffle of papers or the whispers or a sudden silence, as they give me clues as to where my students are – following my class or completely lost? Eye contact with my students motivates me to express my passion for the subject. I miss hearing your voices, chatter and laughs before the start of a class, I miss making you laugh during my lecture, and I miss witnessing that “aha” moment when you realize that a complicated chain of reasoning suddenly makes sense.
I hope that you will rise up in these hard times, as many of your classmates have. Demand the best from me and your instructors, but also give me your best – your clear commitment that you will live up to your full academic potential.
I have noticed that you have missed a few assignments. This seems to be a common occurrence across the university. Please, stay focused, do all your assigned work diligently and on time, and ask for help when you need it.
I know that you may have not spent a single day on campus, but you are a university student. This means that I will continue to treat you as an adult who makes their own decisions and enjoys the benefits and bears the consequences of their outcomes. So do not ask for an extra assignment to boost your grade; do not expect to have high averages in your courses without putting in the time and effort; do not ask for forgiveness or a second chance when caught cheating on an assessment. Beyond academics, university is a key part of your formative years, when you need to develop a sense of self and a moral compass that will guide you for the rest of your years.
We will come back to in-person classes one day, hopefully soon. I am definitely waiting for those days when it is safe to be on campus again, in person, as much as you are. I hope that you take to heart some of my experiences and reflect on them, to gain a perspective about online education and how it affects me and my colleague instructors. We are all in this together.
P.S., I believe in you, as much as you should believe in yourself, that you will succeed, no matter what challenges come your way.
Andrijana Burazin is an assistant professor at University of Toronto, Mississauga. Veselin Jungic is a teaching professor at Simon Fraser University. Miroslav Lovric is a professor at McMaster University.