TeachLab with Justin Reich

Jeff Young

Episode Summary

Justin Reich is joined by editor and EdSurge podcast host Jeff Young to discuss the current state of higher education and the technology issues of opening schools during the pandemic. They also look at Jeff’s new project, the Pandemic Campus Diaries, a series on the EdSurge Podcast that aims to document this unique moment in a lively and lasting way, and shine a light on the nuanced effects the pandemic has on students whose learning has been disrupted. “...we were trying to get a sense of, ‘what is the experience?’ And so we have kind of drafted a cohort of professors and students at these six campuses of various types around the country, different geographies, different types of campuses and trying to get-- we don't know what's going to happen. None of us do.” - Jeff Young

Episode Notes

Justin Reich is joined by editor and EdSurge podcast host Jeff Young to discuss the current state of higher education and the technology issues of opening schools during the pandemic. They also look at Jeff’s new project, the Pandemic Campus Diaries, a series on the EdSurge Podcast that aims to document this unique moment in a lively and lasting way, and shine a light on the nuanced effects the pandemic has on students whose learning has been disrupted.

“...we were trying to get a sense of, ‘what is the experience?’ And so we have kind of drafted a cohort of professors and students at these six campuses of various types around the country, different geographies, different types of campuses and trying to get-- we don't know what's going to happen. None of us do.” - Jeff Young


In this episode we’ll talk about:


Resources and Links

Check out EdSurge and the Campus Pandemic Diaries

Check out Justin Reich’s new book!





Produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley

Recorded and mixed by Garrett Beazley


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Episode Transcription

Justin Reich:                 From the home studios of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich. Today, Jeffrey Young, he's a senior editor at EdSurge covering technology's roles at colleges, and he was previously an editor and writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, has a master's degree in communication, culture and technology from Georgetown University, and was a 2014 Nieman journalism fellow and Berkman fellow at Harvard University. Jeff, thanks for joining us on TeachLab.

Jeff Young:                   Hey, thanks for having me.

Justin Reich:                 So you started this new project called the Pandemic Campus Diaries where you've been tracking professors at six colleges, kind of having them give you audio diaries of their experiences during this public health crisis, as they try to adapt to all the challenges of being a human being and being a teacher at the same time during COVID. Can you tell us a little bit about how the project started?

Jeff Young:                   Yeah, we are obviously trying to document how education is changing. That's kind of a mission of EdSurge and our podcast. And what a change moment we're in here. And so we were trying to think of a way ... I mean, reporters like to follow people around with a notebook or a microphone and see what they're doing and kind of shadow them, but-

Justin Reich:                 You're not allowed now. You can't get within six feet.

Jeff Young:                   No. Exactly. Nobody wants me to do that. And I don't think I should do that right now with an in-person experience, but many people out there that are doing podcasts and radio are experimenting with having people record themselves. And now everybody carries around a pretty decent microphone in their pocket with their cell phone. And so we found a group of professors and students so we were trying to get a sense of what is the experience. And so we have kind of drafted a cohort of professors and students at these six campuses of various types, around the country, different geographies, different types of campuses, and trying to get a ... We don't know what's going to happen. None of us do. And started a few weeks before the semester began. Our first episode is about how do you prepare for this pandemic semester. And put out a new episode every two weeks.

Justin Reich:                 It'll be like The Real World-

Jeff Young:                   Oh my.

Justin Reich:                 But during a pandemic and at colleges and with the faculty and audio instead of video.

Jeff Young:                   It's funny you mentioned that because one of the themes that we're talking about this week is how much of your life feels like a movie or like something they've seen on the Real World maybe. And there are so many things about college life that is lost right now and the education and the classroom life that is lost. So what's left? But also one of the first level setting things is how different education already is from those Hollywood depictions. Right? I mean, people don't have a realistic sense of what happens in classrooms I think, whether that's K-12 or higher ed. And so in some ways, this project is even giving us an interesting window into what the pre-COVID life was for professors and students.

Justin Reich:                 Well, it certainly resonates with me this idea that we do not in fact know what's going on, that as we're trying to analyze what to do with education systems during the pandemic in higher education, in K-12, we are missing a bunch of basic facts about what is a student's daily life like, what is a teacher's daily life like, what kind of interactions are happening in classrooms? I think certainly, as researchers, I think we feel like we have some reasonable sense of what fairly common activities are, but so much of that is changed now or we don't even know how much of it is changed now. I don't know. What's the range of adaptation then you're finding among the six folks that you're following, or the six places that you're following. Are there any of them that are kind of back to normal or are all of them in some various phase of a very strange and different?

Jeff Young:                   The ones who are the most feeling at home are the ones who are teaching online and have ever taught at all online before, even if it's only a little bit before now. And I think that seems to be ... One of the big things that we're hearing is that, especially from the students, is that a lot of professors, if it's their first time online and they are doing some online or even just trying to get their physical class to also kind of work for the online students who are either watching because they're in quarantine, they can't be there in person, or they choose not to be in person because they're afraid of being in a physical classroom, which is a fair thing to feel right now I think. So those who have never done the online before, it feels like a lot of them are defaulting to just that doing exactly the same way and put the camera there and film it and say, "It's a wrap."

                                    And we're hearing that feels strange to the students, especially, and to the professors. I almost think, I don't know if this is a stretch, I'll be curious to hear what you think, but there's this notion in kind of simulation of the uncanny valley, where if something is simulated but it's so close to real, whether it's some video game you're playing or a movie or something with AI or whatever, if it's so close to real but not real, it's super creepy. It's off-putting. I feel like sometimes there's this sense of that for some of the people we're tracking of, "I don't know why this is so weird, but it's not right. And yet, there's a class at a set time and I'm going, and we're all doing the motions, but something's off."

Justin Reich:                 I think that metaphor resonates with me in the sense that part of what triggered ... Well, how about this? I think some people theorize that the uncanny valley is a little bit unconscious, that you're looking at a figure in VR or an animation that's trying to be human realistic and there's something about it that's like, "That's mostly realistic, but something not quite." I think the thing that I'm experiencing that I think other people are experiencing is that some things are normal and then you just get struck like, "Wow, that thing was not normal. That did not happen the way it was supposed to work." I was watching a video online of a teacher who was trying to get, I think, a kindergarten student to respond to a question. And it just took a minute of coaxing to get the kid to put the mute button on and the other kids to put the mute button off.

                                    And it's this thing that happens a million times a day in American classrooms. "What does the number four make you think about?" Some very simple question which should have taken about four seconds for some kid to blurt out whatever was at the top of their fascinating little mind. And instead it was just a minute of agony, of watching this teacher trying to coax that out. And it makes you realize how much you take for granted the ease with which we communicate with each other in physical classrooms. Yeah, there's just sort of these little things that are like, "Whoa, that thing was way harder." I don't know. In my own teaching, I teach in a classroom at MIT that has blackboards on three walls. And so tons of my teaching is just breaking students up into small groups and drawing schematics of things.

                                    We just read Larry Cuban's Teacher And Machines, and it has a really interesting way of mapping out the dynamics that happen inside classrooms. Go ahead and draw that for me. And I tried to have students do that on Google slides and the first time it was a disaster because it just took too long. And then the second time I'm like, "I'm going to stay up all night pre-populating Google slides with little icons that people can move around." And that worked a little better, although it took a lot more time on my part. But it's these little things that it's really hard to predict like, "Yep, the students all shut up. Yep. These things are running fine. Whoa." Like [inaudible 00:08:20] red alert. This is not working at all.

Jeff Young:                   No, it's interesting. This mix of in-person and online that I mentioned before, like at Purdue University, one of the professors mentioned she kind of has a microphone that is making sure that she's being recorded on the lecture cast and it's going out live. Then she wanted to have a different microphone so she could be heard in the room because that wasn't tied into the same system. She's wearing a mask and a shield with two microphones. And you're just like ... Yeah. And she's now tethered to a specific point. She's a roamer like a lot of good teachers. And so here she is basically leashed to a spot and with multiple devices that could go wrong, just to be heard, just to be lecturing, which is not the most effective teaching, but probably-

Justin Reich:                 Yeah, that's right. There's a story, this new book out, Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education. And there's a story that I tell about early in my doctoral career, I visited a classroom in rural New Hampshire, and they were trying to do an online lesson. And I just observed it. A lot of things are working. There's these fiber optic cables that come into the building, the fiber optic cables connect to wireless routers, the wireless routers broadcast throughout the room. The laptops have been charged. The batteries are holding a charge. The computers have been updated and turned on. They connect to the internet. The teacher's computer is working. There's a projector. It looks like the projector has a working bulb. It looks like all these delicate things are kind of working. And then she takes a power cord from the projector and she sticks it into a wall outlet and the wall outlet falls behind the dry wall and is unrecoverable.

                                    So her lesson, which depends upon some kind of demonstration, falls apart because of this one tiny link in this incredibly complex chain. And those chains of technology meeting and learning, they're hard to maintain anyway. Things go wrong with that in January of 2020 at Purdue. But you've now just added so many more links to this delicate chain, which is reaching out into young people's homes all across America and all across the world. Institutions don't maintain enough resources to manage that chain particularly effectively during normal times. And here we are trying to get all those pieces working during COVID times.

                                    And when things break, you can't tell how they're going to break. What does it mean to wear a shield? What does it mean to wear a mask? What kinds of things do I do that are going to stop working because I have a mask on? What kinds of things do I do that are going to stop working because I'm tethered to a particular place? We make some guesses about those things as teachers, but we don't know until we go out and do them and things start falling flat and students get confused and frustrated, although usually quite generous with us as well.

Jeff Young:                   Yeah. I interviewed a vice provost at Purdue who's in charge of teaching and learning, a big job right now in this moment, but I was asking her what was the most surprising thing as they went forward with the first week of classes. It was right after the first week. And she said actually the biggest thing that threw them off was they had done all these preps and trials about the masks and the mics and all the things we just talked about. But actually, the biggest challenge that they didn't anticipate or what went worse than they thought was actually the system's failing that they didn't ... Because they kind of thought they had that down. They can run their LMS and their lecture capture system. I mean, that's what they do.

                                    But it turns out for reasons that I don't even know exactly, and maybe it's maybe boring to think about, but things went wrong. Zoom had its big outage that happened to be the first week of their classes at Purdue. One of the other systems they happened to be using had a problem that had nothing to do with Purdue. And so they ended up losing a lot of stress and wasting a lot of resources or trying to devote resources to getting those back online. But I mean, how do you even plan for that? I'm not even sure. And it is a moment or it's a-

Justin Reich:                 Yeah. You can put it under the sort of austerity conditions of education. I mean, it reminds me a little bit in my hometown of Arlington, Massachusetts, I was listening to your school board meeting and the building director was talking about all of these adaptations they needed to make the buildings, which in New England was just ... I mean, you just get way down at the guts of these things you never think about like, "Okay, so we do have HVAC systems and our HVAC systems do have airflow controllers that can increase the amount of air flow, but they freeze in the winter. And so all of them have been bolted into one position so that they don't freeze anymore." And somebody did that like 30 years ago. Now we could unbolt them, but then we wouldn't know whether or not they would be working. And we also think that they might freeze again, which is why they got bolted in the first place.

Jeff Young:                   Right. Right. No, it's absolutely right.

Justin Reich:                 All right. So we know that there are all kinds of ways that classroom life is being disrupted and made more difficult from the pandemic. What are you hearing from people about the rest of collegiate life? How are students making up for missing the shared experience of being in the same place all the time?

Jeff Young:                   Yeah. I think one thing that's really struck me from doing this series is just I think we maybe overestimate the importance of academic classes on a college experience. Maybe at a place like MIT, this is more clear, but I think at a lot of places, especially when you do think back to when people close their eyes and think of a college, they're thinking of the lecture hall. And what I'm really getting a sense from the students and professors we're talking to is really how much is lost when, even if you are on campus with these social distancing measures, you're really, really isolated in a bubble of yourself. So much of what people end up learning at college doesn't take place in a classroom. And I think that's got to be true in a K-12 environment too. I mean, there's so much that's missing right now.

                                    It's interesting. There's one of the students at Purdue that we talked to, he was on a committee to try to help make social life better during the pandemic. And one of the things they came up with was a friend finding app. And as he's walking around campus, he noticed a lot of the students are putting ... You know how at the dorms people had their name on a piece of construction paper, like Jeff? And now people are also putting their Instagram handle and their Snapchat handle. And if you want to talk to them, it's not going to be in the hallway. It is going to be on those platforms because they are there ...

                                    The other thing that ... There's this students getting a bad rap of partying all the time. And we know there have been in fact, of course, gatherings at campuses that have led to virus outbreaks. But it seems like so many of the students and professors we're talking to, there's a variety. A lot of the students feel like that, that they are blase and a lot of the students are hyper concerned. So there's almost a sense I'm hearing from people wishing more people would be a little more open so they could have some hallway conversations, that maybe people are taking things too far toward "We've got to do everything we can to not have the campus close." And so there's a lot of missing opportunities for that.

                                    So one of the students we're talking to is at Texas State University and she was going to be on campus and was going to be an RA, very connected to her campus life. And the thing that has been her most life-changing experience has been being an RA. She's a student from not a super wealthy family in South Texas. She's very excited to be at a campus. But one of the things that she kind of describes herself is that she has gone from this introverted person to somebody that feels helpful to people and is helping younger students at the college figure out their way. And it's brought out for her a fuller version of herself. And that is the biggest thing that she's gotten from college. But now all of her classes ... That campus is actually still open, but it turns out her schedule came back and they were all online because her professors had chosen to teach online. So she ended up moving back home for financial reasons and taking those classes online, and can't do the pieces of campus that turned out to be the most enriching.

Justin Reich:                 Yeah. As we're talking with middle schoolers and other kinds of folks, we hear the same sorts of things. "I come to school and I do the class part, but the five minutes between class and lunch where I check in with my teacher and really connect with her, that's what's really important to me. Or the debate team that we do in the afternoon or sports teams or other things like that." And I think there's some incredible work that's happening across the country by students, by teachers, I'm sure in higher education by student life staff and stuff like that, try to recreate a bunch of this online.

                                    I mean, I run a lab that has a bunch of adults and a bunch of undergraduates and some graduate students and things like that. And we are devoting kind of overtime efforts to creating experiences to socialize online. I'm telling all my students that they have to meet with me one-on-one in the first couple of weeks of class. I usually don't do that because I don't need to, because I run into them at the beginning and end of class and I hang around a little bit and so forth. I'm like, "Yeah, we're not doing that. Just come and find me and let me grill you for 20 minutes on some mutually agreed schedule." So even when you can get it to work, some of these things are just more effort.

                                    Have you had any stories that struck you about, "Oh, these are some real bright spots here. These are some students or faculty who are finding things that are working for them and maybe will continue to work for them beyond the pandemic"?

Jeff Young:                   Yeah, I think there are. We're hearing that people, they're actually feeling more deep connections with their colleagues as they share information and tips and resources. And there's a lot of learning going on among faculty and a lot of shared kind of camaraderie around those efforts to, "Hey, this training worked for me. You should really check out this podcast or resource or article. And how are you doing?" There is a sense that teachers can be so busy and instructors can be so busy that they are heads down in their own classes in normal times and that there's this culture of sharing that's going on. And some low-tech things.

                                    One of the faculty at Texas State is teaching biology and is doing a lab and the lab is in person, but she has figured out a couple of ways to make a couple of these labs be able to be done at home with materials that she could pack up in a bag and hand them. So a lot of those students either can't come into the in-person lab or choose not to because of health concerns. And so she's devising these kind of home kits. And in some ways she felt like these home kits were actually kind of a good, very positive thing to shake up her idea of what a lab could be, and in some ways kind of broke her out of that mold and is something she might even bring to other post-COVID worlds.

Justin Reich:                 Right. I mean, that does seem to be kind of the best case scenario is that we discover these bits and pieces of things that we carry with us into the post-COVID world. I mean, the thing which has sort of struck me most, and I wonder if this resonates with your experience, is just how conservative the pedagogical organizational reaction to COVID has been. I had kind of imagined last spring a bunch of people might've been like, "It's probably really hard for me to go into my home office with a bunch of kids running around and make classes without any online training. Maybe I'll just tell all my students to finish the semester by doing a really good, massive open online course or some other kind of online learning experience or some other way of sort of rearranging how we staff and provision education."

                                    But sort of overwhelmingly what I've seen is, "Nope, we don't want any of that." So not only hearing the faculty like, "No, I'm just going to walk from my lectern to my home office webcam and keep teaching," but also actually hearing from students like, "No, we don't want any other kind of weird stuff. We just want our teacher. Even if all they can generate is sort of a crappy half-baked hobbled pandemic course, that's still what we want." Which I think is in some ways an incredible tribute. I mean, I don't know if it's a tribute to the conservatism of the system, if it's a tribute to the fact that the system, for all that people critique it for, is actually quite well honed for meeting the needs of different stakeholders in different kinds of ways. Is your sense overall with these six folks that we're just trying to make the same university, as much of the university happen as we can over Zoom?

Jeff Young:                   Yeah. I think what we're hearing from the students who end up having multiple professors, and that's kind of the interesting test case is what are they getting from different people and what are they feeling about those things? It seems like there is, in fact, a large bit of conservatism in professors. One professor that, I think it was at Texas state, the student was saying he was so excited. He had to switch at the last minute from in-person to online. So I don't think he had very much time to prepare. And so he was very proud of the fact that he was still going to use the same marker and write on something, but she couldn't really see what he was doing. And it was literally the same thing with a camera pointed at him even though he was at his home now, and that she was almost laughing at how that didn't really work and that there was a ...

                                    But what did seem to work universally for when people were hearing that things worked were a lot of it came down to attitude really from the professor of the professors that seemed to be kind of winning this moment as far as being effective were the ones that the students felt them being like, "How are you? Is this working? Are you getting this? How do we adapt? How do we change? I'm going to make this work for you. We're going to do this together." Instead of that, "I've got this. I've got my marker. Don't worry about everything. It's going to be fine." So I think really that mindset of, "Everything's different. I am not going to pretend that I'm up on top of a lectern in front of the room. We're going through something. Let's work together. Let's get through this."

Justin Reich:                 Yeah. That has been a piece of advice that I've tried to share with my colleagues at MIT and in all sectors of education is that I think the more that people ... So it's great to hear that from you. The more that people feel like we are partnering with them, COVID is something that happened to us, but our response to it is something that we can build together. And if people feel like they're part of building that together, then there's going to be more enthusiasm for trying to make that work.

Jeff Young:                   [crosstalk 00:24:05] Oh, I was going to say, I want to also say that one of the students we're tracking ... I mean, the stakes of this I think are really high as far as retention and effectiveness. One of the students that is involved with our project is a student that's at San Francisco State University. She's just transferred in from a two year college and this is her first four year experience, but it's all online. And she is wondering whether she's going to finish or not. She's a first-generation college student who a lot is riding, she feels like, on her finishing. But some of her professors are really knocking it out of the park and feeling like she's hearing them say, "We're going to make this work for you." And then others, she feels like they're saying things to her, like, "Why are you asking so many questions about this or that. Just figure it out." So it matters if enough people get this right for so many students, whether they end up succeeding or not.

Justin Reich:                 Yeah. I mean, if there's anything that I could erase from higher education during normal times, it would be our kind of sink or swim approach, the sort of ethos like, "Well, I provided a bunch of learning experiences for you, and you'll either learn from them or not. So good luck," and trying to place that with the ethic of care and responsibility. And it just seems triply 100 times more important to think about that now, and even think about any of the ways in which I embody that sink or swim mentality. It's not time for that. It's time to say it really matters that these students ... I mean, we're already starting to hear initial reports that first-generation college students are dropping out early semester in much higher numbers because the systems are not as capable of supporting them. And there's nobody else to do it but us. Universities don't have a secret band of administrators who are going to go out and make this work. It's just going to be teachers in classrooms, K-12, higher ed trying to shift that mindset, maybe hopefully for the longterm, but certainly during the months and weeks ahead.

                                    Well, Jeff, it's been great having you come in and telling us about this project, we'll look forward to continuing to point people towards the Pandemic Campus Diaries. Did I say that right?

Jeff Young:                   You did. It's on the EdSurge Podcast feed. So if they're looking for it, it's EdSurge Podcast. Thanks so much. It's been a pleasure.

Justin Reich:                 Thanks for coming, Jeff.

                                    That was Jeff Young, podcast and senior editor at EdSurge and the producer of the Pandemic Campus Diaries. I think it's been really helpful in the context of all of our K-12 pandemic conversations here on TeachLab to be able to hear a little bit from higher education, both to think about where our students are heading. But I don't know. I found it comforting in some respects to hear that faculty members in higher education are facing a lot of the same challenges that teachers are and a lot of the things that are working are working at multiple levels, focusing on relationships, building partnerships with students, being with them together, working through this together seems like an approach that I can really get behind.

                                    I'm Justin Reich. Thanks for listening to TeachLab. Please subscribe to TeachLab to get future episodes on how educators from all walks of life are tackling distanced learning during COVID-19. I've also just released a book this week, Failure To Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education, which is available from booksellers everywhere. You can read reviews and related media and sign up for online events at failuretodisrupt.com. That's failuretodisrupt.com. We also have a free online virtual book club, which you're welcome to join me. We're going to read one chapter a week together with all kinds of special guests, and that's at failuretodisrupt.com/virtualbookclub.

                                    This episode of TeachLab was produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley, recorded and sound mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe. Until next time.