I – am an educator.  Thank you very much.

I’ve been one for many years.  I have been studying it for even longer than I have been an educator. If you’ve been following this blog – you’ll know that I studied adolescent identity formation in online space.  I have been thinking about the online space for a few years – and I often have conversations with colleagues and fellow educators about such things. And this is just an attempt to get some ideas down on ‘paper.’ I’m still working them out, but I definitely wanted to share them.

Lately, there has been a lot of conversations and concerns about doing education online.  Because of COVID-19 and the stay at home order for all of us – students and teachers were forced to go online and continue their education in that space.  Many teachers had to learn these new online methodologies and technology.  Some did not even know how to use an LMS – much less know what an LMS is – it’s a Learning Management System – just a fancy way of saying online teaching and learning software. So all of a sudden – they had to take what they did in their classroom and move it all online – learn the LMS – and then deliver content in this new modality – and hopefully have the students learn something. (Also, I intentionally didn’t follow the rules to write that last sentence – which hopefully bothers some of you.)

Many teachers are just finishing their semester. They are done teaching and trying to catch their breath. I have been writing/thinking about the impact that this pandemic will have on our relationships and our new way of being.  Things will be different because of it.  Because of the rush to get all of our classes online – we did not really take the time to think through all that we needed to do in order to teach in this new environment. We uploaded our “well-thought out” lesson plans (some of which has not changed in years because we’ve been teaching our classes for a long time), and did our best to transfer our classroom online.  Only now can we think through whether it was successful or whether students learned something in our online classes.

I was asked this week about online classroom effectiveness and what my thoughts were on the subject.  A colleague of mine was reflecting on his teaching online, and we wrestled through whether his students truly learned in this environment, and how he could have been more effective. His questions captured my imagination and lead me down a few interesting rabbit trails based off of my research and some of my writing/thinking about online interactions.  I had never applied it to education – and more specifically this shotgun approach that many teachers and schools took in light of the pandemic. I just wanted to share some of the ideas that emerged in light of our conversations. There were three of them that emerged.

Subject < Students

Content < Context

Classroom < Classspace

The first idea has to do with the fact that I think teaching the subject matter isn’t as important as teaching students.  I have been teaching for a while now, and whenever I meet someone new – they typically ask, “What do you teach?” In the first few years, I would have answered with the subject or academic discipline that I teach.  I think that’s the answer that they were looking for. But after a few years of teaching, my educational philosophy changed.  I stopped teaching a subject, and I started teaching students – which is much harder than teaching just a subject.  I realized that even my education helped me to gain mastery of my subject, but I also learned about how I could teach a student.

When I made the switch in my educational philosophy, it changed the way that I instructed in class.  The focus wasn’t the subject matter, but the student.  It almost didn’t matter what the course was, my instruction became about the student thinking differently and hopefully more critically because of their time with me as their professor. It made classes way more interesting because as the professor, I would sometimes follow the lead of the students and see where they would want to take the conversation.  Then I would integrate the subject matter into the conversation that the students were driving because they were motivated by the learning. In this new virtual space – we need to focus on the student. This doesn’t mean that they run the class. It was always my responsibility, but are you able to humble yourself enough to follow your student? Are you smart enough to let them push the conversation, but you lead with your questions? Are you good enough to work in the subject matter into the conversation that you’re following?

The second idea has to do with how content isn’t as important as the context. It sounds similar to the last point – subject and content kinda sound the same. But the reason why I chose this pairing is more about the focus of the second word ‘context.’

As we mentioned in the previous idea, you are the subject matter expert in your classroom. You know more than your students. But knowing your content doesn’t necessarily mean that you can teach it in a new context. You need to understand the context of the online space in order to be an effective teacher. I have talked to a few teachers that needed feedback from their students of what worked for them in the content that they delivered. I happened to sit through a class where the teacher needed to ask her students what stood out to them so that she could possibly take the feedback of the content that had the most impact on them – so that it would help her possibly teach in this context more effectively.

Teaching with the context in mind honestly will ease some of your anxiety about doing so in this new environment. The environment has some inherent characteristics and properties that are obviously different than if they were in your classroom. The content cannot be embodied in the online space because it is inherently a dis-embodied experience. You’re looking at screens and projections of each other. You can only see what’s going on on the screen. You don’t know if they’re sending a text to someone else (which they are) or even paying attention to your lecture (which is obvious that they are not). How do you “touch” them when we’re all on a screen? How do you tap into their motivation to learn? I do not have the time to articulate all of the different dynamics of this particular context that educators have not taken into account as they’ve taught their classes this last semester. Maybe I can articulate them in upcoming posts, but teaching to the context – in this new environment – is going to be so much better than just delivering content. You have to tap into their emotions in this context. You have to not only use narratives, but you need to enter into their narrative.

But the last idea – which is the main idea that I thought about is this idea that the classroom isn’t as important as the classspace.

We need a new concept in order to teach in this new space. As I talk to and listen to teachers, they are asking questions about this new context with old and proven paradigms. They are then taking what they’ve always done – be the subject matter expert and teach content – into this new environment and ask questions in light of this particular point of view. How can I connect with the student’s motivation? Which one of the topics really made a difference for you? How can I deliver this in a way that students can get it? How do I get through this glass wall and get this information through to them? They look bored. They’re not wanting to be there. They think this environment sucks. You get the picture.

Think about how we have described this new environment – Virtual Classroom. You take your existing ideas of “Classroom” and you just make it virtual. You bring the old proven paradigms into a virtual space and it should work – because these pedagogical methods are proven and they work in the “Classroom.” Like you can bring your overhead transparencies into an online space??

I was thinking about the idea of the “Flipped Classroom.” It’s just a re-arranging of the “Classroom” environment. Have students do the lectures at home and the homework in class. Genius. Transformative. Innovative. But all we’ve done was re-arrange the has been. It’s not new as much as it is just ‘flipped.’

I want to introduce the idea of Classspace. It’s different than the word Classroom. It signifies a new thing, and you cannot bring into the Classspace the same preconceived ideas and proven paradigms of the old Classroom – because it is just that – a new space. It’s not just a virtual classroom that you bring your classroom methods into an online environment. Classspace is something different.

It’s what we should have been doing this past semester. Rethinking not just the curriculum or the instruction, but the context and the environment marked by…..

– Disembodied instruction.

– Internal access into students minds and hearts – like never before (the Luke 6:45 principle).

– Projected versions of themselves on an interface – a space where you enter into with them.

– Asynchronous space.

– Perceived anonymity.

– Instruction to an Interface.

– New anxieties – for the teacher, not just the student. Entering into ‘their’ space. Being a foreigner in a digital land.

And that’s just the beginning. We do not have time to list all of the dynamics of this new space where instructors meet with learners, but it can work. Dr. Laurie Santos unveiled a new course at Yale – Psychology and the Good Life. I’ve listened to hear talk about it on her podcast, and she was overwhelmed by the response. The largest lecture classes at Yale is 600 students. Her class became the most popular class at Yale and had 1,182 students enrolled in it. When she taught it – there were so many online components to it because of the sheer number of students. She has since created the course online for anyone to take – but I think she was able to tap into these ideas and that is why thousands of students want to be in this class.

So this is a long post and thank you for working through it. Honestly, I’m still working out the idea – but you cannot simply bring the Classroom into a virtual environment. Actually, I don’t eve care what we call it – let’s just not bring our classroom and all that comes with it to our online environment. You have to bring your Classroom into a new thing – a Classspace. And how cool is it to have a word that has three ‘s’s’ in it?

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