March 12, 2020. Williams Hall.
The air swirls with fast conversation. Each thought bounces off the next and confused glances are felt, not just seen. With every idea blurted out, the large room starts to feel small.
“Let’s pause,” Dr. Ron Becker says.
He notices the looks being passed from people who were quieter during the conversation. The room quiets.
“One decision at a time. What kind of activities do we want to post in order to have small group online?”
Becker has taught Media and Culture 143 for probably 14 years. “Probably” being his word. The class is a lecture style in Laws Hall 100, one isolated lecture hall that always confuses students on the first day. To make the class more interactive, he enlists a group of 8-10 of his previous students to lead small groups for class credits and become Undergraduate Associates (UAs).
When the coronavirus emails flooded our phones, the UA team felt flutters of anxiety about the upcoming small group. We started to feel the same frustration and confusion as our professors, but we also felt the stress of being students.
“We should make the distribution activity a discussion post,” someone offers.
“But how do we do that?”
With our normal schedules obliterated, everything felt more frenzied because time doesn’t feel the same without class to go to. Becker was surprised to see the whole team arrive ready to crowdsource the issue. He figured we would have skipped town by now.
“How many multiple choice questions should we have them do?”
“What about the presentation? Amanda, you should definitely do that.”
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The rapid conversation and furious typing continues. The room feels like an auction block of competing ideas, and I laugh as another UA, Eric, sitting next to me, struggles to voice his ideas over the extroverts of the group.
He lets the chaos go on until it becomes unproductive.
“There are quite a few chefs in the kitchen, so to speak.” I laugh at that.
In 14 years, Becker has missed only one lecture for a conference, and he posted a video recording for it. But he’s never had to transform his student’s small groups. It’s a learning curve.
“I have never had a day where I felt more engulfed in technology,” he says.
Despite being a professor of media, Becker isn’t familiar with all the recent technologies his tech savvy UAs know from growing up in the digital era. The class doesn’t normally utilize discussion boards on Canvas, so we described the different options.
With discussion board experience under my belt, I turn my laptop to the group, make eye contact with Becker and begin to explain the intricacies. We decide the format, and Becker looks to us to rewrite the assignment for the post. He chimes in with clarifications and lets us rework the lesson plan.
“I’m normally the leader, but I don’t know all the details,” Becker says.
Becker eventually grabs his iPhone to record a video of the UAs explaining the small group content. We wave to the camera and laugh when he goes in for close-ups. Our smiles are big because we didn’t know how we’d feel in two weeks. One UA, Tre, gestures with his hands as he explains the assignment.
Eric finally gets his shining moment explaining Chicago-style citations to the camera. His cheeks flush as usual, but his voice remains calm and steady. Laughter continues, as Becker begins to feel more like a videographer than a professor.
Halfway through the video he drops the phone but recovers. We laugh for at least 10 minutes watching that clip over and over. Teaching remotely is definitely a learning curve.