What to keep and what to forget? Observations after three pandemic semesters
I work at a university which is going through its third pandemic semester. Since March 2020, I’ve taught three online courses (History of English, Introduction to linguistics, Semantics & pragmatics), I’ve co-organised one online conference (68th StuTS) and organised one lecture series (Dahlem Lectures in Linguistics). I’m also co-organising a lecture series about the Sustainable Development Goals for the DAAD-Freundeskreis in Berlin. That enables me to compare events taking place at the same time, but in a different setting as well as to compare events organised within the same context over time. The following text summarises what I learned and observed about teaching and studying during the pandemic.
The first digital semester that began in April 2020 was characterised by a sense of crisis-induced togetherness that is more or less absent now as we are in the middle of the third pandemic semester.
Back then, pandemic policies were being updated almost daily and nobody knew what was going to happen next. One day I was planning to visit my parents in Czechia and the next day I was reading about the boarder being closed and all international trains, busses and planes being cancelled. One morning, to my surprise, I got a text from the Czech government saying that a special bus is being organised for me and other Czechs living in Germany to take us over the border. For various reasons, I decided not to use that opportunity and stayed in Berlin. As life became unpredictable so did studying and teaching: The technical part of teaching in a pandemic was new to students and lecturers alike. This is all different now. In the middle of the third pandemic semester, everyone seems more relaxed. We all know how to (un)mute ourselves and how to behave in a video talk. Quite often, I see students in my classes smoking a cigarette or nonchalantly lying on their beds.
Agony of choice
During the first weeks of the first digital semester, I was a bit overwhelmed by the plethora of e-teaching tools. Do we use Zoom, BigBlueButton, Jitsi or something else for our courses? And how do we organise our office hours? Do we take Skype, Whereby or a different tool? And preparatory videos for the courses? Do we use Loom or Camtasia? Even though I attended a great e-teaching course at my university a couple of years ago, choosing the right tools was a challenge! What really helped was the solidarity of others. People were uploading videos about their experience with different programmes, discussing everything on Twitter and elsewhere, and last but not least the university’s e-teaching centre helped a lot.
What was overwhelming and excitingly new at first, soon became tiring. Watching a screen full of small pictures of all those people I’m supposed to talk to can lead to so-called Zoom fatigue. From my experience, this is mainly due to the fact one-way street nature of communication on platforms such as Zoom, Teams or Webex. One person speaks while the others listen. You can’t have a small face-to-face conversation with just one or two persons.
Another aspect of Zoom fatigue is the multitude of different online events. In the beginning of the pandemic, I thought that this is great because you suddenly had access to talks that would normally be impossible to attend. Over time, however, it became a bit too much and I attended hardly any of the wonderful talks. In the end, I felt guilty for not using all these opportunities.
This changed when platforms such as gather.town or wonder.me entered the scene. For me, the reason why these platforms, and particularly gather.town, are so different is that they evoke a feeling of the real world. Whether you are attending an office meeting or an entire conference, if you want to hear someone speaking, you actually have to walk up to them. You can bump into others in the corridors and overhear bits of conversations. And then there’s the graphic aspect that makes using gather.town so enjoyable. I have the feeling I’m playing an old 1990s RPG. Moreover, this platform enables you to recreate your office and share it with your colleagues. You all work on your own projects, but you can easily have a chat without the tedious planning.
Easier than we thought
After three semesters of using Zoom, Webex, Whereby, Gather.town, BigBlueButton and all the other platforms, I can confidently say that even though it all seemed a bit scary and too much in the beginning – and it sure was at times! – we all managed quite nicely in the end. And that’s a great reason to be optimistic about the future and to be a bit proud of ourselves! Right now, our department is planning the 2021/2022 winter term and it seems that we’re going to – at least partially – return to physical classes. I’m desperately looking forward to this. It also makes me think about which aspects of digital events I want to keep even after the pandemic and which aspects I’m going to forget happily.
What to forget?
A number of things will belong to the latter category. For instance, the fact that the success of the class depends on the quality of my internet connection and my computer. Another thing I’m not going to mourn is the anonymity. In my experience, the majority of students tend to keep their cameras off. Although understandable, it makes classes much less enjoyable.
What to keep?
Some things, however, are definitely worth keeping. I’m certainly going to stick to the concept of an inverted classroom because it enables to focus on discussions and problem solving (see this text for my experience with the method, in German!). Even though I was familiar with it even before the pandemic, I never convinced myself to try it until last April. Today, after more than two dozen preparatory videos, there’s no going back. Exclusively physical office hours are passé as well. As far as conferences and bigger events are concerned, many people are anxious to finally meet physically again, but I believe that every organiser will have to at least consider a hybrid format even after the pandemic.