Friday, July 3, 2020

Thoughts on Virtual Worlds of Teaching, by Don Orth

The coronavirus pandemic caused us fear and panic and made us reconsider how to do everything. Until we discover and deliver a vaccine, we will continue to work in new ways.  While we debate various approaches to re-open colleges, we need to acknowledge how pandemic teaching forced a long-overdue conversation that will affect us in the post-pandemic world.  Shelter-in-place orders in March 2020 meant students were sent home. All my lab and lectures were forced online without face-to-face learning experiences.  

The post-pandemic world will include more and more opportunities to explore virtual worlds that replace face-to-face interactions.  I ask that you consider perspectives that follow and reflect on two questions:  
How do we connect in meaningful ways in a virtual world? 
How do we build trust in virtual worlds? 

Students were afraid as they dealt with unstable internets, mid-semester changes, and cancelled work. I was fearful with the rapid transition to teaching in a format for which I had no training. Fear is our oldest survival mechanism. Deep in our brain lies the amygdala, or fish brain, which knows only stimulus-response, or flight or fight.  Fear forced rapid changes without much thought. Other parts of the brain will allow us to make it through months of distancing.  Our prefrontal cortex has had time to kick in and engage in creative thoughts and the cingulate cortex allows for empathy, impulse control, and emotion. During this time of adversity and distancing, we should practice using these brain functions

I often refer to Vygotsky's (1978) concept of zone of proximal development to guide my teaching -- maybe because I love saying Vygotsky out loud. The comfort zone is a low-risk zone where we use existing skills to reflect and make sense of things.  In the fear and panic mode, we become overwhelmingly uncomfortable and all our energy is used up coping with our anxiety.  In order to learn, our students have to leave their comfort zone and explore unknown skills and challenges in the Goldilocks zone. During the pandemic, instead of panicked responses, we should grow, show empathy, find ways to adapt, and build online relationships in a virtual world. As Yoda advises, “Do or do not. There is not try.”  

I imagined having students enter a virtual world such as Second Life®, a platform for game-based teaching. Many virtual worlds have been created to teach anatomy, education, nursing, psychology, and social work (Flink 2019). Anatomy students are not only able to view the content but also interact virtually with one another despite the real physical distance between them (Richardson 2011). Students create an avatar and this pseudoanonymity results in greater participation (Weicha et al. 2010).   
Virtual reality has a long way to go before it is common in higher education. Photo by Jonas Tana CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Second Life® is most suited for simulating expensive or potentially dangerous activities in a safe, accessible manner while helping inexperienced students overcome anxiety of making mistakes in real life groups. I imagined manipulating a 3d model of a Great White Shark, browsing the internal anatomy of fishes revealed by CT scans, and leading students on a tour of fisheries in countries with low management capacity.  In virtual worlds, student can make wrong decisions, cause a fishery crash, or misidentifying a fish and cause the explosion of an invasive species.   But there was no time to build a virtual world in Second Life overnight.    

Educators recognized early on that online teaching cannot be accomplished by simply uploading lectures to a website or presenting in a zoom meeting (Chumley-Jones et al. 2002).  Live teaching isn’t always the best teaching strategy.  According to Tanya Joosten, PhD, Director Digital Learning, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, videoconferencing tools end up encouraging teacher-centered learning (Joosten 2015).  Social isolation also has an adverse impact on physical health (Miller 2020). While we are locked away in isolation, we must routinely communicate to our students that “I am thinking about you.”   Virginia Tech learned a difficult lesson in 2007 about privacy laws that enabled one troubled student to fall through the cracks of our mental health system (Roy 2010). While we are physically distancing ourselves from students, we must not become more socially distant. 

I speculate that many proposed principles of Pandemic Online Teaching may outlast the pandemic.   Consider the following traits for effective online teaching as you prepare for fall online teaching (Table 1).    

Table 1. Proposed requirements for effective online teaching. 

Learning focused
Equity & Empathy

Learning Focused—University are resources limited and tuition keeps rising. The coronavirus pandemic will surely have an effect on economic growth, and slower growth portends cuts as money flows away from higher education and toward public health and unemployment relief (Huelsman 2020).  During and after the pandemic, more of our teaching and other work will be conducted via virtual networks so we should learn lessons from decades devoted to online education.  

Learning should be an active process. Too often, students come to school to watch their teachers work.”  Willard R. Daggett, International Center for Leadership in Education

Transactional distance refers to the psychological and communications gap that arises from an interplay of structure and dialogue in online teaching (Delgaty 2018).   Online learning has less dialogue and more highly structured rules for student learning. Too much distance leads to feelings of isolation, reduced motivation, control, engagement and eventually attrition. Free online courses are started but the rate of attrition is very high.   We need to create explicit activities to build community in our online courses.  Communities of practice are groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage (Wenger 1999).  Fortunately, I had been working for years to create a public Facebook group, Virginia Tech Ichthyology, that includes over 1,400 members.  Yet, the novice online student needs to spend time learning and trusting their learning partners in order to create a sense of belonging.

Mindful—In developing any community, it is important that we take time to establish norms for being present, mindful, and safe as we create a community for online teaching (Sochacki 2020).  Mindfulness is a prerequisite to learning and reduces anxiety (Miller 2020).  Mindfulness meditation targets a key brain region, that is the cingulate cortex (Brewer and Garrison 2014). But where does one learn and practice this? When students returned from an extended spring break, I offered a mindfulness exercise for them to do in private space. The research on mindfulness interventions is only now emerging (Tuckey et al. 2018) and we should demand our employers help us apply these techniques to enhance the well-being of our students. 
Someone should write a book on the use of memes in higher education
Passion— I struggle to find a higher amount of energy to demonstrate excitement and engagement in the online class as a model for my students. Teaching online requires that my asynchronous communications become more authentic and meaningful. I can find ways to celebrate the little wins and send a meme to a student for a job well done.  Are all students healthy and present?    In our post-pandemic world, we need training to help supervisors to create passion in teleworking employees via reoccurring cognitive and affective appraisal that result in consistent and constructive work (Egan et al. 2019). 

Trust—People will listen to some more than others. For example, a recent public service post was from Frank Beamer, former football coach of Virginia Tech. Why?  Individuals who have a high social media profile are influencers because of a long history of connecting with a broader audience— you too can be a nerd of trust (McClain 2017).  Trust requires relationships and multiple interactions where we share stories of our values (Fiske and Dupree 2014).  Trust is key to mutually beneficial teaching collaboration and develops over time and not overnight.
Coach Frank Beamer demonstrating how to cough into your elbow in a public service announcement. 
Messy—Learning is messy and science teaching, if we rely on scientific papers, mislead the novice students.  Medawar (1963) argued that the highly formalized structure gives only a sanitized version of how scientists come to a conclusion and that it leaves no room for authors to discuss the thought processes that led to the experiments. All hypotheses are tentative and acceptance of tests take repeated studies, argumentation, and time.  Employers demand that our students are effective in communicating with others with varying worldviews.  We need to teach argumentation skills for a participatory democracy in a realistic messy setting.  Open dialogue is critical for development of trust (Schaefer et al. 2018)  and critical thinking skills to avoid psychological manipulation via dastardly online misinformation (Wylie  2019).  

Open—Public dialogue is the essence of a deliberative democracy (Dryzek 2012). Our University’s motto is Ut Prosim, That I May Serve.  Students cannot serve without communicating with a broad audience.  To do that effectively, they need a voice that is trusted and understandable.  Attacks on science and scientists are more frequent and we must add our personal stories to the public dialogue (Hotez 2020).  Young scientists are eager to take on this challenge of improving science communication (Murchie and Diomede 2020).

The nature of information must also be open.  Virginia Tech has a great library and services for finding information hidden behind paywalls for most.  Open access is a powerful tool for reducing inequalities of educational opportunity and promoting innovative strategies to improve educational problems (Bliss and Smith 2017).  Similarly, open access should permit more equitable engagement of fisheries stakeholders. Therefore, I encourage you to share your papers and reports on ResearchGate or other sites. The How Can I Share It online tool will help you determine what type of sharing is legal based on journal requirements. If we create open access materials and license them with Creative Commons licensing, that allows others to use our old literature and more easily revise and build on it. 
Just because you have always taught it this way, does not mean you cannot learn other ways to teach. Photo by Sam Dean.
Equity and Empathy— My pivot to online teaching meant designing instruction for marginalized students first, the ones most likely to be struggling right now. With students working from home I see the inequities in internet reliability.  Our teaching must engage the quiet and marginalized as well as the confident and privileged. One of my colleagues received the following limerick from a student needing an extension on an assignment. 
            I meditate on my transgression
As non-trivial is managing my depression
I really am trying
But I feel like I'm dying
So please can I have an extension
And the student got the extension. Instructors learn about their students and develop connections via ice-breaker activities.  Students must develop empathy to connect with other students. Satisfaction in any group of collaborators depends on  equity and empathy are important for satisfaction (Strong et al. 2001). 

Memorable—Listening to stories activates all regions of the brain, thereby allowing the listener to experience what the storyteller felt, saw, and heard.   Think of your favorite books about fish.  Among my favorite pandemic readings are Vaquita by Brooke Bessesen, Reef Life by Callum Roberts, Salmon by Mark Kurlansky, Being Salmon, Being Human by Martin Lee Mueller, and Spillover by David Quammen.  Each book is written as a narrative that both challenges human exceptionalism while telling stories of humans saving species in order to save ourselves. The storytelling theory boils down to two sentences: A character (1) is in a zone of comfort, 2) but they want something. The character then (3) enters an unfamiliar situation, (4) adapts to it, (5) gets what s/he wanted, (6) pays a heavy price for it, (7) then returns to their familiar situation, (8) having changed.   We naturally gravitate to storytelling in our daily interactions (Moore and Orth 2018). The coronavirus pandemic reinforced my thinking that "Students need to become heroes of their own learning stories as well as of the stories they tell with their own lives" Ohler (2013, p.  9).   In a virtual world we can create online story circles and listen to each other share deep knowledge, emotions, and experiences in a story. 

Persistence— In psychology, persistence is a personality trait that refers to perseverance in the face of difficulties.   Like other temperament traits, persistence is highly heritable (Cloninger 2012) but also malleable if one is provided frequent and specific feedback.  Effective teaching in any new format requires persistence. Who is providing us frequent and specific feedback as we learn a new teaching strategy?

Integrative—The “Domain of One’s Own” (DOOO) is one of the most important and innovative initiatives in ed-tech today. DOOO is open learning, which emphasizes the importance of learner agency, learning in public, control over one’s digital identity, and web literacies.  It won’t happen without a concerted effort at community-building and capacity-building so that students have online instantaneous access to the assistance needed for creating and curating their digital identities. It won’t happen unless instructors  break away from whatever learning management system (LMS) the university has bought.  The LMS is a great tool for instructors who wish to follow the command, control, communication, and intelligence directives taken from the military.    If implemented well the Domain of One’s Own initiative may break down resistance to the silos of the traditional learning management system and of traditional academic disciplines (Watters 2014).     

We should explore the potential of virtual communities during online teaching so students learn to work at the interface between government and other organizations. Because the future will contain elements of the past — turbulence, uncertainty, novelty and ambiguity—we must consider new ways of coping.  “A shift toward remote working may be here to stay,” said Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School (Gardner 2020).   

Fortunately, we have a sophisticated prefrontal cortex to help us think creatively and plan for the future. Next time we are faced with great uncertainty and anxiety, panic, and compulsive actions become automatic, we should pause for some awareness and mindfulness exercises to reduce our anxiety. Then we will engage our virtual networks and communities so we have the benefits of many brains and their cingulate cortex working to solve our collective problems.  

We are now teaching Generation Z, students who were the first to conduct childhood friendships on portable devices. They've mastered the art of achieving an entire conversation with images (emojis) and gifs. They are independent, pragmatic, stubborn and always in a rush (Mintz 2019). We don’t have to assume we must teach them with the methods of the past.  Generation Z will expect the experts to be online and sharing their toolboxes in order to solve problems in a timely manner.  The path forward for teaching in a pandemic is still uncertain  So I recommend that "you better think. Think about what you're tryin' to do to me." Perhaps you can develop a new community of practice. Employers will cheer you if you help students connect in an increasingly virtual world. 

 Generation Z reached adulthood in the second decade of the 21st century and are perceived as being familiar with the Internet from a very young age.  Photo CC 1.0

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