Some Thoughts on COVID-19 and Teaching

In the past two months, the world has been turned upside down by the novel Coronavirus sweeping the planet, with little end in sight. This presents a rather curious and (dare I say the buzzword of the day) unprecedented time for education and teaching in the U.S. and across the world. Even as the small dot in the sea of everything I am, I thought I’d opine for a moment or two about the current state of affairs in education, particularly math/stats education, and how the future may look different because of it.

Online learning has become the norm recently, as institutions have been forced to shutter in-person instruction over fears of infection. This will be the crux of this piece, because online learning presents a significant shift from the traditional methods of learning. As most of you already know, colleges and universities have largely adopted a virtual facade as an option for students for about a decade now, so it wasn’t as much crossing the Rubicon as it was for K-12 teachers, who are suddenly in a brave new world with little to no preparation time.

The primary concern I’d like to focus on in my short post is the differentiation of instruction, particularly online math/stats instruction. Some subjects lend themselves to an online virtual presence quite well – I’m looking at you English and History. These subjects that have a propensity for storytelling and lecturing naturally adapt to a virtual medium quite well, as the method of delivery is lecture and discussion boards. This post is in no way meant to condescend the Liberal Arts; instead, it is meant to highlight the challenges the math and science courses face in such a medium.

There are thousands of online math/stats/science courses out there, so I’m not claiming it can’t be done. The issue is that the topics lend themselves more to demonstration, hands-on discovery, and mentoring by an instructor/professor; this is particularly hard to accomplish in a virtual way. A math teacher can push videos and demonstrations through the online Learning Management System that the college or K-12 school is using, but there are a sizable number of students that have difficulty learning in this self-digest sort of manner.

I want to hedge my statements somewhat; I have taught online classes this semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and my students have done quite well. It is a delivery system that is effective and works quite wonderfully for a large number of students, and I absolutely advocate and stand behind online education in the 21st century we live in. However, I cannot say this honestly without also pointing out the real need for in-person instruction for some students as well. There are many students (I’d wager 20-30%) that sincerely cannot effectively learn math or stats or science in a self-paced, self-driven online environment.

We are all unique learners in a sense, and the art of teaching as an educator is to tap into each learner’s style and best meet his/her needs. If we are truly to do that, we must realize that online instruction can never ultimately replace in-person instruction for some students. Some students it is excellent and liberating to learn online, as it allows them to control the learning pace and environment. For others, the structure, body language, one-to-one attention, and ritual of regular, scheduled, live in-person sessions of learning is the recipe for success.

My impetus for writing this post is I have seen multiple outlets and sources now state that “Online is the future” or “In-person teaching is dead” or similar tropes. We must stand firm and take a cold hard dose of reality and realize this is simply a season we are in; online education is important, crucial, and here to stay, but so is in-person traditional education, and we need not forget that.