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The Unanticipated Semester - Teaching During a Quarantine by Hannah Gascho Rempel

Hannah Rempel is an Associate Professor of Library Science at Oregon State University. This year, Hannah has spent two semesters teaching at Charles University’s Institute for Information Studies and Librarianship in Prague as a Fulbright Scholar. Even though her stay in the country was cut short because of the pandemic, Hannah has continued teaching Czech students online from across the Atlantic

Some Pre-Quarantine Context

The time was January 2020. You may remember this time as BCV (Before CoronaVirus). Or more accurately and selfishly as BCVMDM. That would be Before CoronaVirus Mattered Directly to Me. It was the gap between my two semesters teaching at Charles University’s Institute for Information Studies and Librarianship in Prague. I was using this time to prepare for the upcoming semester, and was reworking a course I had previously taught so that it was tailored for my Czech bachelor’s and master’s students. I had taught prior iterations of this class as a continuing education course for practicing librarians. Teaching pre-service students would be somewhat different, and I wanted to be mindful of their particular needs and pre-existing knowledge base. But another difference was that until now I had only taught this course online. Teaching in person would require a different approach. I enjoyed working on brainstorming in-person activities, including hands-on projects students could do together in class. Ah, hands-on group activities - the innocence of BCVMDM.

Another BCVMDM preparation I made was to visit my new classroom. One thing I have learned as a teacher is that there is always SOMETHING unexpected about each new classroom - it could be the type of computer or the classroom configuration - just waiting to trip you up. Plus, my department had moved across town over the winter break to new digs in the Old Town of Prague, which was even more reason to visit my new classroom. Happily, a colleague from my department was able to guide me through the busy tourist zone to visit my new classroom in a historic university building located directly across from The Wax Museum of Legends and near the Museum of Torture. She applied her Czech savvy and advised me to make my own off-the-record copy of the classroom key, pointing out that the facility manager’s English wasn’t up to the task of reliably giving me the key if she wasn’t there to badger him for it. My own copy of the key in hand, I later snuck back to the classroom, logged onto the computer, reconfigured Chrome to display in English rather than Czech, practiced turning on the projector (much easier to do without students watching), and made a mental note to bring my own whiteboard markers for the first day of class.

The course I had proposed to teach this term was called “Creating Online Tutorials (Instructional Design in an Online World).” BCVMDM this may have been considered a somewhat niche topic in a somewhat niche area (instruction) of librarianship that few pre-service librarians realize they will regularly use until after they begin their careers. So I wasn’t surprised that my class was pretty small - four students. But in contrast to the previous term when my class consisted of one-third Czech students and two-thirds Erasmus students, this term all of my students were Czech. I looked forward to broadening my understanding of Czech students’ knowledge base and approach to learning.

On my first day of class, I arrived secure in the knowledge that I could at least find my classroom and turn on the computer. And I did succeed at those two things. But after multiple tries, the computer wouldn’t proceed past the login screen, and there wasn’t an adapter to connect my laptop to the project. But hey! I’m flexible, so I used my laptop to display my slides instead. The class went fine, although my demonstration of technological prowess left a little to be desired.

The next week, I was able to turn the computer on AND logged in, connected to the internet, and projected my screen (it turns out I wasn’t the only instructor who had similar technical difficulties the first week). With my technology skills now well-established, I moved on to other instructional strategies that are core to me as a teacher. Some of these strategies include a) creating a collaborative culture so students feel more comfortable working with me and each other, b) modeling what I want students to do, then asking students to reflect on their own experiences, practice what they’re learning in a lower stakes activity, and then apply what they’ve learned, and c) scaffolding the learning experience so that skills, theories, and activities gradually build toward a final project so the final project itself isn’t an overwhelming task. My previous experience teaching Czech university students indicated that while they were definitely more familiar with lecture-based classes, this active learning, student-centered approach was not unfamiliar to them. Or if it was unfamiliar to them, they faked it and adapted well to a different system.

Quarantine Transitions

But then came March 10. The end of BCVMDM, and the last day of in-person classes at Charles University (as well as at all of the other schools in the Czech Republic, including my childrens’ grade school). Suddenly, along with teachers everywhere, I needed to begin the rapid transition to teaching online. I had many advantages: all of that technical savvy (including the ability to turn on a computer), previous experience teaching online, in-person relationships with my students, access to an institutional Zoom account, decent internet access at my apartment, and children (now aged 10 and 11) who had been trained since birth not to interrupt during online meetings when a parent is working from home unless something is on fire or someone is dying. And while I had the obvious advantage of having taught THIS EXACT COURSE online previously, I didn’t want to revert to teaching the class the way I had taught it online before - as an asynchronous, self-paced, discussion-board driven, recorded-lecture watching course. There were good reasons I taught the class that way before: students attended from literally around the world (okay - no Antarcticans, but still), often over 100 students were enrolled at a time, and the students (almost) all had full-time jobs.

But this class was different. The class was small. We already had an established meeting time. I had three weeks worth of establishing a collaborative community already under my belt. Plus, I knew students were taking the class in part to practice their English conversational and listening skills. So I surveyed my students and learned that they all had access to computers at home along with a sufficiently robust internet connection. With two days to go before our first online class, I decided to continue teaching a synchronous class with a set meeting time. I also wanted to try using the same instructional strategies of student participation, practice, and small chunks of instructor modeling that I had used in the in-person version of the class.

Before I share more of my experience teaching Czech students online during the pandemic, I ask that you humor me with a bit of an aside. Now that I’ve been back in the U.S., I’ve read lots of viewpoints and advice on online teaching during this pandemic. One of my takeaways from this reading is that context matters. Context and reflection has always mattered in teaching, but I always need to remind myself of that before getting all riled up by suggestions that everyone should be teaching THIS way or THAT way. Or that a certain type of technology is TERRIBLE or AMAZING. Now - are there best practices in online education? Yes. Will different approaches make sense for different types of classes, disciplines, and student audiences? Yes. Does this unique time require added grace, flexibility, and mindfulness in the way we teach and interact with students? Yes. Which is all a long way to say - this is my experience teaching Czech students online during this pandemic - it may not be the best way and certainly isn’t the only way. Thanks for humoring me - now back to the end of BCVMDM.

While I wanted to preserve some of my in-person instructional practices, changes were needed for the online environment. For example, learners’ attention spans have been found to be extremely short when it comes to watching lectures. This finding is true for both in-person and online learning, but the issue is even more pronounced when the lectures are delivered online. As a result, I tried to be extra mindful to reduce lecture components to small chunks. Knowing that students’ internet connections might not always be stable, I posted my slides online in Moodle. And in a few cases when I wanted to make sure that students had access to specific lecture content, I pre-recorded short lectures, asked students to watch the lectures prior to our class meeting time, and then built in-class activities around those lectures. The pre-recorded (or flipped) approach worked okay. But based on checking the video analytics, I also know that not all of the students watched the pre-recorded lectures. Such are the realities of online education.

What didn’t change in the online version of the class was my goal for students to collaborate with each other and to practice and share what they were learning along the way. Several technological tools helped make these goals more feasible. Zoom’s breakout rooms allowed students to work in pairs to provide peer feedback on their work or to analyze an assigned website or tutorial. I would float between pairs in the breakout rooms, and I was surprised by how often students spoke in English just in case I might drop in. Another Zoom feature we used was the option to add co-hosts to the session. Being a co-host made it easy for students to give class presentations. The students quickly learned how to use the share screen features and gave presentations that were similar in quality to the in-class presentations I had previously seen. We also used Google Docs and Sheets to create and share content in real time.

Giving Czech Students an American Experience - From America

Our class met once a week for 90 minutes. Over the course of the term, I lived in three different time zones. When the quarantine began, I taught from my daughter’s bedroom in our Prague apartment. After the Fulbright program was suspended (but while our renters were still living at our home in Oregon), I taught from a bedroom in a small cottage my parents typically use as an AirBnB on their property in Indiana. The first session from Indiana was particularly rough as I continued teaching the class at 9:00 a.m. Central European Time, which was 4:00 a.m. Eastern Time. During that class, I asked my students for time zone mercy, and they graciously acquiesced to my request for a new meeting time. I comfortably taught several sessions at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time. And then once our renters moved out, I made the switch to 7:00 a.m. Pacific Time for the last two classes.

A piece of advice we received in our fall Fulbright training that I often recalled was that part of why we were here was to give Czech students the “American experience” of education. I try to make it a point not to overgeneralize. I obviously don’t know what all American educators are like. And from my time interacting with my departmental colleagues at Charles University, I realize that I don’t know what all Czech educators are like either. I know that some American educators still rely heavily on lectures, and some Czech educators use student-selected projects to drive their classes. I know that some American educators use creative case studies to help students gain an in-depth knowledge of their field, and that some Czech educators heavily rely on exam culture as a gatekeeper to further educational opportunities. As I told my Czech students, the only American experience I could guarantee they were getting was me. And that version of me has roots in cultural factors like my gender and previous educational experiences.

What students might readily notice is that like a “typical” (female, of a certain age, from a particular region of the country) American, I smile easily. Depending on who you ask, I am occasionally funny. But I also work on intentionally developing structures that are more likely to lead to a comfortable and collaborative learning space. An example of what this structure looked like in my online class was a weekly discussion prompt called the Coronavirus Diaries where students reflected on a range of questions from “what tutorials are you using during quarantine?” (A: cooking tutorials), to “what foods do you miss during quarantine?” (A: snack foods, salty and sweet), to “where would you like to be traveling right now?” (A: Iceland, US, France).

These informal questions made students more willing to give feedback when I solicited their input on how the online educational experience (in my class and beyond) was going for them. I received (I believe) fairly honest input. They were split on whether or not they liked online classes and whether they would actively choose to take them again. Some felt like they were a lot of work and others liked the reduced commute and self-pacing abilities the format could provide. Some students felt overwhelmed. Some students lost track of time without the regular structure classes, work, and life usually provide. All students were glad they stuck with the course even though it looked like a lot of work at the beginning of the semester. And I was glad I stuck with them. I learned more about Czech students and their adaptability. I witnessed their willingness to try out new technology, to read and give presentations on academic articles in English (a challenging task in the best of times), and to complete a project that would give them practical skills once they start their careers.

Teaching and learning online is not the same as the in-person of these activities. Students didn’t get to try out my peanut butter brownies or my apple pie bars on the last day of class. I didn’t get to see when they were confused or strike up as many informal conversations. I don’t know if I would teach this particular class online the same way again. But in this particular time, WCVMDM (When CoronaVirus Mattered Directly to Me) and when social and physical distancing forced us out of our normal routines and into our homes, I hope this high-touch online approach gave my students some opportunities to create connections with me and their classmates.