As the current crisis unfolds, I have been involved in many conversations with faculty and administrators about moving classes online. These conversations rapidly devolve into discussions of the relative merits of various tools. Often these discussions resemble office workers debating the relative merits of various plows. They are disconnected from the reality of what was already happening in peoples’ classrooms before social isolation took hold. When I start to ask questions about the intent of specific instructional activities such as lectures, assessment, or discussion is I am quickly shut down because “no one wants to talk about philosophy now.” However, now is precisely the time when we should be talking about philosophy because it is only when we strip the processes that occur in our learning environments bare that we can grasp at the correct tools for both us as teachers and, more importantly, for the learners that depend on us.

In a nutshell, good teachers listen as much as they talk. Diana Laurillard refers to these as “conversational spaces.”(Laurillard, Diana, 2003, 2007, 2009) Teachers right now need to find tools that enable them to listen and hear because this is what distance robs us of. If the tool is too top-down your students won’t be empowered to talk. If it is too technically difficult the means of hearing will break down. This is the single most important challenge facing us right now. A good conferencing tool that flattens both the technical and communications curves is the essential tool right now not because of what it is but because of what it does. Function should always trump form.

The part of instruction that we are changing the most is the physical interactions within the classroom. Therefore it is important to take an honest look at what goes on in a stereotypical classroom. Faculty talk at their students. Much of that is misheard or ignored. Better students take notes of information. Often that information is lacking in context, especially if they are simply copying from a whiteboard or PowerPoint slide. In some classes communication doesn’t go much further than that. Students may ask for some points of clarification (many don’t) and try to make sense out of the information coming at them but that’s about the extent of the conversation going on. This is fairly easy to replicate online. Just post notes or PowerPoints slides. Answer questions via email or chat and you’re pretty much done. Because of technical challenges and tool limitations there are a lot of online courses that never go much further than this essential modality.

Those faculty who think deeply about what’s going on in the classroom environment realize that this is far from sufficient. One step further would to engage in the Socratic method with extensive questioning and feedback about student attention and mental engagement within the class. Socratic method is much harder to replicate online because much of its essential feedback is dependent on live, synchronous interactions with students. Watching a video of a Socratic interchange would merely form a more confusing version of a straight lecture paradigm and, arguably, would be more confusing for those not present synchronously. Also, the element of body language and performance inherent in this method is inevitably muted, if not lost entirely, online. There are a number of tools available to facilitate this kind of instruction such as clickers and other electronic feedback mechanisms. None of them, however, overcome the kind of “social distancing” that limit the execution of this approach remotely. Also, it’s a lot easier to hide in the back of the online “classroom” and be “present” without being mentally present in the discussion.

Many tools in the learning management system are designed to facilitate these kinds of instruction. They imply a power structure where the instructor is at the front and the class should follow along as best as they can. Some tools may be useful for making that path easier but the basic communications modality is the same. The more you go down this path, the more complex the tools become. Communication should not be complex. It is a fragile flower, easily broken. Moving thousands of classes online in a time of stress for both instructor and student risks a lot of breakage.

Another approach would be to back off and consider how effective communication occurs between faculty and instructor. For one thing, I walk around the classroom instead of positioning myself in the front. This is basic technique for making sure even those students who are trying to hide will not be able to do as we engage in class discussion. Conversation cannot be replicated in a series of disconnected posts on a discussion board. It is a dynamic interchange which the instructor steers but does not always control. The controlling factor is the students’ capacity to absorb information flows in the classroom, not how much material I have to get through. Adjustments are made. Putting information online has the advantage of persistence but we completely lose the conversational aspect so critical for the learning process, particularly among students who lack the skills to teach themselves. Start here.

We are fortunate at this technological junction to have relatively sophisticated videoconferencing capabilities to complement whatever asynchronous capabilities we have developed online. Live conversations offer the only way to achieve immediate feedback and conversation. Set up properly, they can also bring the student to the fore. The best platforms are also technically easy to navigate because they were designed to be used by nontechnical business users on a regular basis. They also flatten interactions if they are designed for collaboration over presentation/lecture. In an environment where the vast majority of faculty and students have never operated in this way before, this is an obvious tool to grasp for. It most closely mirrors interactions on the classroom level. It requires minimal setup and adaptation from what is going on in the classroom and can work to flatten the distance between teacher and student when distance will be the biggest challenge to overcome. Focusing on other tools risks creating lots of noise in a confusing environment, not the best strategy for communication.

Right now, everyone is floating in an atomized soup. Regular bearings are lost in the fog of uncertainty but are coupled with a desire to move forward beyond the immediate crisis. Finding our way back to the basics of what we’ve always tried to do in the classroom and matching the appropriate tools with the task is critical to the success of that effort. If anything, there are too many tools available to us in this environment. This can be overwhelming. Best to keep it simple, go and grab your favorite hammer or screwdriver, and see if it will do the job in front of you. Don’t worry about the rest. Above all, listen to your students. They need to hear your voice clearly now more than ever and you need to hear theirs in order to be understood. That much will never change.