Here’s why online teaching is sort of like chaos right now

I just got a query from a student reporter, who asked, “did McGill provide professors with enough Zoom training this summer?”

I can only imagine what students are seeing!

The institution provided a lot of training.  So much so that by mid summer I was “webinar-ed out.” Specifically, credit must go to Teaching & Learning Services, who really rose to the occasion.  (And if I didn’t think they’d done a good job, I promise I would tell you.  I’m not shy about criticizing the university.)

BUT, there are a number of other factors contributing to difficulties right now:

1. Zoom wasn’t designed as a teaching tool.  It still isn’t, and some basic things (like the TAs and I going from group to group in our meeting yesterday) involve workarounds, and that is according to Zoom’s own manual!  Keep in mind that in March, the company wasn’t any more prepared to deal with the pandemic than any other institution.  They basically got lucky because their interface happened to handle group meetings a little differently than (eg) Skype, Microsoft Teams, and other options.  6 months sounds like a long time but it’s not when you’re talking about the sheer scale of the undertaking.  On the first day of class at many US institutions (10 days before we started) Zoom crashed.  

2. No amount of training or practice can fully prepare anyone for dealing with a new technical or social arrangement.   It’s like performing on a musical instrument or playing a sport.  There’s practice, and then there’s the heat of performance.  I’ve been putting some part of my courses online since the 1990s (back then you had to hand-code a course website), and I have never worked harder to get my courses up and running than this term.  

3. Now scale that up to a whole big university, and add in wide range of technical skill-levels and literacies among faculty.

So if the students are looking for someone to blame, I’d blame the virus first.  Covid cost everyone something.  If our main complaint is about some rocky first classes, we should count ourselves fortunate.  

That said, I would expect things to smooth out in a couple weeks as people get used to it.*

EDIT: Also, people should feel free to complain to their friends and loved ones! The rule in our home is we can complain about anything we want whenever we want if it makes us feel better.

*One thing I didn’t say in the reply that I wish I did was that faculty are also people, and if you’ve got care responsibilities, it’s really hard to do a full-time job at home on top of that right now. Also, we should just expect stuff to go wrong. It will!