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Online learning at the U: It’s different and challenging, but the quality can be kept high

In my summer course, everything we would have done in a physical classroom took place online: lectures, powerpoint presentations, short pauses for written self-reflection, discussion groups, student presentations, peer reviews, and contradictory debates. 

Catherine Guisan shown in her office during a class graduation party.
Catherine Guisan shown in her office during a class graduation party held via Zoom.
Courtesy of Catherine Guisan

As the University of Minnesota offers some of its courses on-line only, students and their parents wonder anxiously: Given the price of a degree, is this worth it? 

First, let me state that the financial responsibilities will be shared. Full-time instructors earning more than $65,000 a year will take a pay cut. Adjuncts hired course by course will lose their merit pay increase, or several hundred dollars per course in my case. This is one way not to increase tuition.

When it comes to the quality of instruction, based on two courses taught online and my student performances and evaluations, I am confident that quality can be kept high. The March transition was the easiest because students and instructors already knew one another. Faculty could teach asynchronously by posting lectures and discussion threads on the Canvas Internet platform, or they could teach synchronously, at the usual time on Zoom, which I did. Most faculty in political science will teach synchronously this fall. 

My summer course, “European Responses to Catastrophes: From War to COVID-19,” was a more of a challenge, as my class and I had never met physically, and I taught without an assistant. There were some technological hiccups, for instance, when unexpected publicity spots interrupted my YouTube news clips, or a student could not access a carefully prepared presentation. This was unnerving, but in all instances we kept calm. Everything we would have done in a physical classroom took place online: lectures, powerpoint presentations, short pauses for written self-reflection, discussion groups, student presentations, peer reviews, and contradictory debates. 

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Thus, we discussed Brexit and the difference between bottom-initiated referendums and top-down initiated referendums. Scholars of direct democracy consider the latter dangerous, because they do not respond to popular demand and have been used historically to confirm despots in their rule (see Napoleon Bonaparte in France and Russia last July). Because this was a course in comparative politics, the class then split in two, and each group wrote a proposal for a bottom-up referendum on police reform in Minnesota. We ended up with two texts and two questions that could be put to the ballot. 

We also discussed European responses to war. Looking at pictures of 1945 devastated Europe, it was obvious that COVID-19 does not impose war-like conditions in Europe or the USA: Internet works, and most people live in dwellings with running water, electricity, heat and even air conditioning. Yet the pandemic is a catastrophe: “a sudden downturn.” As we pondered various interpretations of catastrophe, it became clear that catastrophes albeit destructive also make room for the new, and sometimes this is good news. Post World War II Franco-German reconciliation was one example; it paved the way for 70 years of non-militarized conflict resolution in Europe. In July, 90 hours of acrimonious haggling ended in the doubling of the European Union budget to respond to COVID across 27 nation states. 

Prompted by one student, we also studied the legacy of European colonialism, especially in Africa, a topic underexplored in both public and scholarly debates on European politics. We acknowledged that, tragically, an individual or collective actor can act in both constructive and perverse ways: witness U.S. President Jefferson, or the French government negotiating a reconciliatory treaty with five other European nations while waging war in Indochina and Algeria. Acknowledgment of such paradoxes is indispensable to new policies, some of which we examined as they impact responses to the pandemic.

Yes, teaching and learning during the academic year 2020-21 will be different and challenging. 

Students have much to contribute to make their learning experience worthwhile. In synchronous courses, I suggest that they turn their video on in order to heighten attention, create connection with peers, and help the instructor. Indeed, I find it hard to teach little grey squares on my screen, and there are ways to create a background so that the video does not reveal indiscreet details.

Regardless, I say to students: Please reach out to your instructors when something does not quite work for you. Most of us are working exceedingly hard to continue teaching you during the pandemic, we love our work, we care about you, and we need your feedback to adjust in a timely way whenever necessary. 

Catherine Guisan is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota.

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