I'm teaching black boxes!!!

No rant here about teaching synchronous sessions on Zoom. Or not much of a rant. Except to say it can be tough, especially if you're in my higher ed situation where we're not allowed to require students to turn on their cameras. Or their mics. So we end up talking at a lot of black boxes with names on them. Sometimes a cool image, but that's rare.

And I get it. Our student population is such that a lot of the students don't really want to share the reality of where they're living, or their workspace, or whoever else might wander into the range of the camera. So I make do with short lectures and individual freewrites and shared whiteboards and break-out room activities.

Quick aside -- we all love the break-out room activities! Not much more camera-sharing, but a lot more talking amongst themselves. That's another blog post...

But there's another factor I think those of us who teach first year writing tend to overlook, and that's the developmental age of our students. I know that my second term comp class has a lot more buy-in from the students in all phases of both synchronous and asynchronous work. Pretty much all of them work and/or have families, where my first term just-out-of-high-school students don't (or not many of them anyway).

But what does that mean? Actually?

Happily, I stumbled across an article in EdSurge by Diana Anthony and Marshall Thomas ("Asynchronous Learning or Live Sessions? Which One Works Better for Me?") that talks about executive function skills as a sort of hidden aspect of online learning. They make the point these skills "allow us to plan, work toward goals, solve problems and be creative" and that since those skills "continue to develop throughout childhood and adolescence.... there is a direct relationship between executive function development and the effectiveness of different types of learning activities."

What that means is that younger students -- my barely 18-year-olds -- might not have very well-developed executive function skills. And that means they get lost and confused and behind a lot more easily than my older students. I think that's also true in f2f classes, but really is glaring in online classes.

And here's another point: research shows us that asynchronous learning gives them more flexibility, but it also requires them to plan carefully and be self-motivated. Synchronous classes, on the other hand, are less flexible but don't require the same level of executive function skills.

Which is why younger students, especially in asynchronous classes, tend to get lost and really have to rely on us instructors more for guidance. Developmentally, they're simply not there yet.

So that tells me that we have to make sure our empathy sense is in full force with these folks. That we not lose our temper or feel quite so defeated by black box classes. That we're both more hands-on and less didactic.

More than ever, I'm reminded of Mina Shaughnessy's dictum: Meet your students where they are. And in this case, where they are developmentally is not where they'll be in a couple of years. Patience...

Image by Hatice EROL from Pixabay

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