Teaching in the shadow of Covid-19

Above: On their best days, my students never looked this together. These are not their best days. Photo by Dmyrto_Z/DepositPhotos

BitDepth#1244 for April 09, 2020

Two weeks ago, I finally presented my first online lecture and discussion at UWI, St Augustine.

For most of the last 12 years, after an invitation from Bruce Paddington, I’ve taught a class called Film 1101 – Introduction to Photography at the university’s Film School.

It’s a semester of coursework, with a strong emphasis on hands-on learning that evolved from a class that I taught at the John Donaldson Technical Institute in the late 1980’s developed under the leadership of Carlisle Harris.

Some of the slides in my current decks actually date back to that era, when the class was taught with trays of Extachrome slides.

There has been a lot of adaptation and evolution from coaching students on darkroom film loading to last month’s shearing change, when I had to step back from an established pattern of teaching to consider how to continue the second half of a course disrupted by the national isolation regime.

Working with UWI’s teams on this has been a lucky break. The university implemented an actual Open Campus (disclosure: my wife works there) more than a decade ago to develop distance learning initiatives and I was trained on its digital course support systems eleven years ago.

As you might expect, I wasn’t resistant to that requirement. The MyElearning support system allowed me to develop a robust collection of teaching supplements that no longer required hours on a printer to pass along to students. Changing or adding to the collection was dynamic and straightforward.

But a commitment to systems and policy doesn’t always translate into practical implementation. Five years ago, an update to MyElearning booted me out of the system and I ended up using frustrating workarounds for years to continue digital delivery of support materials.

Until three weeks ago. That’s when every hurdle to reestablishing my presence on the UWI’s systems disappeared and my every request for assistance was diligently handled.

Plugged back into the UWI online course support system, I had to do some studying of my own to understand how the digital learning systems worked, how messaging and UWI’s mail system could assist with student and teacher accountability and finally, how to re-engineer my established course lectures and student expectations to an increasingly constricted physical reality.

The response from most of the schools operating under the management of the Ministry of Education has been desultory at best. They weren’t ready. Nobody was ready.

The second half of my course has always been based on an “apply and guide” model. Students create a themed photo collection, and I review the work as it is created, delivering lectures and individual discussion meant to spark stronger visual thinking and clarity as we progress.

As it turns out, that model can be made to work well with UWI’s online learning tools. The work gets posted to Flickr, and we review together using a shared screen as I discuss possible directions for the project, limited this year to a single one, the unsurprising “In My Space.”

It’s early days for me in this process, and after spending a full week of  thinking about how to adapt a classroom course to the current circumstances, I remain unsure about how to redesign the first half for the future. At the start, I am very hands-on and offer personal guidance.

If I’m this hammered by this change to a one semester long course, how will the rest of the education system adjust?

Even with the support of an established e-learning environment, experienced staff capable of delivering support and systems that work, switching abruptly in mid-course from one learning model to another has been jarring.

It’s been a bit like changing a tyre while the vehicle is still moving.

After three weeks of working through this, the Government’s lack of forward-thinking strategy for education is deeply worrying.

The response from most of the schools operating under the management of the Ministry of Education has been desultory at best.

They weren’t ready. Nobody was ready.

Planning has been hampered by the spotty deployment of technology infrastructure in schools, the nostalgic leadership style of Anthony Garcia, the current Education Minister, and the sharp jerk stops that successive lockdowns have wrought on the school system.

Given the demolition of the chalk and talk mode of education, the Prime Minister should be moving to make better use of the more progressive Lovell Francis as czar of a major e-learning initiative that acknowledges the reality present in the vast majority of schools, their teachers and students, and designs systems that accelerate necessary change in learning paradigms.

There’s a bumpy ride ahead and in primary and secondary education, we haven’t even tumbled the engine yet.