Reflections on Zoom, zombies, and the online learning curve

By Rami G. Khouri
Senior public policy fellow, Issam Fares Institute; director of the Anthony Shadid Archives project; journalist in residence, Media Studies Program
Spring/Summer 2020

Low-intensity panic was my immediate reaction when AUB recently asked its students to remain at home to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and to continue all courses via remote teaching/learning online. How in the world would I give my twice-a-week, 2.5-hour-long, hands-on reporting and writing seminars in narrative and opinion writing? I had just 48 hours to learn how to teach my first ever course online.

Having mastered, in adulthood, e-mail, Twitter, Skype, and WhatsApp, I figured this would be easy, yet I had no idea where to start. The dean of arts and sciences, perhaps feeling the imminent melt-down vibes among some in her brood, emailed all faculty members options and tips on how to manage courses online. I chose the “Zoom” option—mainly because it was the only option whose name I could understand without consulting any technical website or equivalent human being.

The first class went smoothly enough, and I quickly learned two lessons. First, I had to be able to place text on my screen that the students could share so we could analyze writing samples together, including theirs, as we did every week in class. Second, we could not simply shift our weekly sessions from the classroom to online; rather, we had to adapt and adjust everything we did—short lectures, student presentations, shared text analysis and editing, in-class writing exercises, cat management, homework assignments—to create an effective university experience online.

I was quickly humbled and pleased that my students taught me new things about how to manage the online experience. They knew their way around the control-alt, screen sharing, and OneDrive universe more deftly than I ever would. More importantly, they were kind, patient, and merciful as we moved through our first session. We mostly talked about the home confinement situation that defined us all, how we coped with or stressed about it, and how we would manage the rest of the course together in light of all these new realities. That was my first signal that this was not really about what’s online, but rather about what’s in people’s hearts and minds.

A few days later, I was preparing for the second week of distance learning by teaching myself to insert text into the Zoom screen to share with the students, which is critical for my writing courses. After half an hour of serial failed attempts, I was just about to call the IT folks when providence intervened once again, this time in the form of one of my students who knocked on my door to ask a question. I quickly reversed our teacher-student relationship and asked her to help me learn how to master the insert-text-into-Zoom-screen-and-share-it-with-the-class puzzle—which she did. I was not surprised, only ever more grateful for the second signal I got, which clarified to me that in the online universe, teachers and students can be both students and teachers.

By the third week, I started to become a good student. I learned valuable lessons in class, but I also drew on what I had learned half a century earlier as a university student of journalism and political science in the United States, during the 1960–70s tumult of a hundred social and political movements. College students and professors in 1968–73 in the US learned equally valuable things inside and outside the classroom—in anti-war demonstrations, student strikes, marches, occupations of university administration buildings, class stoppages, and teach-ins, sit-ins, lock-outs, and be-ins on racism, sexism, environmental protection, and war-and-peace. We journalism students even created an alternative community newspaper to deliver the facts and the concerns we thought the establishment university and media ignored.

All that went through my mind as I pondered in March how to engage with my students online. In 1970 and 2020 alike, it turns out, textbooks, assignment due dates, and syllabi suddenly jostled for space with what seemed to be more existential issues in our lives. School went on, but human nature demanded that we adjust our routines and somehow incorporate the current crisis into the teaching-and-learning process. Our classroom encounters shifted from the campus to the web, yet students and teachers alike were totally distracted by the troubling news of our neighborhood and our planet; none of us could easily focus on routine tasks or assignments. Our minds were elsewhere, and the tech fix to keep teaching online did not take into account that we had become zombie-like beings whose minds and bodies did not synchronize as they used to do. Suddenly, professors and students became identical twins.

I realized at some point in mid-March 2020 that on my lifelong journey from student to teacher to student again, I have come to appreciate how quality universities respond best in times of crisis. They maintain the integrity of their mission by continuing to teach students via all available means; they acknowledge that students, teachers, staff, parents, alumni, and everyone else in the university’s orbits share the same stresses and fears about ourselves and our world, which make everything else in life secondary; and, together, they adjust everything they do in the classroom and beyond to wed a modified pedagogy with the priority needs of our frightening human uncertainty. Zoom and zombies had no option but to coexist, and to make the best of it.

I still had to figure out how to integrate teaching, reporting, and writing into the new life stresses we all shared. I started by asking students during our online sessions to talk, and then write about, their feelings, their daily lives, and any other issues on their minds. I focused on improving their writing, not assessing their reporting or critical thinking, both of which had become almost impossible to do. We adjusted assignment topics and deadlines to alleviate pressures on them. I overcame online class constraints by also speaking with students by phone or email during the week.

I assigned them shorter texts to write during class and for homework, which we analyzed together online every week, now that I had become a screen-share maestro. One assignment required them to write about a place in their youth where they always found joy—a room, a town, a vacation spot, playground, or grandparent’s home, I suggested. They wrote captivating texts about the eternal joy in their lives that revolved around a swing, a candy store, a summer beach, a sunny room at home, a balcony, and a rooftop, among other happiness zones. I asked them to step out of their confined indoor locations—to a balcony, a rooftop, a front yard, a stoop on the street—and just observe and write about living organisms in nature. They sent me delightful short tales of cats, dogs, ladybugs, trees, birds, and other life forms they had never properly appreciated before. We analyzed their writing techniques, learned together how to express life’s marvels in detailed text descriptions. On this short journey, we all touched our indestructible inner humanity. The poor virus never had a chance.

As I embraced my new status as a “mature student” (college for old people, we used to call it), I learned above all this semester about the university’s obligation to students as they transition to full adulthood in stressful times. This meant we had to downgrade traditional classroom activity and heighten our collective learning about how we could all grow together and absorb bigger lessons about life, ourselves, and our world.

…the tech to keep teaching online did not take into account that we had become zombie-like beings whose minds and bodies did not synchronize like they used to.