Working and learning online has become a new reality as we collectively try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. UMass Boston Political Science Associate Professor Erin O'Brien shared her concerns with moving her classes online with WGBH News shortly after the call to go remote was announced, including accommodating students without access to computers and the Internet. So with remote learning in full-swing, how has it been going so far? WGBH News' Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu caught up with O'Brien to talk about the challenges and moments of levity in online teaching. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: You getting used to your home?
Erin O'Brien: No, I'm talking to you and my dog's here. I'm afraid she's going to bark. So it's really weird.
Mathieu: Please, what's the dog's name?
Mathieu: Okay, excellent. Please, let the barking commence. Erin, you just tweeted that you're going to talk to us about what your mourning, what went well and what made us all laugh. Are you guys laughing on Zoom?
O'Brien: We did. I have doctoral students and undergrads. And for the doctoral students, it made sense we could all meet at the same time. With the undergrads, they don't have the resources to do it. So the dog made an appearance. One woman, her elderly mother came in, someone else's landlord came in. So we're having a really substantive discussion, we started with how are you and at the end really said, "does everybody have toilet paper" and things like that. The session itself was really substantive, but it was just crazy to see people's real lives emerge behind them. And no one made the effort to go "no, get out of the way!" We just rolled with it.
Mathieu: You made us all chuckle when you tweeted the other day about how you have to clean your house now before class, which is something we can all relate with being on these crazy conference calls and Zoom conferences and everything else. But are your classes changing in the way you approach them? How do you do this when you're not in person with students?
O'Brien: Well, I realized that's what I'm mourning. I love being in the classroom. It's fun and the interactions are so special. It lights me up and it can light them up. It's the reward for all this. And what online teaching for me has done is it has maximized the things I dislike about teaching the most, like getting the technological prep. I don't mind prep; I like reading the materials, but it's like creating PowerPoints, which just doesn't feel that substantive to me. And it's a lot of just grading. With my undergrads especially because they can't meet at the same time. Now, we did meet and a quarter of them came to the live session, but I also am recording via PowerPoint lectures that they can watch and check in on. So it's all the technological, it's a bunch of the learning a lot of the new tech as well without the reward of the interaction in the classroom. And yeah, after my 2:00 [class] yesterday, I just felt really good and sad because I missed being there.
Mathieu: Erin, when you were in studio talking with us a couple of weeks ago, you expressed concerns about a couple of students, specifically one who was living in a shelter [and] didn't have access to a laptop computer, for instance. Have you found that all your students have access to your materials?
O'Brien: No, I don't know. I don't know. A lot of the listeners were great and reached out to me about that student. So a neighbor has a tablet. We're still waiting on a cord to get to her. But 25 percent of my undergrads tuned in live. Some of that is just because they didn't want to, but it's also the case that some of them simply can't. A lot lost jobs, but a few are in the service industry at grocery stores and are working all the time. Or like one of my grad students takes care of her elderly mother and her mother has severe allergies, so they have to cook all the food fresh. But she's scared to go to the grocery store, too, because she doesn't want to come home with something. And then she said I'm cooking all day, so I'm really tired. So I don't know. I've been checking in with all of them, but I haven't heard from some, quite frankly, because I know my class is not the most important thing in their life right now.
Mathieu: So in some cases, then, students are watching you live. Some need to watch you on demand. Is that just how you'll approach all of your classes?
O'Brien: Yes, it's not a popular subscription service.
Mathieu: It's Erin O'Brien pay-per-view.
O'Brien: That's right.
Mathieu: But that's going to be the deal, right? You kind of have to find them both ways.
O'Brien: Yes, exactly. And that's what I decided with the undergrads. You've got options. A lot of them hunger for the interaction and just can't do it and others prefer the other way, so it takes away from the collective. And I'm also trying to think of it positively. Maybe I'll hear more from students in the group chat that I don't hear from in the classroom just because they're more shy, they're a little bit not as intellectually confident. So different platforms might speak to them. Also, I think it's good for me as a professor that this is new to me. As an adult, I rarely have to do things that are hard. And so this is hard for me, and that's the way my students feel a lot of the time. I'm trying to make the best of a bad situation and be reminded of the ways in which it can be hard to learn.
Mathieu: Well, it seems like you're doing a great job. And I was really heartened to hear from a lot of our listeners and see them on Twitter trying to rally around that student who needs help.
O'Brien: Yes, that was really lovely. It made me feel so good about the world.
Mathieu: Well, me too. And it seems like she still needs some help. You still need a cord, you need something like that. If you want to find Erin on Twitter, do you want me to put your handle out there?
O'Brien: That would be great. Thank you. I really appreciate that.
Mathieu: @Prof_EOB. She's a professor at UMass Boston. She's got a student in need and maybe we can fix that by the time this is done, Erin. You're doing a good job. Thanks for bringing us into your classroom.
O'Brien: Well, thanks for the opportunity. It's nice to have this to digest it.