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Close to Home: Welcome to the new world of online education

In the pedagogical hierarchy, some view online education as a poor substitute for real teaching. Let's hope they're wrong, because in our current situation it is all we have.

As a longtime college teacher of both on-campus and online courses, I'm confident that our educational community will rise to the occasion in these challenging times.

Comparisons about which methodology works best miss a broader point. In education, one size or way of teaching doesn't fit all. Some students learn better in a traditional classroom environment while others thrive in online courses. Many take classes in both modes.

What you're teaching also matters. General education courses usually lend themselves better to online education than higher level offerings that are more effectively taught in-person.

Moving courses online can be done two ways, asynchronous (where students view content and complete assignments within certain deadlines) or synchronous (where we all meet online at the same time using a web video conferencing program like Zoom).

Going the synchronous route is a tempting option given the suddenness and severity of the current situation, and the desire to maintain the normalcy of a classroom environment.

Yet there are other important factors to consider such as how many students lack high-speed internet access at home, or a computer powerful enough to run higher-demand programs, or have data caps that can make high-speed access expensive. This isn't a majority rules deal. All students need access to course content.

While asynchronous courses lack the same in-class feeling, being less resource intensive improves their accessibility. Through online discussion boards and other tools, students can interact with each other in meaningful ways in this mode of teaching.

These choices are important but not mutually exclusive. In online education, the term hybrid usually refers to a course taught part online and part in-person. But given what we're facing, the term may need to be expanded to also refer to multiple modes of online learning.

The biggest challenge I see is the massive training of teachers with little or no experience in online education that needs to get done very quickly. While many teachers use a campus learning management system like Canvas to communicate with students or deal with assignments, teaching an entire course online requires more training and experience.

Both Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College have outstanding training and support programs for teachers and students in online, sometimes called distance education.

But training so many teachers in a short timeframe will likely stress the system, just as fighting the coronavirus in other ways has or is likely to severely stress other essential systems.

It takes time and experience to get proficient at teaching online, but my colleagues are dedicated, professional educators who will get the job done.

There will be learning curves, glitches and adjustments we'll all need to make. But patience and the right attitude are great tools for helping us work through tough problems.

What makes me confident that we'll succeed is our track record as a community in meeting the major challenges we've faced in recent years and how we did so.

When roughly 200,000 people, nearly 40% of Sonoma County's population, had to evacuate our homes, we did so with remarkably little drama.

As a community, our strength is in keeping our cool and working together in difficult times. It will power us through this crisis, too.

Our county's teachers, administrators, students and parents are committed to making our education system work as best we can, no matter the circumstances.

With Zoom and similar products, many will get to use the same tools we employ for online education for telecommuting or other meetings that now must be held online.

In this context, we're all students now.

Richard Hertz teaches American politics at Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College.

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