Thank goodness that it is the last week of class! This has been the most challenging semester of my 25 year-long teaching career at McGill and Oxford, and it has been even more challenging for many of my students.
This semester I taught three separate courses on Zoom. Actually, our CEO Insights class for the McGill MBAs was held in person for the first six weeks of the fall and then had to switch to Zoom as Covid-19 cases in Montreal began to rise. The CEOs wanted to come to class. They were looking forward to being in a large room where everyone was properly socially distanced and where they could share their experiences and insights with a captive audience of students. They were keen to feel the energy in the room, of being in person and not on Zoom or Teams. Two of the guests, the Publisher and CEO of the Globe and Mail and the President of Loblaws were looking forward to flying down from Toronto—their first business travel in months. Sadly, after six weeks of in-person teaching, that was nixed as well. All Zoom, all the time.
To be sure, Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms have made the experience of working and teaching during a pandemic much better than it might have been 10 years ago. Back then, we would have been able to email students Word documents and occasionally speak to a few individuals over Skype, but not much more.
Still, a few hours a day on Zoom and virtually all day, almost 7 days a week spent on the computer is too much. We learned to take breaks, do stretches, go for a run or walk, but still the sheer exhaustion caused by staring at a screen for hours on end with almost no physical human contact outside of our bubbles has been tough. This isolation has been particularly hard for extroverts like myself, but introverts have told me that they too have found it wearing after a while.
Beyond familiarizing ourselves with the material in the class, the students and I had to learn how to work on new software, a process that comes with its own learning curve. Embarking on this journey with some of the brightest students in the world has made a difference. They have really leaned into this new way of learning and living, but even so, to most of us this adaptation felt like too much at once.
My students and I have been able to parse the remote learning experience in one-on-one and in small group calls. They know that my children are also undergraduate students, which gives us another common reference point. Overall, they were open about the difficulties that they were going through learning online. It hasn’t been easy for any of us!
There was still a positive side to distance learning. As I have done in the past, I co-taught my undergraduate courses with Michael McAdoo a partner at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in Montreal. Having two professors made the learning experience richer for the students and provided me with some much-needed support to animate our online classroom. Thanks to our combined efforts, Michael and I were able to leverage the power of break-out rooms and student presentations even more effectively than I could have done alone.
Another positive development that came out of remote learning was the diversity of guests we were able to invite to class. Now that geography isn’t an obstacle for connecting, we were able to have guests Zoom in from all over the world. One evening was particularly memorable. Our CEO Insights class was hosting John McCall MacBain, a philanthropist who gifted $200-million to McGill last year and who joined us from London. That same evening former prime minister Paul Martin joined us from his home in the countryside south of Montreal. As it happened, the two had worked together some 35 years earlier. The students and I were delighted to have them both in our virtual classroom at the same time, commenting on each other’s insights. John stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, London time to hear from Mr. Martin and react to his presentation. A night for the history books that likely couldn’t have happened without distance learning.
The past semester has, without a doubt, been one of the toughest ones yet, but it is also one that will change the way I teach for the rest of my career. Now all that is left before I can relax for the holiday season, is to grade the countless final assignments pouring in. And while I’ve certainly learned to step out of my digital comfort zone these past few months, I think I’ll still be marking those with a good old-fashioned pen.