Teaching in the Red Zone

Tuesday morning I’ll start my first digital class. Last Friday we tested the system with my students, we had a long chat, some kind of introduction to the subject: I teach Theory of Perception and Form at IED, a Sound Design university in Milan, Italy. Which this morning has been declared “Red Zone”, along with the tiny, 15 persons village in south Lombardy where I live, and from where I usually commute to the city to teach. The situation here is under control, some of my older neighbors remember the second world war, so they know what to do: stay calm and follow instructions. I wish I could say the same about the rest of the Italian population. But, as I said, we are mountain people, so we are used to watch with skepticism the madness down in the “bassa”, the great Padana plain and its big cities. Thankfully we had no cases so far, given the average age.

Friday’s class was difficult for a number of reasons. The teaching computer interface has very little face, meaning that I can see some students, but the previews are small and slow, so I have no visual feedback about what I’m saying. This is maddening, because in a class that’s the main cue about your pace, about you making sense to the students, watching the lightbulbs light up. There is nothing of the sort with this system, and it doesn’t look at all like these remote conversations we see in movies, with huge screens and facial interactions. This is much more like radio: you know they are there, sometimes they give feedback, but you have no way to know exactly what’s happening with your listeners, what they’re doing, how they feel about what you’re saying. My experience with live radio is helping me a lot, but I can imagine for some people remote teaching will be hard. Moreover, although the school recommended to use a Computer or Tablet, many students logged in with their phones. I’m not sure Smartphones are the best vehicle for higher educations, but I have my doubts.

Friday’s class was also great, really great. First of all there was a new variable: where. So we spent part of the time telling each other where we were geographically and physically. Rooms, living rooms, a couple of terraces (it was a nice and sunny day) and even a restaurant: this was a test class, and at 2PM someone had just finished their lunch. There was something warming in us sharing our private spaces, coming together for a purpose, even from far away. And while everyone was calm, the father of one of them had tested positive, so my student went on a quarantine in the mountains with his girlfriend. It was pretty obvious that most of them enjoyed this digital intimacy as much as I did, and I’m looking forward to my english classes later in the week: I have students literally from all over the world, and it could turn out to be very intense.

But at the end we managed to recreate some type of feedback using the chat line, where they can comment and ask questions as I speak, without interrupting. We pause to hear sound examples, each on her/his own computer, and I managed to put all the slides, links to video and sound, quotes from books, graphics and diagrams on a class Companion Webpage that we can view and comment together, and that can be visited by the students anytime. For the next month (and maybe more) we’ll explore new means of digital communication in order to teach and learn, along with the usual tools like email or Skype. Because when the minimum recommended distance between humans is 1 meter (as it is in Red Zones here), it becomes imperative to stay in touch.