The Switch to a Virtual Classroom

Loft Online Classes

With the impending apocalypse (forgive the drama, I work in YA publishing), the Loft made the difficult call to move all of their offerings online. Teaching artists with classes ongoing or scheduled for later in the spring had the option to either cancel or reconfigure their class to an online format. I chose the latter. Being a millennial, I'm on that strange cusp of being very familiar with technology but still rooted in analog methods. I never participated in an online class in college or grad school, and I'd hosted webinars before but never an interactive class. I'd had the occasional meeting or blazer-and-sweatpants interview over videoconferencing and had FaceTimed with friends, but that was really the extent of it. I was seven weeks into a twelve-week course, though, so when the decision came out, I asked my students: shall we? They agreed to try it out, and I'm so glad they did.

For my part, I seriously considered dropping the class when you went online. I felt I needed the action of meeting in the room with fellow writers to get my energies channeled into productive effort.  It surprised me when our tele-conference came together flawlessly and the two hours flew by. It finished with clear direction and the usual inspiration to get me through this week. Consider me dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. 

- Margaret C.

The transition to online class was really smooth. Our small group took the change in stride with everyone being flexible and considerate of the bigger picture—to keep everyone safe and healthy.

- Kate B.

The biggest source of trepidation for me was just the technology. What if it didn't work right? What if I looked like an idiot in front of my class, a group of students who are supposed to see me as an expert? I had to remind myself a) no one is expecting me to be an expert in videoconferencing technology (it was clearly not a part of my MFA curriculum, which only focused on useful life skills), and b) we're all in this position. It wasn't that I alone decided to change up the class format. Every person in the country is being asked to withhold from unnecessary in-person interaction. So yes, it's embarrassing that my camera doesn't line up correctly because I smashed my laptop digitizer with a CrockPot lid (it's a whole thing) and have to use both my laptop and a monitor, but you know what? We're all in this together (except for Vanessa Anne Hudgens). 

Beyond that, the Loft graciously offered a staff member up to assist with my class. Luckily, I didn't need the assistance, but if I had, I have full faith I would have been attended to promptly and courteously. Every Loft staff member is about the most patient and kind person I know, and I'm not just saying that because I'm on their payroll. 

The second source of trepidation was how to convert my class material to a virtual format. Currently, I teach a multigenre writing workshop, and a lot of class time is spent on writing and workshopping. Thankfully, I knew my students well enough to reach out to them and ask their preference. I was fully prepared to put together lists of resources and ways we could be innovative with Google groups and make a policy for office hours—and it was all for naught. My class wanted everything to stay the exact same. Does it feel weird to give them a half-hour chunk of writing time and catch up on agency emails while they're all on mute? A little bit the first time around, sure. But now it feels as natural as reading a book in the classroom while they write.

I was also worried about how we would workshop. Would I have to tell people when to speak? Would it be harder to stay on task? No and no. I'm not sure why I imagined that going to a virtual format would age my students down to unruly teenagers—they're able to interpret visual cues and silence as well this week as they were two weeks ago. There's a bit of talking over each other, but that happens in a normal classroom too.

I have an upcoming afternoon session focused on publishing, and the only difference in the class is that they won't be able to workshop in small groups and that I won't get one-on-one time with everyone. But I can pretty easily make up for that by giving everyone time to present their materials to the group and let the whole class in on individual questions—questions they may not have known they wanted the answer to as well. It took a little mental effort—and I know right now a little effort can feel like a lot—but if it means those students will have something stable to look forward to in murky times, I think it's worth it.

It's a strange phenomena that we feel more adrift at our homes than we do in a classroom. There are the constant unknowns: Will my child run into the room? Will my dog freak out at a truck driving down the road? Will my cat show everyone its butthole? Maybe. (My students got a nice kick the first time my rats climbed onto my shoulder during class.) But everything is weird right now. The world has run out of toilet paper. The price of gas plummeted, and no one has any reason to take advantage of it. People in Spain are serenading each other on balconies and people in New York are doing the same but more obscene (okay, I guess that's pretty normal). The point is, nobody really cares about your cat's nether-regions. We all just want a break from juggling our whole lives from our living rooms, especially if it comes in the form of a creative outlet.

[Going virtual] works—an effective way to learn and to have questions answered, particularly during these times.

- Loft student 

Taking an online class helps to take your focus off of what is going on in the world and provides hope for the future by helping you refocus on writing and the joy and satisfaction it can offer you and your audience.

- Loft student 

Classes very similar to [in-person] classes, not much if anything is lost. Plus, less gas used so these are easier on the planet.

- Loft student

What made this decision so difficult for some people, I think, was the mindset of going online versus being in person. But as we get further and further into this pandemic, it's becoming obvious that those aren't the options at all. Our new world is in a state of going online versus not interacting with another human face for an indeterminate period of time. And when you put it that way, the online option seems much, much more attractive. It may feel like a risk to enroll in or teach an online class, but I promise it's safer than going to the grocery store. And if that doesn't convince you, take inspiration from the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

In times of crisis, we need each other. We need outlets. We need art. This is the time for innovative learning. Let's make the world a little calmer by sticking together, separately.