Systems Admin Joseph Borkowski on the experience of transitioning to online teaching

Three Questions for Joe Borkowski on the transition to online instruction

April 7, 2020

Joseph Borkowski is the Systems Administrator in Global Languages. Working in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Joe has taken on an even greater role in supporting instructors and staff as we make the transition to online teaching and remote work. Joe’s background and training in instructional technology and language education theory, have proven essential at this crossroads.

Q: Were language instructors successful mastering the technologies required for online teaching?

A: The strength of our instructors is reflected in how they overcame technological challenges. Not just to push their way through, but to fully integrate new tools in the way they teach. Every lecturer has taken what they‘ve taught, and translated it to this completely new environment. It’s remarkable how well everyone did.

I was impressed with how resilient everyone was in terms of the inevitable, unpredictable technical glitches. Dealing with technical problems in a novel environment is challenging, even for seasoned technicians. 

To put 39 lecturers in new environment and then expect they’re going to overcome any technical problem is asking a lot! But the amazing thing is that many of our instructors became techies, even if they won’t admit it! Students are connecting to our classes using a variety of means. It has fallen on the lecturers to take the lead and be the technical experts in the classroom to address issues as they arise. I got reports from lecturers, who consider themselves far from technical experts, helping their students through this process. Lecturers who might typically eschew a lot of technology are now teaching students how to use this technology.

Q: How did technology affect teaching methods of the different language groups?

A: They could have just set up a camera and tried to teach the same way as before, but doing it in a Zoom video conference. But many lecturers felt that this wasn’t enough. It wasn’t an MIT language education. They asked each other how they’re using video and audio and other tools. They examined potential connectivity issues for students, and how much material could be covered in class. They discussed what the goals are for the classes at this time. It’s about learning, not about grades.

When we got down to each one of the individual language groups in the unit, each kind of had its own approach. But it turned out that instead of that being a hurdle, it showed how beneficial a diversity of approaches is. We were able to let everyone in the unit know how one language group used a particular method or tool, and in many cases others were able to take advantage to adapt those experiences to their own teaching.

Part of the way I’ve always tried to work in this job, but especially important now for all of us, is that we need to allow other people to contribute to what we thought we were experts at. That’s the way this works. I’ve had people tell me about tools and how they use them in ways I’ve never heard before. So my job is to make that part of the resources I curate for the group. And we have developed a real collaborative relationship. These are teacher-scholars who have taught for many years, and they allow me to give them tips on how to teach in this new environment. It’s humbling for me and makes us a strong community when we can bounce these ideas around that help our academic program go forward.

Q: How have your spirits been?

A: It’s a little overwhelming now working at home, with a partner also working from home with a similarly increased workload, and having a three-year-old with us all the time while we’re both trying to accomplish it all. Interesting family dynamic! The two weeks leading up to our launch of online classes was especially intense. But the three of us work well together, and it’s certainly a privilege to continue to do our work to the extent we have.

But despite the challenges, I’m so appreciative of this huge collective effort together with wonderful colleagues.

There have also been light moments! If you get six teachers in a Zoom meeting, it’s going to be funny. We’re a bunch that take our professions seriously, but we’re also really funny. I’m working in my basement, and my three-year-old daughter was listening in the other day. Later she asked, “Why were you laughing so much if you were at work?” And I tell her my job is to also see the playfulness in what teachers are doing in this time of change--to remind them that they are the experts and they can make this both effective and fun for their students.

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