A photo of Cecilia Menjívar.

Don’t call it ‘social distancing’

Opinion by Cecilia Menjívar, Jacob G. Foster and Jennie E. Brand

Editor’s Note: Cecilia Menjívar is Professor of Sociology and Dorothy L. Meier Social Equities Chair, Jacob G. Foster is Assistant Professor of Sociology, and Jennie E. Brand is Professor of Sociology and Statistics, all at the University of California at Los Angeles. The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) – Public health officials tell us to minimize physical contact in order to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. While the public, thankfully, is hearing the message, there is a hidden danger: As we retreat into our homes, we can lose sight of our essential connections to one another and forget about the plight of those most vulnerable to the fraying of social bonds.

It is important for us all to realize that when they recommend “social distancing” — a phrase that has rapidly entered the public lexicon — what health experts are really promoting are practices that temporarily increase our physical distance from one another in order to slow the spread of the virus.

They are not recommending social disconnection, social exclusion, or rampant individualism.

To combat those social ills, we should replace the term “social distancing” with the more precise “physical distancing.” In fact, when we practice physical distancing, we need social connectivity and social responsibility more than ever.

A photo of Cecilia Menjívar.

Cecilia Menjívar (Photo Credit: UCLA)

On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced strict new measures for isolation (as California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom did the day before). In his televised remarks, Cuomo noted the difficulty — but crucial necessity — of maintaining physical distance from loved ones.

But even as he rolled out these drastic measures (including civil penalties) to ensure physical distance, he underscored the importance of maintaining social connections, touchingly recounting how he is doing this himself with his daughter, who was in isolation for two weeks.

“I was very aware of what she was dealing with and what she was feeling,” he said. “I tell you the truth I had some of the best conversations with her that I have ever had … we talked about things in depth that we didn’t have time to talk about in the past, or we didn’t have the courage or the strength to talk about in the past.” He urged people to be “mindful” that those “three word sentences can make all the difference: ‘I miss you;’ you know ‘I love you, I’m thinking about you; I wish I was there with you; I’m sorry you’re going through this’…”

Indeed, a large body of research points to the immense physical and mental health benefits of such social connections. Social isolation, by contrast, brings risk, especially for older folks.

In the difficult circumstances we are facing now, we can still connect and take social responsibility — even as we are trying to stay physically distant. Social responsibility and connectivity come in different forms, and they go hand in hand with empathy, compassion, and humanity.

So how do we remain socially connected and responsibly engaged at a time when physical distance is critical?

For one, we can use technology to strengthen friendships and support one another through telephone, social media, text, video chat, and even gaming. If you are able to work from home, consider taking the time you would have spent commuting to reach out to family, friends, and neighbors — even and especially those who might not have heard from you in a while.

People and organizations are also rapidly re-thinking membership and group participation in imaginative ways. They are holding virtual religious gatherings, and other social events — famously, now, singing together from balconies in Italy; streaming opera nightly (as the Metropolitan Opera began this week), having virtual parties, happy hours and celebrations.

Now is the time to unleash our capacity for collective creativity and find new ways to build meaningful community and connection.

We can also turn our creative energies toward social action. Seattle, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, is witnessing an impressive flourishing of outreach: people helping each other out. One Seattle resident — an artist — made a Facebook live video where he read guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Ethiopian-American community — in Amharic — in order to replace swirling rumor and misinformation with hard science.

Even the writing of this piece has been a group effort — by UCLA sociologists concerned that the call for “social distancing” risked doing unintentional harm — and needed to be replaced with the more precise language of “physical distancing.”

Physical (but not social) distancing still allows us to provide material support to the most vulnerable in many ways, like asking neighbors if we can pick up groceries, pet food, and other essentials for them — delivered from a safe distance — to minimize travel. We can refrain from panic shopping and the hoarding of essential resources, which creates artificial scarcity that affects everyone.

We can organize to provide enrichment for youngsters who are suddenly being homeschooled, as in the #openschools project. We can combat the spread of misinformation online and enhance the collective intelligence of social media discourse about Covid-19. And we can call on our leaders, employers, and corporations to provide needed resources and coverage for people who cannot afford to work from home so that they too can practice physical distancing.

In California, the most populous state in the country, Gov. Newsom has ordered residents to stay home and closed restaurants, bars, gyms, retail stores, offices, and all non-essential establishments to ensure physical distancing.

Gov. Cuomo’s mandate directs 75% of the New York workforce stay home. Similar mandates across other states will follow. These radical but necessary steps to ensure physical distance will result in significant job losses and likely a recessionary economy — and undoubtedly create considerable stress for millions of workers.

We must be particularly supportive of those among us who are vulnerable to contagion — unable to “physically distance”– precisely because of the work they do. This includes not only health care workers but also service and delivery workers, domestic and home care workers, cashiers, sanitation workers, janitors, store clerks, farm workers, and food servers who quietly but vitally sustain our collective lifestyles, even in a pandemic.

They cannot afford to be absent from work, cannot work remotely, and often do not have health insurance.

In large cities, like our own Los Angeles, these workers are often immigrants who also bear the weight of negative stereotypes and discrimination and often experience social and institutional exclusion. Our notions of social connection and responsibility must be big enough to include the vulnerable among us. As coronavirus has made abundantly clear, health is not an individual matter. Such diseases do not respect social or political divisions.

While the Covid-19 pandemic will eventually pass, its consequences will be with us for years. The fallout will disproportionately harm many of the same people who are suffering now: the socially and economically marginalized. But this is not inevitable.

Just as physical distancing can give us a fighting chance of combating this virus, finding creative and socially responsible ways to connect in crisis can have positive and long-lasting effects on our communities.

We must be physically distant now — our health depends on it. But we should redouble our efforts to be socially close. Our health depends on that, too.

This article originally appeared on CNN.com.

Arthur Ashe’s Most Impactful Serve – The National Junior Tennis League

Fifty-one years ago, Arthur Ashe became the first (and last) African American man to win the U.S. Open, which begins tomorrow. As is fitting, last year the tennis community celebrated this remarkable achievement. This year, however, marks a 50-year milestone that likely meant much more to Ashe, and has truly shaped America’s communities with a positive and lasting effect that extends far beyond the sport of tennis, yet has received far less attention.

If we are looking to impact, and the ability to make a difference for young people from families of modest means, Ashe’s most meaningful contribution to the world – and there were many – arguably came as a result of a partnership with his fellow UCLA alum, Charles “Charlie” Pasarell and Sheridan “Sherry” Snyder (UVA) in the form of the National Junior Tennis League, now National Junior Tennis and Learning.

The three friends and accomplished athletes decided 50 years ago that the sport of tennis deserved the presence and participation of all Americans, including those who didn’t belong to country clubs or with the means to travel or hire coaches, all the accoutrements of success desirable in those days, and the result was the establishment of the NJTL. Ashe insisted that the organization be more than about bringing the talent of the inner city to tennis courts; he advocated for the creation of academic support programs for each chapter. This was idea was transformative.

Building the NJTL was not an easy feat – the founders had to convince the mayors of cities to endorse using their tennis courts for this programming. They convinced companies like Coca-Cola, Chase and many others to become financial sponsors. The friends diligently recruited competent coaches willing to work for a pittance with young people less privileged than those they may have coached in the past. Children of color had to be encouraged to see themselves as tennis players. To its credit, in 1985 the United States Tennis Association (USTA) took over the administration of NJTL, but Ashe, Pasarell and Snyder remained, as we say today, “all in.”

One of Ashe’s protégés shared with me the story of having Ashe himself watch him play tennis when he was a young man. As a black college student, he hoped tennis would be his ticket to success.  Ashe watched him play several times and several times the tennis phenom couched his assessment that while the young man would be a good tennis player, he didn’t have the skill set to thrive at the professional level by saying, “So you are keeping up your grade point average, right?” The protégée took the hint, kept his GPA high and with that coaching, became a successful business man who now keeps up his tennis game at the country club where he holds a membership. This of course, is just one small example of Ashe’s personal impact.

To be sure, it is challenging to single out which of Arthur Ashe’s many accomplishments is the most significant. Because I teach a focused freshman seminar called Fiat Lux on Arthur Ashe and oversee the Arthur Ashe Legacy Fund at UCLA, I am often asked to weigh in on what he should be most remembered for. Given what he packed in during his 49-year life, this is a bit of a fool’s errand.  After all, his tennis accomplishments are etched in the record books—in addition to the U.S. Open, he was the first (and last) African American male to win the finals at Wimbledon (1975).

But aside from his well-known successes on the court, off the court he was never still. He was a quiet but effective friend to the Civil Rights movement in the United States and became an ardent and respected advocate for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.  His commitment to social justice causes was life-long; within months of his death he was arrested for protesting what he had concluded was the unfair treatment of Haitian immigrants.

When Ashe was afflicted with heart disease in his mid-30s, he agreed to tell his story for the American Heart Association as part of its campaign to encourage Americans to know the warning signs of cardiac disease. While such a public proclamation seems tame today, in the 1970s, there was significant reputational risk in letting the public know of his weakened condition. His HIV-AIDS diagnosis in 1988 coincided with the dark early days when the disease and those who suffered from it endured enormous and often intractable stigma. While he didn’t immediately go public with his situation, once he did, he was all in as a spokesperson for research and fair treatment for sufferers.  Prior to his death and thanks to the tireless efforts of his wife following it, millions of dollars were secured for research.

And yet, according to the many members of the NJTL community that are celebrating this 50-year anniversary, Ashe was to the very last devoted to the cause of raising up young people in diverse communities. He was as willing to run drills with and coach during the first years of the program, when he was a tennis star himself, as he was in the last summers of his life, when he was afflicted with HIV.

No male African American has surpassed Ashe’s tennis achievements—a dispiriting fact that would sadden him profoundly. But his other legacy, off the court, is just as compelling, if not more so, than his profound achievements as an athlete. It is not an exaggeration to say that because of the shared passion and unflagging engagement of Ashe, Pasarell and Snyder, tens of thousands of young people from New York, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and other cities went from their playgrounds to college to positions and lifestyles commensurate with their highest goals.

Ashe never stopped championing equality and community through the NJTL – a remarkable legacy that has resounding and relevant impact even today.

 

Patricia Turner is senior dean of the UCLA College, and dean and vice provost of UCLA’s Division of Undergraduate Education. Turner is an expert in World Arts and Cultures and African-American Studies, and teaches a freshman seminar on Arthur Ashe’s significant accomplishments.

The Cost That Holds Back Ed-Tech Innovation

By John Lynch

This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

Recently, I had an unexpected revelation as I watched a colleague of mine work with a pair of instructors to “hybridize” their introductory foreign-language class.

The team spent weeks breaking down their expected learning outcomes, then more weeks drafting scripts for videos (to supplement the existing textbook) and quiz questions to help students practice those skills, then months recording the videos and building those quizzes in Moodle, our campus learning-management system. Finally, after almost a year of planning and production, the instructors were able to begin testing their new tools by rigorously comparing the learning outcomes of students in the hybrid sections to those of students in traditional-format classes.

Illustration by John W. Tomac for The Chronicle

Recent research indicates that creating an instructional environment rich in real-time data about student achievement is perhaps the most powerful positive intervention that an instructor can make. So I was excited to see that the new hybrid materials were designed to collect substantial data about student achievement and behavior throughout the course. Want to know how well someone understands past-tense verb conjugation? What about the vocabulary for giving directions? Or matching the gender of nouns, articles, and adjectives? All of these data are available, and given a properly designed dashboard, a skilled instructor could use them to personalize the learning experience of every student in the class. Alternatively, motivated students could use these data to direct their own practice.

But if such an intervention is so effective, why aren’t we doing this in all of our classes? The answer, of course, is cost — but not the cost that I expected. Specifically, it wasn’t the technological cost. Although the instructors used some innovative technologies in their course redesign, none of those is critical to the personalized-learning aspect: The quizzes could be delivered by any learning-management system, or even on paper, and one could reveal the same data in almost-real time with only a properly designed spreadsheet. Nor was it the cost of the instructional designer, or the educational technologist. The single greatest cost of the course redesign that I watched was the faculty instructors (or “subject-matter experts,” as they’re often referred to), who spent hundreds of hours planning and designing all of the new content.

More important, I also realized that faculty will be the biggest cost for just about any successful educational technology project. Instructional designers can advise instructors on learning outcomes and ways to measure them, but they cannot actually design the assignments or reconfigure the readings and other supplemental materials. Technologists can build a quiz in a learning-management system from a spreadsheet listing questions and answers, but they cannot create the spreadsheet in the first place, without an expert’s knowledge of the course content, and they certainly cannot record videos on an instructor’s behalf, authoritatively explicating a subject, even from a script!

A technology platform might be able to transform structured data into an easy-to-parse graph or dashboard, but it cannot structure that data by itself, and we’re still a long way from being able to effectively and efficiently measure “critical thinking and analysis” or “written communication skills” via multiple-choice questions. The instructor, the content expert, is the thread that ties all of these other pieces together, the one without whom the others would be irrelevant.

Unfortunately, when it comes to improving instructional outcomes, giving instructors adequate time and support for course redesign isn’t how most universities seem to spend their money.

Anecdotally, I can think of instructional “innovations” at many institutions where the administration paid a high price for a new, much-praised technology platform while expecting faculty members to voluntarily commit their own time to learning it and putting it in place. Unfortunately, technology platforms are rarely the holy grail. That is to say, they do not solve problems merely by being licensed. Instead, they must be learned and used, and using such tools effectively generally requires labor far beyond what faculty members can afford to do while still meeting their other job requirements, whether they are tenure-track or contingent.

Recent data indicate that faculty members broadly agree. A 2016 study from Inside Higher Ed examining faculty attitudes toward technology found that only 26 percent of faculty members think that they are fairly compensated for developing online courses.

The New Media Consortium reports that 66 percent of the respondents in a recent survey “felt that faculty members lack critical support to advance new teaching and learning practices.”

“Scaling innovative teaching and learning practices requires resources and incentives, yet pedagogical efforts are seldom incorporated in tenure review,” the report says.

I am excited by a lot of the cutting-edge ideas in educational technology, such as personalized learning and predictive analytics. I believe that college students at all levels would benefit greatly if we could all evolve our teaching method from “the sage on the stage” to a data-rich “conversation” with clear learning outcomes, effectively turning every class, no matter how big, into a small seminar. Even for the most qualitative of the humanities, there are viable models that would let us implement these teaching techniques without sacrificing any of the content, depth, or diversity of experience that has traditionally characterized our fields of study.

But if we want to see serious experimentation with such teaching models, we need to first seriously consider how to compensate our instructors for the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours that such experimentation will take. Obviously, one possible approach is to actually pay them to spend extra hours on course redesign, via summer appointments or buyouts from other responsibilities. But there are other possibilities. For example, if leading universities took steps to ensure that evidence-based instructional innovation counted toward tenure advancement as much as an equivalent amount of time spent on research does, I expect that we’d see an explosion of valuable experimentation in this area.

I believe that the real barrier to widespread instructional innovation is not technical but cultural. The greatest cost of leveraging a new technology isn’t the tech itself, or the technical support for it; it’s the time required by local experts to build, revise, and sustain content that will make the most effective use of it. And since most universities do not compensate their instructors for this time, in either the short or the long term, that innovation isn’t happening nearly as fast as it could.

If successful teaching truly matters, universities (and the elected officials, donors, and other figures who influence them) need to invest more in giving faculty incentives to engage with evidence-based and learner-centric models. Will such an approach be expensive and full of false starts? Sure. But no more so, I suspect, than another 10 years spent buying software licenses in hopes of finding the holy grail.

John Lynch holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and cultures and is academic- technology manager at the Center for Digital Humanities of the University of California at Los Angeles.

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