Friday, April 3, 2020

Punctuated Equilibrium and the New Academic World That We Live In (along with the rest of society)


Three weeks ago I was lecturing and running labs like a regular professor. I had never gotten around to learning Canvas or Blackboard, because my Excel program was working just fine for recording and posting grades. I never had use for Zoom, since all my classes were face-to-face in a physical classroom. Things were fine and there didn't seem to be any compelling reasons to spend weeks in training for something I wasn't planning on using.

I knew about online courses of course, and two decades ago I even taught some, after a fashion. At the time they were called telecourses, and they left me suspicious of the academic value of online instruction. In essence the students watched canned videos on geology, and needed to learn the geology for themselves by reading the textbook and answering review questions. It was very low-tech, and most students didn't retain much information in the particular learning environment. There were innovative people on our campus who were working hard to improve the process, but before the innovations could really improve that particular form of instruction, the recession put an end to all of the telecourses and I never really looked back. In the end, classes had met a need for certain students with special needs, such as lack of day-care, or medical issues that prevented them from coming on campus. But it didn't really help most of them.
Something doesn't feel right here...

Two weeks ago everything changed. As part of our state effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic we went remote. In an instant. I had my entire load, five classes and three labs, switched over to online  instruction. It's now what I do, using Canvas, Blackboard, and Zoom after a steep learning curve over the course of just a few days. I'm not complaining, mind you. I'm grateful to be working. I just can't believe how completely life changed, how the academic landscape was suddenly transformed. I'm functioning and the classes are continuing, but it wasn't a pretty process. There are lots of glitches, but it is happening.

Something about the process made me think about life. Not my life, or the lives of those around me, but the whole adventure of life on our planet. There was something familiar in the way events unfolded around me. And then it hit me: we had just survived a punctuated equilibrium evolutionary catastrophe. And I'm sure that requires a bit of explanation.

One of the greatest advances in biology and paleontology was the result of research by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace into evolutionary processes. Darwin is better known for describing the theory of natural selection, but Wallace had come to much the same conclusions from his independent research in Indonesia, and it is proper that both men be given equal credit. One of the expectations of the model is that evolution was a gradual process, and that eventually the fossil record would fill with all kinds of transitional species. This has come to be called phyletic gradualism. The problem is that as the decades rolled on, transitional species were found but not in the large numbers predicted by the theory. Most species just simply appear in the rocks as fully-formed separate species. It bothered many paleontologists.
Alfred Wallace (1823-1913)
In 1972, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould proposed an alternative hypothesis that could explain the 'sudden' appearance of new species in the fossil record. Termed punctuated equilibrium, the model suggested that evolved species did not change much as long as the environment they inhabited didn't change either (stasis). But in the event of a catastrophe like an asteroid impact, or unusually intense period of volcanism, or the onset of an ice age, the environment would be severely impacted, and the species would have to change as well, or go extinct. This could involve a higher rate of evolution, but it could also involve long-term changes in peripheral isolates, organisms living at the edge of their environmental tolerances.

Think of coyotes, a widespread species across North America. Most live somewhere in the 'average' climate of the region, not too hot or cold, not too dry or humid. But to the north, there would be populations living in very cold environments at the edge of their tolerances. Over time natural selection would produce individuals with heavier coats of fur, and perhaps the ability to store more energy in the form of fat stores. They might not be numerous, and it would be unlikely that many of them would ever become part of the fossil record. But they could be considered a different species, especially if their range no longer merged with the average coyote. They are the fat furry coyotes.

But then a series of intense volcanic eruptions blocks out sunlight for several decades, and a climate feedback loop causes an ice age. In the suddenly cold conditions, the 'average' coyotes can't adapt, and they disappear. The fat furry coyotes from the far north are able to thrive and spread quickly into the former range of the 'average' coyotes. Much later on, the fossil record would then be filled with 'average' coyotes through many feet of sediments, but then they would appear to have been suddenly replaced by a new species, the fat, furry coyote. But in reality the fat-furrys were 'pre-adapted'.

So what happened to us?
It's the old pre-catastrophe environment! The Paleozoic classroom.

We've been in a period of stasis for a long time. Professors professed. Classes passively took notes. There have been gradual transitions in teaching style; slide projectors have been replaced by PowerPoint presentations. Passive listening has often been replaced by group problem-solving. Note-taking has been replaced by voice-recording. But by and large, students work in the presence of a professor, and no one had any reason to think it would ever really change.

But out there in the periphery, some changes were taking place. Some teachers and administrators thought the technology had brought us to a place where teachers didn't have to be in the physical presence of their students. They trained for and taught courses remotely. Most acknowledged that remotely-taught courses provided valuable benefits for some students, but only a few underwent the rather rigorous training required to teach remote classes in an effective manner.

But then the catastrophe occurred. We've had catastrophes before on our campus. We shut down for two weeks a year or two ago because our wildfires had polluted the air far, far beyond healthy levels. But we didn't change anything. When the air cleared, we went back to our old ways. But almost no one was thinking of the possibility of a world-wide catastrophe that would require that nearly all human beings would need to isolate themselves for weeks and months at a time. It was inconceivable.

But it happened. And in the new academic environment, conditions dictated that the only form of instruction left to us was remote online education. In this new environment, the pre-adapted, the online instructors, thrived and flourished. The rest of us learned something else. Evolution is chaotic and imperfect.

Most species have organs and structural features that they don't really need or use. Humans have a tail. Many whale species have useless femurs embedded deep within their bodies. Embryonic birds often have teeth that disappear before hatching. They are deeply imperfect organisms, but they have enough adaptations in their genetic make-up that they are able to survive. This produces cobbled-together organisms with quirks and modifications that give them just enough of an edge to survive in their habitat. And sometimes those useless bits and pieces end up being an adaptation that allows survival after all. It gives us Duck-billed Platypuses, animals with a 'bird'-like beak which lay eggs like a reptile, but have hair like a mammal. And they get by.
Source: World Wildlife Fund
That's me right now. A duck-billed platypus. I have just enough of a skill in understanding computer key-boards that I was able to cobble together enough presentations and online quizzes and labs that we only lost a week or so instruction. And I'm learning to comb my hair and put on pants before sitting down for a zoom session with my students. And in a week I am taking 17 students to Yosemite National virtual reality.

It's been upsetting, and has required long hours to achieve any kind of success. There is a lot of uncertainty and fear. But we ARE adapting to the new normal that has been imposed on us, and I have to say I am really proud of my students. They are a bit more pre-adapted than I am to this learning style, and they have stepped up admirably to the new reality.

And I am an old platypus learning to fly...

To all my teaching friends: take care of your students, they're depending on you, but care of yourselves too. And to all the students: hang in there. We'll get through all this together. Stay healthy and safe. And to those who face true catastrophe in the coming weeks and months because of the corona virus, may you find hope and peace in tragedy.


Kathy Crawford said...

You Sir are a dinosaur 😜 - but you're he kind that evolves into FLIGHT 😊

Anonymous said...

That was a great post. Very creative.

Sue Funesti said...

From one teacher to another - one aspect of using these platforms you aren't used to is to lean on and get help and feedback from the experts - your students! So many times when I've been using Blackboard and Google Classroom it was my students who pointed out easier ways to do things online - solicit their input - you'll be glad you did!