Scenes From College Classes Forced Online By COVID-19
College has suddenly moved online in the time of the coronavirus. What do these newly virtual classrooms look and feel like, for both the instructors and the students?
For this bonus episode of the EdSurge Podcast, we talked with two college students and two professors and asked them to share their experiences so far. This is obviously not a scientific sample, but it does give a flavor for what our reporting shows is happening across the country. And it highlights some of the issues that are coming up unexpectedly, for instructors and students, doing education online for the first time.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript below, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
What was your first week in the online classroom like?
Simon Rodberg, an adjunct instructor at Catholic University of America: I did have a class session yesterday, which was the first since the spring break and the move to online. And 16 out of 17 of my students showed up in a Google Meet. At the end of the class, I thought to myself, “I think this has gone pretty well. I’m happy with it. They’ve been engaged, they’ve participated. We’ve done a couple of different kinds of activities.”
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I asked how being online has affected this class for you, and I asked them to type their answers into the chat box. And I watched as every single student said, “I felt distracted.” “I didn’t like it.” “It was hard to engage.” “I didn’t get as much out of it.” Every single answer, scrolled through the chat box, and I thought to myself, “Wow, I really misjudged how this went and I’m really glad I asked.”
Just like in any in-person class, the teacher [is focused on] the class because they have to respond to everything and be watching everything. I didn’t get distracted at all. But for them, when they weren’t the one talking, it was a lot easier to get distracted.
I think the other piece, and I think this really matters a lot for schools, is that I’ve taught online classes before. [The students] have not taken online classes before. They didn’t choose to take online classes. They didn’t sign up for an online learning experience. They signed up to be in a 17-person class meeting, in a particular classroom, at the Catholic University of America, and now that’s not what they’re getting.
As much as this is hard for educators to figure out, I think we have to remember that our students have expectations that are being totally upended for what school feels like, and for what kind of learning experience they are going to get.
Dana Gerber, a student at Emerson College who wrote an article for her student newspaper about how her work as a student journalist “saved her” during the COVID-19 crisis: [My first online class was] an American Sign Language class. So it was pretty well suited for the transition to online learning because it’s visual. It’s not a super experiential class. I know a lot of my friends who were in film, performing arts and musical theater classes, and they’re losing something big from their learning experience. They can’t collaborate in the same way that they used to.
Even in this ASL class, you couldn’t see everyone signing at once and the teacher signing, because you wanted to make the teacher the biggest person [on screen]. And so, you only could see five people at a time. And so when we were responding to each other, it was hard to keep up.
This was on Zoom. And so, you’re definitely losing something with online classes. I suppose you could also be gaining something, if you really commit yourself to the technology. I’m sure that there are tools that are useful, but at this point, we spent half the class just trying to figure out how it works. And so, in terms of just sheer information learned, it was definitely less than what we were doing two weeks ago, and in a classroom all together.
It was pretty weird [being on Zoom instead of in person]. Some people were in their pajamas, some people were in their beds, and some people were eating food. It was just very weird to see everyone in that context.
I’m not one of those people who think you have to wear nice clothes to class. It’s not like a professional environment per se, but it’s definitely not something I’ve ever thought of as being done from your couch. And so, everything’s been pretty surreal up until now. But I guess now, it was like, “Oh, this is actually quite strange. Everyone is just in their own place and we’re all coming together for two hours, twice a week.” But other than that, we’re not living in the same world anymore.
The entirety of the nation and the world is not living in the same world as we did a month ago. But also, none of us individually are living in the same world, because when we were all together on campus, it sort of seemed like we had a pretty big shared experience. But now it just sort of seems like we’re all a little bit untethered, which is pretty disorienting. I’m sure we’ll get used to it. It was just weird to have the first class, at first.
They’re still counting attendance for synchronous classes, and your grade gets worse every time you don’t show up for a class. Then again, I’ve also heard from a lot of people that they’re expected to show up to their 8:00 a.m. classes. But a lot of people have moved back to the west coast. So it’s really 5:00 a.m. for them. And I don’t know how they’re going to figure out attendance, because it is completely not fair to expect kids to wake up at 5:00 a.m. to go to a class.
Elizabeth Self, an assistant professor of the practice, and a teacher educator in the Department of Teaching and Learning, at Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt has moved online for the rest of the semester. What was Liz’s first reaction when she found out that she’d be doing remote teaching? I think the first thing I thought was, “Oh crap.” I mean genuinely, I was very quickly thinking about how do I, number one, replicate the kind of relationships, interactions, movement, all of those things that are an important part of the classes that I teach in an online setting?
And the second was, how do I take care of my students? Because those weekly face-to-face sessions are as much about seeing people’s faces, seeing how tired they look, seeing how engaged they are in the material, seeing all of those kinds of things, and having that back and forth as it is, learning new content together. And so, I was worried about what learning was going to look like. But I was also just worried about… taking care of students, [which] is an important part of what teaching is, and so, trying to figure out how to do that in an online format as well.
I had three students, I think, who weren’t there for the first class. And I emailed them right after class and said, “We missed you. I’m not sure what’s going on with you today, if you’re still traveling. If you don’t have the tech you need, if just things piled up, just reach back out.” I always joke with my students like I’m a mom. I worry when I don’t see them. I quickly got emails back from people saying, “I totally just forgot that it was happening. Hadn’t seen the announcement yet.” Because they hadn’t even settled in, to log back on to Brightspace. For at least one student, there was a time zone difference. And so genuinely, just having to learn to account for that was a whole new step for them.
It was different [being on Zoom instead of in-person], but in an interesting way. On the one hand, when you’re standing in a classroom teaching, you’re moving around, you’re turning things on, you can’t usually look at all those faces at once, right in front of you. So on the one hand, it felt a lot more up close and in your face than a regular class session is, in ways that can be a little overwhelming and still yet, fairly impersonal.
But it was interesting to me, to quickly see what it did afford. I think students feel like they need to respond more visually, as a result of being on the online format. And so, they nod their heads more, or they give you a quizzical look, and you know you need to respond. Or they’ll give you a thumbs up if you say, “Is everybody clear before we go into breakout rooms?” I think that there’s a sense that they feel like they need to give you more feedback that way, because we can’t all hear each other. They’re usually muted if I’m giving directions.
And then, the other part of it was just sort of seeing what they’re online with, what their physical environment looked like behind them online. Some students definitely were in a very empty room with a blank wall behind them. Some students put up the virtual backgrounds and had fun with that. But some students were just sitting in what was probably the room that they grew up in. And I’m looking at what posters are on the wall and those kinds of things, and sort of getting a sense of who are they at home, and what does that look like for them? Which again, from a teaching perspective, is an interesting piece that you don’t normally have when you teach students at a university setting. And so, that was pretty cool.
For me, the biggest challenge that this format presents is that consistent feedback loop, and especially sort of the mini-loops that exist in teaching. So, if I’m talking about a final assignment in class, I’m able to say something like “ask me three questions” and we can do that pretty seamlessly. In the tech format, and because of timing, I’m much more likely to make a little video, and post it with information about it, and then say, “email me, if you have questions about this.”
You can do it synchronously, you can still ask those questions. But everything’s a little slower online, in terms of the responses.
Claudia Chinazo Ugbana, an undergrad at Cleveland State University: Some of my professors are just posting weekly materials, and a lot of it is like, “read this.” And we’re getting a lot of email notifications saying, “this has been posted and read this, watch this video and carry on with the assignment.” And I think that we are lucky enough to be in a time where learning can just be that easy, where you never have to ever email your professor, or ever have to sit in a Zoom session with your professor. You can just read a lecture online, or watch a video that he’s prerecorded, take a test and it’s that easy.
But I definitely feel like the learning aspect of things might be altered in the future. Going forward, I don’t know how realistic it is to have that kind of connection all the time, where it’s just I’m watching a video that you prerecorded, or I’m reading a lecture, or reading a document, and I’m answering a bunch of questions. I feel like the learning is disconnected there in a sense, or can get disconnected in the long term, if this thing continues on throughout the summer, and even in the fall.