Thomas E. Webster
Growing up in the 1970s, I often zoomed out during classes to the dismay of my teachers. I think the main reason was all the sitting. Not unlike other students at my school, I had a hard time focusing on lessons that involved teachers talking and me sitting for hours at a time. This was especially difficult on warm spring days when I knew that once the bell rang, I would be out in the sunshine with my friends running, laughing, and exploring. My fondest memories from school at that time are in fact these fuzzy moments that I have trouble labelling a memory because they now seem more like feelings or scenes from an old movie.
Fast forward to 2021, and I can’t help but laugh knowing that the expression “zoomed out” now means to be fatigued after long hours spent in classes or meetings on Zoom. But this difference may be key to understanding what is missing from the online learning experience during the pandemic.
Last spring, all the professors in my Department suddenly had to transform our classes to be taught online. My first thought was to re-create the classroom experience as much as possible. I crafted what I hoped would be informative lesson videos about what I wanted the students to consider and formed discussion groups to mimic the group work that I had done in offline classes. I used Zoom for interactive Q&A discussions to prepare for exams, as well as for regular office time sessions with individual students. In short, the consistent positive feedback that I’ve received from students over the past year has helped me to feel fairly satisfied with my approach.
Still, there is something missing that is hard to put a finger on. I’m happy that I save the commute time to school, and that students enjoy more flexibility and independence in their learning. But truth be told, I would give anything to have one of those unexpected laughs with students or colleagues in the hallways, or to zoom out on a warm spring day on our beautiful campus.
The Challenges of Online Learning
Last year, because of the pandemic, classes went online, and for many— both professors and students—this was the first time using these online technologies. And while businesses have been using online meeting technologies for years, there are many challenges associated with using them.
From my experience last year (and so far this year), I have noticed that teaching online is even more challenging than online business meetings. What I miss the most is making a personal connection with students through small talk and individual communication. This doesn’t happen in online classes. I only know students from a small video screen. It’s not convenient to ask an individual student “How are you?”. Also, communicating through chat messages is not the same as communicating face to face.
An even bigger inconvenience is a lack of classroom management. Online classes require more diligence from both the teacher and the students. In a classroom, a student wouldn’t think about getting up and walking across the classroom to talk to a friend. However, I have seen more than once an online student get up and start talking to a friend, roommate, or family member in the middle of a class. In fact, I have had students walking outside or riding the bus, train, or subway during a class. It’s not easy to concentrate when you’re outside walking around, but some students don’t seem to think this is a problem. While most students are actively focusing on the class, I know that some students are distracted by their phones, computers (social media, etc.), or other people around them (especially when they’re in a coffee shop with their friends).
Another challenge for online classes is that they are not as easy to conduct group work during a live class. In my Business Writing class, students are required to do individual writing assignments that take up an entire class. In the classroom, I would normally walk around and look at their writing, giving them real- time feedback. Online, the onus is on the student to contact me to ask for feedback. While many students do that, many students don’t, and I noticed a decrease in the quality of their writing as a result.
While learning online is not the best way to teach and learn, both professors and students needs to accept it as the norm for the time being and make a concerted effort to be diligent and focused in online classes.