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Student Perspectives: 5 takeaways from the first two weeks of online class

Every morning I wake up, grab a cup of coffee, and go about my day. I attend classes, apply for summer schools, search for post-graduation jobs, and meet with friends. It just so happens that I do all of these in the exact same chair in my bedroom, living through my laptop screen. Social distancing has changed the way I go about many of the aspects of my life, and while everyone is focusing on world events, we all still have basic responsibilities to attend to, including finishing our spring semester.

Classroom, office, and meeting room all rolled into one

It has been two weeks since William & Mary has started classes back up on a completely remote model, and it has been four weeks since many students left campus with no idea that they would not be back for months. To put it lightly, things are a bit different now than they were then. We have been plunged into this new way of conducting classes without much time to adjust, and so, of course, there are growing pains; there are also, however, new and exciting ways to use resources at our disposal to change the way that our classes look. With this in mind, here are five points that I have taken away from the preliminary weeks of enrollment in what some have termed Zoom University:

Professors should be double-extra clear about deadlines and expectations.

Whether your class is synchronous or asynchronous, the nature of self-isolation and online classes makes it more difficult to keep track of assignments. The fact that students are not physically going to classes means that many of the ways that they keep a steady schedule have gone away, and with that has gone some capacity to keep things straight. A more detailed syllabus, regular email reminders, or an explicit schedule of readings and assignments in an easy-to-access space are more important now than ever, especially since some students have the added stress of taking care of themselves or family members at home.

Watch our STLI workshop featuring Kelly Crace from the W&M Wellness Center on tips for helping students.

Zoom classes aren’t normal classes, and so they deserve a different approach.

Zoom makes many things much easier, but it is an entirely different animal from an in-person lecture or seminar. A full hour-and-a-half class conducted in exactly the same way it had been conducted before spring break is possible, but it isn’t making the most of the resources available, and there are aspects of classes that just don’t work as well when students are not physically in the room. For example, it is much harder to focus when listening through a Zoom session; surely everyone has been in a remote meeting or conference call during which the ceiling fan is suddenly much more interesting than what your coworkers are talking about. 

Instead of treating Zoom sessions as remote versions of the same classes from the first half of the semester, then, it might be useful to take stock of what is at our disposal and adapt. For example, classes do not have to be led through Zoom for their fully-allotted class time. There are many asynchronous ways to lead seminars or convey lectures, such as through the discussion boards on Blackboard or the plethora of lecture and screencasting features available through Panopto. Even synchronous classes, therefore, can leverage features of asynchronous learning to make the most of their new home on Zoom.

Check out the Studio for Teaching and Learning Innovation's Zoom tutorial series.

More ‘free time’ does not mean more time that a student can work.
The digital workspace can also be clutteredWhile students might not have the same amount of extracurricular or social activities planned (although, not to brag, but I for one have found myself a little booked with social Zoom activities), this does not mean that instructors should feel the need to increase workload because students’ schedules are freed up. One reason is that some students’ schedules are not, in reality, freed up very much, if at all. Again, many students are most likely living in homes where they have their own household duties— some have kept jobs, some must take care of younger siblings who have also been sequestered at home, and some may have even begun caring for family members who have contracted COVID-19.

Increasing the workload is also inadvisable because, frankly, it is very hard to get any work done right now. We live in very distracting times at present; stress from attempting to avoid infection, the constant barrage from news outlets of information on worsening conditions, and the possibility of becoming very sick all make writing that extra essay or studying for another test much more difficult. Additional tasks that, back at school or during a less bizarre spring, might be inconvenient or challenging, can be mentally taxing and require greater focus during self-isolation.

What is important in class and important to students might have changed.

After the events of the past month, many priorities have changed for many people. This could also be the case for classes. Since returning home to finish the semester remotely, everyone, instructors and students, should take stock of the purpose for their work. This is not to say that classes should change their entire structure, or that the academic drive that motivates so many to learn has disappeared. Instead, it is time to reevaluate how classes relate to our new priorities. This could mean pivoting a syllabus to focus more on topics that relate to current events and less on topics that are not as applicable or important now. It could also mean being more conscious of why certain things are being taught, and if there could be a new purpose for class activities. 

During this semester, the world changed irreversibly.

This is something that we must keep in mind in moving forward (even though at times it feels as if this fact is hard not to keep in mind). We are not staring at the end of the world, but we are living in very strange times. In case this hasn’t been emphasized enough, we are currently in the midst of a global health and economic crisis, and while a semblance of normalcy does help—keeping a schedule, staying active both mentally and physically, remaining in touch with friends and family—we also have to change along with the world. Students are attending college to educate themselves and to prepare for life after classes, so learning and rigor in courses must continue. But compassion, equity, and support are arguably even more important to maintain in our remote learning. It is okay to not be as productive as we once were, to not be as consistent as we once were, and to not be as sure as we once were. Everybody is flying by the seat of their pants, and so we must do what can be done to help each other find stability and reassurance. We should also, in my opinion, keep digitally submitting all of our assignments even after we go back to campus. That has been pretty nice.

For more information on remote teaching, please consult the Teaching Studio's Instructional Resilience site.

For resources on mental health, stress reduction, and other important wellness information, check out William & Mary's Virtual Health & Wellness page