The Forum | COVID-19

Zoom University: What Worked, What Did Not

July 15, 2020 by Isadore Johnson

This spring, after all my courses went remote, I was fortunate to have professors who tried out different strategies for structuring online classes. The classes I took ranged from political science to Jewish American literature to economics. The variety of courses gave me insights into how professors in different departments approach teaching material online, and which approaches are more effective.

The first class I took each morning, political science, split up the lectures into distinct topics ranging from two to eight minutes. The shorter lecture time and graphic aids made it much harder to become distracted (a problem in many online courses). Because my mind is inclined to wander, I appreciated the digestibility of the lectures. It was helpful that I could also re-watch them without much trouble. But the audio quality and interactivity of the videos were poor, and there was no way to participate in the class. If coupled with office hours, this would be a decent method of helping students learn online. Because the class had to go online abruptly due to the coronavirus, the academic standards were surprisingly lax. This left me unsure of whether I had learned much of anything in the latter part of the semester. The office hours that I attended online also proved somewhat uncomfortable, especially since group calling does not have the same ambience or intimacy as grabbing lunch with a professor.

While the political science class performed formidably online, the same could not be said for economics. Econometrics, especially the lab section, was not suited to be taught remotely. Before the pandemic, the class had been subpar for its lack of engagement, and the class lectures were often unfocused and unclear. This situation was made worse when we moved remote, resulting in even less direct engagement. The online class was also very uncoordinated. A professor taught the main class, while a teaching assistant taught to different sections the basics behind STATA—our statistical programming application. After moving online, the different instructors seemed less able to coordinate with each other and became worse at communication and presentations, leaving students to fend for themselves against technological hiccups. Making matters more confusing, due dates were often not communicated clearly. In one instance, a test that was due at 2 p.m., which we were supposed to start at 1 p.m., was not posted until 1:10 p.m., with no extension. While other professors were too lenient, this class seemed almost antagonistic toward those who struggle with technology. Furthermore, the lab section of the class lacked any ‘checkpoints’ for students to evaluate their progress with the professor and did not include any mini quizzes/assessments to make sure that students were paying attention. Both of these elements are crucial for teaching math-oriented classes effectively.

Both the political science and economics classes offered live lectures that were also recorded so that we could review them later. This made it possible to ask questions in real time, an essential part of the learning process. However, it is especially easy to get distracted in an online class, and the instructors did not attempt to gauge whether we were paying attention. Cold-calling students to make sure that they are listening is difficult in online courses. Many of my peers admitted to sleeping through class because they lacked motivation. In addition, the professors often had noise in the background which distracted both students and the professor.

My professor of Jewish American literature would regularly call upon people. This was the best approach because it forced students to be interactive, although some of the less motivated could get away with not participating without any consequence. Class time was supplemented with books and long papers, which I found to be helpful. The instructor continued to provide feedback at a similar rate to the in-person classroom, and my writing improved as a result.

Some courses had poor-quality email communication, which led to further feelings of disconnectedness. Emails that we received were often unorganized and unclear, and professors were slow to respond to our emails. Students who were shyer or less assertive may have been left behind since direct communication was more difficult.

In addition, group projects were challenging, if not impossible, to accomplish. In a normal classroom, if students fails to complete their share of the work, I would see them in class and encourage them directly. This is impossible to do from a distance. Students often did not check their emails or their texts; I believe this was partially the result of the university bombarding students with emails.

The latter part of the semester left me feeling academically adrift. I tried to take the Zoom classes seriously, but the dismal attendance combined with the unreceptiveness of students left me generally uninspired. Although the fearful atmosphere created by the pandemic likely distracted from focus, online education still has a long way to go to address both instructional deficiencies and structural problems. While I came away unsatisfied, I do think there are reforms that can be made to online education that can complement, and potentially replace, aspects of in-person education, if these major problems are successfully addressed.

Isadore Johnson is a communications intern at ACTA and a rising junior at the University of Connecticut.

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