Mark Naison, 73, had just days to move online his decades-old class, a history of music from rock-and-roll to hip hop. He wasn’t sure how to preserve the raucous spirit of the course, but he had an answer that had worked for him in the past.
“I can make a fool of myself,” he said.
The technology, mainly the video-streaming software Zoom, was unfamiliar to him. And without a physical presence in the classroom, the professor at Fordham University wondered how he would keep his students’ attention. He wasn’t sure how to use the music videos he had played live in class. He also knew it was important to keep students’ spirits up as they struggled to adjust from in-person courses on a campus of friends to the isolation of distance learning.
So he filmed himself rapping. His material included odes to social distancing, hand-washing and self-quarantining.
He is not the fastest rapper, but his rhymes mostly work. And his students seem to appreciate the lengths he is willing to get a laugh.
Imani Del Valle, a senior at the university in the Bronx in New York City, said Naison was one of her few professors who acknowledged the anxiety students are facing.
As for the rapping videos, “they actually make you laugh, and I think that’s what we kind of all need right now with everything going on,” she said.
That “everything” for students like Del Valle includes transiting to a new class format they hadn’t anticipated at the semester’s beginning, as well as dealing with the general distress caused by the continued spread of the coronavirus. She lives in New York City, one of the areas hit hardest by the spread of the coronavirus.
The U.S. counted more than 142,000 cases of coronavirus by Sunday evening, the world’s highest total, and there were more than 2,500 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University data dashboard.
In early March, colleges across the country canceled in-person classes en masse, mostly switching to digital courses instead.
For many of those colleges, the first week of the new normal was anything but smooth. Along with the transition to digital classes, universities have told students to clear the dorms. Many have scrapped traditional grades in favor of some form of pass-fail. Graduation ceremonies are being canceled or postponed.
Instructors may be dealing with new technologies and ways of teaching that leave them uncomfortable. Their students are very likely spread across multiple time zones, which can make scheduling a challenge. Some students lack decent internet connections or up-to-date technology.
The result is not necessarily the best example of online learning — distance courses, like in-person classes, take months to plan effectively. But perfect or not, it’s the reality of pursuing a college degree for millions of students.
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In one online class, a yellow cat
On Friday morning, five College of William and Mary students — some of them in focus, others a bit blurry — followed along via Zoom as Professor David Feldman drew economic models on a whiteboard. He asked periodically if the class could see the board. They nodded yes as he continued drawing.
Watching Feldman alone was like being in any college classroom in America. But then, on one of the students’ screens, a door slowly swung open. A furry yellow cat popped into the student’s lap.
Hardly anyone noticed, and the rest of Feldman’s lecture went off without a hitch. Students were even able to break off into digital groups to talk about local and national economies.
Zoom has an option to ping the instructor, a digital raising of the hand. But most of the students opted instead to raise their hands in real life. Feldman could spot them easily.
After an hour, their cameras snapped off. For Feldman, digital lectures allow him to provide almost all the information he would have been able to share in person. That’s not representative of higher education as a whole, he acknowledged.A dance or auto mechanic class, for example, wouldn’t translate in the same way.
Some have suggested, he said, this may be a time to determine how effective higher education is at teaching students online, but that would be a mistake. The circumstances are extreme, and most professors have had only days or a couple of weeks to prepare for the change. What’s more, any suggestion that switching to online classes will save universities money is also incorrect.
For one, they still have to pay tenured professors like Feldman toteach the classes. It also cost universities money to afford the infrastructure to roll out the classes.
“The quality is going to go down, and the cost is going to go up,” he said.
Pornography on a class screen
If Feldman’s class is the best-case example, then the worst might be Ian Castle’s experience during an online class from the State University of New York at Albany.
He was unsure of what to expect for his course, “Information in the 21st Century,” but it quickly became clear putting the course online would be a problem.
Within Zoom, he said, someone had posted pornography on a shared screen. Racial slurs followed shortly after. The person responsible remained disruptive, Castle said, by swearing and harassing students in the chat channel. Eventually, the professor gave up. About 15 minutes in, she apologized and canceled the class.
“I’m really frustrated because it kind of seemed like we’re back in middle school,” he said. “It was just frustrating that one to two students, or however many were doing it, were ruining it for a whole class.”
Experiences like Castle’s have been reported at universities nationally. Zoom also published a guide earlier this week to stave off bad behavior. Castle’s class only meets once a week. He says his mother taught him to view every class as a portion of the tuition paid, so he feels cheated out of both instructional time and money. (The professor did later send out a recording of what was supposed to be the lecture.)
Jordan Carleo-Evangelist, a spokesman for the university, said it was aware of a class that was disrupted due to racial slurs, and its IT department was working to identify the person responsible. The university has changed the default settings on Zoom sessions and instructed faculty to make sure only students have access to the classes.
“For context, we have about 1,000 scheduled classes on Tuesdays this semester, Carleo-Evangelist said. “Given the short turnaround, we are incredibly proud of how well our faculty have risen to the unprecedented challenge of so quickly converting their classes to remote instruction.”
Still, Castle, like many students, said he learns more from in-person instruction. He also just misses being with his friends and taking advantage of campus amenities. He and his girlfriend had just started attending the gym regularly, and now they’re trying workarounds at home like push-ups. For weights, he turns to his textbooks.
While he is frustrated, Castle says he realizes his situation may be one of the easier ones to handle.
“I imagine there’s a lot of students who, although they can afford going to college, cannot afford things such as WiFi, a laptop, a nice pair of headphones, or who don’t even have access to a quiet place to study,” he said.
Juggling child care, missing graduations
Beyond technical challenges are the disruptions to a person’s life caused by the coronavirus.
Vanessa Fonseca-Chávez, an English professor at Arizona State University, said many of the institution’s students work in the service industry and are out of work as a result of the virus.
One of her students said her child was suddenly at home and also trying to learn. The student joked she didn’t know who would pass their classes, her or her 6-year-old.
Part of making things more bearable for students is altering the expectations for what they need to do. Fonseca-Chávez was teaching a graduate-level course this semester that only met once a week for three hours. She knew that was not going to work online.
“That seems awful to put it very bluntly,” she said. “Both for the students and for myself.”
Instead, she shifted some of their discussions of literary texts to online message boards. Presentations that were meant to be in front of the class have been shortened significantly.
For the most part, the students seem to grasp the tweaks to the class, she said. One emailed her to ask if she was using the course’s message boards correctly.
“I said: ‘Really, I’m just looking for the best that you can give right now.’ We can’t have the same expectations of them. You know, our world is a little bit turned upside down right now.”
Del Valle, the Fordham senior, is also adjusting to her new normal. She lives with her father, mother and three siblings, which can be hectic. Her mother is also in college, and she hasn’t handled the transition to digital classes as well.
“I’m like a tech expert for her,” Del Valle said.
She had assumed the transition to digital classes would be simple for her and her peers, since they grew up familiar with video chat technology. The challenge, she said, is relying on the programs to work or finding a decent internet connection.
This is Del Valle’s last year of undergraduate studies, and it’s unclear if the university will host its commencement ceremony.
Normally, Del Valle, 21, would be on campus enjoying the last few weeks of the semester. Instead, she is at home. Amid stay-at-home orders and a tanking economy, her plans for the future, possibly graduate school and moving to Virginia with her fiance, are on hold. She lamented that she can’t attend events like job fairs on campus that might have offered her a sense of what she could do next.
“You can’t relive your last semester of your senior year,” she said. “I’ve just been sitting here in my room thinking of all the times I took for granted.”
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