Classes via computer screen: Students and educators reflect on virtual learning
by Tamera Robinson
As students and teachers were finishing their semesters in March 2020, the world came to a pause as the Coronavirus pandemic upended life in many ways, including the delivery of college classes.
Classes at Rochester University were moved online—either using only the Moodle platform or meeting virtually through Zoom or Google Meet. While these digital options at least allowed classes to continue, people had a challenging time adjusting to the new methods.
Grace Freeman, a senior psychology major, said while she can adjust to online classes, she’s not a big fan of them. “I would prefer in-person classes for my own education because learning online can be difficult in long periods,” she said.
Like Freeman, Destiny Masters, a sophomore accounting major, prefers learning in the classroom: “I feel like you don’t learn as much virtually as you do if you have in-person class,” she said. Masters said she struggles to stay focused because it is easier for her to focus when she is physically present in the classroom.
Masters also said with virtual learning, she often feels like she is teaching herself and has more work to do in online classes. “I sometimes feel overloaded with work, and I get stressed because of it,” she said.
Online learning increases
Donna Love, director of online technology, said the number of online and hybrid classes at RU are increasing. In fall 2020, 234 web and hybrid courses were offered, which is a large jump from the previous fall when 157 web and hybrid courses were available.
According to College Pulse, a survey research and analytics company, many college students have taken online classes with some significant variations between students. “Roughly two-thirds (66%) of state-school students say they have taken an online course at some point, while only 36% of students at private colleges or universities say the same,” according to the College Pulse report.
Erica Doherty, a junior mass communications major, said virtual learning was not a problem for her since she took online courses before the pandemic began. Doherty said she is able to focus better with online classes, and she manages virtual learning by “making sure I get all of my homework done before the due date.”
Flexible teaching during pandemic
Dr. Katharyn Cochrane, associate professor of math and science, said from her experience some classes are better suited for the online environment. “For material I find simple, online classes tend to be a more efficient method of instruction than in-person classes,” she said.
However, she said she enjoys teaching in-person classes and being hands-on with students, “Teaching virtually is a little less fun than teaching in person, since I really enjoy interacting with students, but it can be quite effective,” she said.
When teaching in the classroom during the pandemic, Cochrane said she maintains social distancing by modifying procedures for group work and by minimizing movement in the science lab. “Students alternate between in-person and distance labs in order to cycle the entire class through the lab every two weeks,” she said.
Distance labs are generally simpler than in-person labs, but they vary in structure. “Distance labs may be interactive simulations, learning games, or completion of ‘regular’ labs where the data has been provided instead of gathered by the student,” she said.
Questions about cost
Another issue that students have with online classes is the cost, believing that tuition should be lower. According to the College Pulse report, more than 90% of college students say they should pay less in tuition for online classes.
RU’s Freeman said she is not getting what she paid for with virtual classes, and that if tuition dropped, she would be more content with having to take online classes. Other college students in the College Pulse study agree, saying online classes are less effective than in-person classes in helping with social skills and critical thinking skills.
As RU’s online class expert, Love has some tips for students, especially freshman, who are new to online classes: “Plan ahead: If you are prepared, it won’t be as stressful if something unexpected happens. Compose and save all of your work in the cloud, no matter what format your class is in. Lastly, ask questions! If you don’t know who to ask, email your adviser or the help desk at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to help,” she said.