By Junghyun Song
As a student myself, I tend to think and write about the problems arising from online learning only from the perspectives of students. But a single narrative is dangerous as we do not get the full picture of how different groups are affected differently by the pandemic. As such, I figured that it was time to hear from our professors about their experience with online teaching because if there is one group that is as affected by the pandemic as students, it is professors as they have had to completely transform their conventional way of teaching overnight.
The first professor who agreed to share her experience with me was Dr. Sanja Antonides, a professor of Cognitive Science. I asked her to reflect on how she reacted back in March to the news of online teaching and her overall process of adjusting to it to which she replied, “I am lucky because I am relatively younger”, as it was easier for her to adjust to the technical aspects of online teaching. However, in the beginning, her biggest concern was figuring out the ways to make sure everyone was paying attention, keeping the level of interaction at a similar level as physical classes so she repeatedly asked herself, ‘should I use more online tools? And ask more questions to engage students?’. She informed me that there were extra loads of work for professors as they had to attend a lot of departmental meetings and workshops. Indeed, various Webinars were held in May and June where they invited people who are experienced in online teaching to share their experience. The workloads spiraled during the exam weeks as all the professors had to re-format the questions since using past exam questions was no longer an option. Also, as most of the exam questions were sent out to students via email, it was no longer possible to keep them for the reuse in the future. Towards the end of last semester, her motivation slightly dipped as there was so much to grade, sitting behind her computer all day long, which caused a lot of pain in her wrist and neck. Considering the fact that one of the main reasons she went into the teaching profession was because she was not a computer person and that she loved real-life interaction, the reality of online teaching sapped her morale at one point. However, the experience of online teaching made her acutely aware of how much she loves teaching in person and interacting with her students.
Another issue with online classes, says Professor Antonides, is motivation on both sides especially for students as it is hard for students to stay focused in online class. She told me an interesting story of how at the beginning there was a tendency at UCR to hold students accountable for the diminished level of interaction and enthusiasm in class; however, as professors looked into research that was emerging at the time, they soon learned about the heavy toll that online classes can take on the attention span and the productivity of students which led to their changed approach. When asked to think about the good side of online teaching, she remarked that it is easier to reach out to people and schedule a meeting. She also added that prior to online teaching, she had to travel from Vlissingen (her hometown) to Middelburg just for a short 15-20 minutes of individual consultations for presentation. Therefore, scheduling an online meeting with her students has been very efficient for her timewise. Also, the online tools used in class can be equally applied to the online meeting with her students which makes it very productive. Also, for students, online teaching can be beneficial as it allows them to still follow the class when they cannot travel to school for personal issues. Indeed, during one of the classes with Dr. Antonides, one of my classmates, on her way to Middelburg, ran into delayed trains. Nevertheless, she still managed to attend the class by joining us online while in the train. This would not have been possible pre-COVID 19 when everything was physical. Delayed trains meant missing class back then.
The next professor to whom I reached out was Dr. Sam Wong, the professor of Human Geography, whose level of enthusiasm in class never ceases to impress me. He told me that he feels very sorry for his students as it is more tiring and exhausting for them to follow classes online. He also added, “I think I am a good performer. When I present, people get messages more easily but online, there is a gap”. This gap between him and the students makes it challenging for him to transmit his message as clearly as in physical classes and to keep the class engaging for the students. Indeed, even before the pandemic, he never liked some of the online meetings that he had to attend such as online meetings and conferences on Skype. However, despite having never fancied online meetings and conferences, he said that online teaching has ironically increased his motivation to teach. The problems posed by online teaching such as decreased level of interaction have motivated him to devise ways to not lose students’ attention. As such, he has been pouring more energy than ever so as to keep students engaged in class. He has also been putting more effort into making his presentation slides tailor-made and making his class content easier to help students follow the class with more ease.
As also pointed out by Dr. Antonides, the biggest issue with online class is the inability to monitor students to see if they are paying attention. Online classes are less dynamic and spontaneous. However, he (Dr. Wong) thinks that online teaching is for the best now since it gives COVID-affected students opportunities to follow classes while at the same time giving older colleagues of his a sense of security. Since the implementation of the Hyflex model, Dr. Wong has mainly been doing physical classes where the class would be split into two groups and each group comes in for 1-hour of the class. This means that all his students would get to attend classes in person for every class. This arrangement works out well for many of the students who have trouble focusing during online classes and prefer physical classes. However, at the same time, there is another group of students who want more discussions and a longer session who would rather have fewer physical classes and prefer a full two-hours of online classes. To cater to different needs of the students, he is also considering making a new arrangement where he would teach both groups full two hours in person but only once a week. He is planning to do a trial week in which he tries that new arrangement of his and also the Hyflex model where he manages online and offline concurrently and holds a referendum afterward so that his students can vote for their most preferred mode of learning. If both of them do not work out, he is sticking with the current mode of swapping two groups. I think what makes the Hyflex model challenging is that students have different needs. I am a type of student who wants to have a full class so I would rather do online for full two hours while some students would prefer in-person classes for every class even if it is only for 1-hour. I think addressing these different needs is very important and Sam’s idea is the most democratic approach to balance these needs in my opinion.
The last professor I spoke with was Dr. Sklad Marcin, the professor of quantitative statistics at UCR. He told me that it has not been particularly difficult for him to adjust to online teaching as he already did this type of teaching in the past. He used to work at a center in Poland 20 years ago where he had to introduce online teaching to universities. He reminisced that back then, it was very expensive even just to put all the connections together as it cost about 20,000 euros (I hope that I heard the figure right). Technological aspects of online teaching have not changed much since then. However, a brief transitional period of the mid-term break in March gave him time to prepare sufficiently. During that time, he kept himself busy by building in tools such as creating polls in Zoom and quizzes on Moodle. He remarked, “Initial investment is hard but once it (online tools) has been built, then it is easy.”. He acknowledged that despite the various efforts of the professors, online classes can be less engaging and tiring for many students, especially on the day when you have two to three online classes one after the other. Also, he commented that online classes can disrupt the flow of class as some students come in late due to technical issues like WiFi problems in which case he has to pause during the lecture to accept them separately. This, in his experience, has disrupted the smooth flow of the class. Furthermore, for stats, it is important for him to check everyone’s screen for statistics but it is virtually impossible for him to do that online without losing at least half an hour as he often handles classes of more than twenty students. Therefore, he can only hope that students are paying attention and listening to him attentively during his demonstration.
However, despite these drawbacks of online teaching, he told me that there are also very positive aspects of online teaching. For instance, he can look every student in the eye so it feels to him that he is sitting face-to-face with all his students albeit virtually. In physical classes, which are often in computer rooms, students would have their back to him as they are all sitting behind the computers. I think this is the reason why I am enjoying stats classes this semester more than I did last year is because in computer labs, professors seem quite distant and I often feel a bit shy to raise my hand and call them for help. Paradoxically, professors seem physically close to me in online classes, so it has been relatively easier for me to ask questions especially for statistics. As for individual meetings and consultations, online teaching works well for Dr. Marcin as he can then look at their screen and intervene to help. It was interesting to learn that online teaching has motivated him to better structure his teaching as he can no longer improvise as in physical classes. For this semester, all his classes are being and will be conducted online but he is quite content with the current arrangement as he thinks that the Hyflex model would have been very tricky for him because then he has to divide his attention between both online and off-line students and this would make it hard for him to make sure that online students are following the classes as well as offline students. Thus, he would rather prefer to invest all his energy into online classes and give all his students his undivided attention.
Throughout the interview with all three professors, I appreciated their candor in sharing with me their personal journey with online teaching. I really enjoyed hearing the story from the professor’s perspectives as it really made me realize that students are not alone in this struggle caused by online classes. One common concern shared by all three professors was the inability to monitor students to check if they are paying attention. However, I think that that is something that only students can help. In other words, while it is important that professors put more effort and use various tools to not lose students’ attention, students themselves should also reciprocate their efforts by paying attention and not getting distracted by their phones during class. We need to make sure that the effort is not one-way by doing our parts as a student during this unprecedented time in education.
Thanks to Professors Antonides, Wong, and Sklad who made this article possible, and to all the professors for all your efforts and devotion.