Story at a glance

  • Some teachers report that, for a variety of reasons, students aren’t applying themselves as well to remote learning.
  • Many teachers now struggle to care for their children while teaching remotely.
  • Schools say they have learned a lot from this experiment in forced distance learning and will look to apply lessons going forward.

While some colleges and universities nationwide are considering not resuming in-person classes until January 2021, social media conversations show that many students and professors across the country are still struggling trying to adapt to the recent, sudden transition to virtual learning due to the pandemic.


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In one Twitter thread in April, Rose Casey, assistant professor of English at West Virginia University and a single parent of younger children who are now also learning at home, shared this: “Okay. I actually cannot do this. I simply cannot teach while parenting 24/7 entirely on my own. Genuine question: what should employers, specifically universities, be doing to mitigate these literally impossible demands?" she asks. "Knowing that we’ll be evaluated for how we respond to a crisis certainly adds to the stress. (Like most people I know, my teaching remains student-centered and it involves even more time than if this hadn’t happened.)"

Agreeing that the abrupt, unexpected switch to remote learning is not easy, one student wrote, “As a student, I am completely overwhelmed.” Some professors nationwide confidentially report that some students are not turning in assignments or showing up to the virtual classes.  

College students are uniquely vulnerable to stressors, according to Psychiatric Times, and the disruption of campus life due to COVID-19 has "increased anxiety and distress among many college students."  


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"Naturally I'm not seeing the same energy with my students online," says Bob Hutton, senior lecturer, history and American studies at the University of Tennessee, who explains that natural conversations evolve easier in an in-person setting. "Students are not going to have the same ability to learn under these circumstances, especially when you have to suddenly shift gears," he tells Changing America. Hutton says he is being very understanding of all that the students are going through and trying to keep everything as normal as possible. "Higher learning… is a dialogue, and I'm trying to preserve that."

In New York City, which has especially suffered from the coronavirus crisis, students at New York University (NYU) would normally be getting ready to wind down the semester together in a classroom, if not for the pandemic.

Junior Sam Winslow, who studies communications at NYU and is the founder of tech company Tunestack.fm, feels lucky he was able to leave the city to finish classes remotely at home, but says some of his friends have had a harder time due to apartment lease agreements. Sharing his perspective as a student, Winslow tells Changing America, "Everyone I know is still attending classes (remotely), but even the university realizes many of us will not be able to give it 100 percent." Winslow says that's why NYU is offering a pass/fail option.  

Winslow is using the Zoom platform for his classes, and he says he believes in the power of technology to keep people together. However, he adds, "I don't mind Zoom for one-on-one meetings, but larger conversations really suffer because it's harder to tell if someone is engaged. I think professors rely on head nods, confused faces, and eye contact to ‘read the room’ and adjust their teaching styles accordingly, but this doesn't happen virtually."

Winslow adds, "Most of my classes are discussion-based, but some of them have lapsed into lecture format because professors don't have these cues to know when to pause for questions. It's much easier to tune out as a listener when it seems difficult to ask questions in real-time."

Another NYU student, Michael Price, tells Changing America that he and many students at NYU "are not satisfied with the virtual learning setup" because "these classes are not of the same quality as in-person education, which is why students have organized and are demanding a refund alongside assurance that NYU’s professors/employees will still receive their pay." Price recently shared on Twitter, video of the Dean of New York University Tisch School of the Arts Allyson Green dancing to R.E.M., which was inserted in an email from Green to students explaining that a refund would be challenging. 

"The Dean of Tisch sent this as an attachment to the email saying they won't give us our money back. Embarrassing." tweets Price. 

As higher education navigates through this experimental time of remote teaching globally, the coronavirus pandemic could transform learning in the future if remote teaching proves to be a success.

The Harvard Business Review suggests that collecting data about these questions could be key in that decision:

Do students really need a four-year residential experience?

What improvements are required in IT infrastructure to make it more suitable for online education?

What training efforts are required for faculty and students to facilitate changes in mindsets and behaviors?

What's happening now could possibly become the new normal, or at least, more incorporated into the future of higher learning, according to the Harvard Business Review.

In an interview for BU Today, Boston University President Robert A. Brown says, "When you have a crisis like this and people open their minds and imagination, you’re going to try and embed some of those things in our operation. We have faculty members who would have never dreamed a year ago or a month ago that they would be Zooming their classes. We’ve learned to use technology in ways we never thought of."

In the meantime, Winslow works on finishing his NYU semester remotely and says he's optimistic things will get better. "Front-line health care workers like my father, doctor Dean Winslow, and my stepmother, doctor Julie Parsonnet, are working rapidly to research and treat this disease. For the rest of us, it is our job to get out of the way and do our best with what we have. If we can go beyond, offering to shop for groceries for a neighbor or reach out to a lonely friend, we can get through this with grace," he says.


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Published on Apr 20, 2020