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Learning Institutions Find Benefits, Downsides to Digital Shift

COVID-19 has brought about a sea change in the way college educators have to think about courses, students and technology as they hunker down to finish an unprecedented academic year.

In today’s locked-down world, there are fundamental elements of higher education courses that can’t be replicated in a virtual learning environment. But college educators, despite various concerns about at-home students, are making the best out of the tools they have during the interrupted academic year. 

Bill Ryan, an adjunct professor for the University System of Maryland and Howard Community College, said a lot of courses are structured to be face to face. There were technologies for augmenting such classes before the COVID-19 outbreak, but such tools were generally not used, so teachers have had to adapt quickly to a new status quo. 

In the struggle to adapt, Ryan believes IT helpdesk support at the institutions has been key to staying above water. 

“I’ve had a lot of training,” Ryan said. “I’ve learned a lot of new tools recently.”

R.J. Morgan, instructional associate professor of journalism at Ole Miss, said 100 percent of his classes were face to face. Notwithstanding the significant workload involved with shifting everything online, Morgan remarked that the process has been “fairly smooth” thanks to the time cushion provided by spring break. 

The caveat is that teachers with more familiarity with the tech will fare better than their counterparts. 

“If you’re tenured and have always taught the same class at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and you haven’t adjusted for 15 years, then this transition is hard for you,” Morgan said. Later, he added, “It’s a manageable level of work if you have all of your other needs being met and if you have some semblance of how to manage these tools in an online environment.”

Alison Hill, a senior lecturer in biology at Duke University, said typically it takes about a year for professionals to create an open online course. She only had “literally 11 days” to transition her classes, but teamwork made it possible

“I think it’s worked better than I thought it would, but that’s because we have put in a massive amount of work,” Hill said. 

Andrew Tag, director of the introductory biology program at Texas A&M, said only 5,000 of his department’s courses were online two weeks ago. University IT staff had to move another 13,000 to the virtual space. 

Other institutions, citing a lack of technology in place, haven’t been able to get coursework online as quickly. A recent report about community colleges in Massachusetts describes this problem in detail. 

“Community colleges are already strapped in terms of financial resources,” Roxbury Community College President Valerie Roberson told the Boston Herald. “We don’t have a lot of resources to be able to make the investments that we need.”

“It just sort of highlights some of the technological haves and have-nots that we have across the country,” Morgan said, in reference to the differential resources of communities.

Altered Courses

For someone who primarily lectures, the shift to virtual learning involves different methods of delivery to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met. Ryan said it’s important to have both live and recorded material in case a student isn’t being reached at a particular time. 

It’s a different ballgame altogether for other teachers. Morgan said his journalism classes entail getting out into the field within a community for in-person interviews and shooting video. Now his students must perform phone interviews and put together action sequences that function as public service announcements, such as instructions on how to wash hands. Location matters. 

“One, they’re reporting on stuff where they are instead of where I am, so I can’t be of real help with making connections and pointing them in the right direction because I don’t have a whole lot of context for where they are locally,” Morgan said. “Two, the varying degrees of restriction of movement. If a student is in Illinois, they’re under a shelter in place and have been asked not to leave their house. That student can’t be held responsible for going out and shooting B roll.”

Tag said biology lab classes at Texas A&M are presenting videos of teacher assistants doing the actual experiments and then giving the data to students to analyze. This method allows students to grasp the analytical side of experiments, but there’s a reduced sense of ownership with the process. 

“You learn by doing, and you learn by screwing up, by making mistakes,” Tag said. “Unfortunately in the current situation, we can’t do that. We’re doing what we can in the short timeframe that we’ve had to do it. So far, it’s going ok.”

Hill said redesigning molecular biology courses requires ongoing attention to every detail. 

“To me that’s the biggest challenge,” Hill said. “How do you maintain a rigorous course? Our course is very important. Our course is a gateway to the rest of biology.”

Thankfully, the molecular biology classes at Duke had finished their wet bench work before COVID-19 wrecked the regular activities of the world. Hill’s students are now using computers to sequence cloned DNA and examine sequencing results. 

Students in the Digital Divide

Ryan explained that, with certain courses, students paid for face-to-face instruction. Now that no one can be face to face, one has to think about every potential problem to ensure that students feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.

“We have students of all different backgrounds … so I don’t know how good of an Internet connection they have,” Ryan said. “I don’t know what devices they have access to… I can’t go full video because students may not be able to access it.” 

Ryan added that so far, students have jumped right into the work with no complaints, but he’s still thinking about potential predicaments. 

Morgan said most of his students seem to be handling the change well, but local contexts can threaten to leave some students behind. Morgan cited the disproportionate amount of low-income, first-generation college students in Mississippi.

“Not everybody has that same level of stability, and so you’re asking students who signed up for a face-to-face learning experience in a town where they had a meal card, where they had a dorm or apartment, where they had access to campus computer labs to complete work… those people are struggling because all of their infrastructure that allowed them to participate fully in learning has been ripped out from under them,” Morgan said.  

Hill said she’s striving to be mindful and sympathetic about the potential plight of students. Issues can range from not being able to download an exam to dealing with a bad environment. 

“Some students are back in homes that they’re not happy in,” Hill said. “Abusive homes. Places where they don’t have a quiet room.”

Hill added that just because a student attends a private university like Duke “doesn’t mean they’re well connected” to the Internet. 

Tag said thus far, tech issues for students have been minimal. He recently gave a lecture exam for the first time online with very few technical hiccups. 

“Out of 230-something students, I had five that I had to adjust, so that’s not too bad,” Tag said. 

Tag also noted that a virtual environment can be beneficial for certain students. 

“What we have noticed is a lot of students that will respond in class via chat on Zoom that normally wouldn’t pipe up during lecture,” Tag said. “In terms of engagement, that’s pretty cool.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.