Student Voices: The Online Switch

Author: Xavier Lopez is a queer art history student who has attended San Francisco State University and Mt. San Antonio College. He is transferring to UC Berkeley this coming fall to pursue a B.A. in Art History. With a focus on Pre-Columbian Art, Lopez hopes to further educate himself on these Indigenous cultures along with the countless artworks they have produced prior to European colonization.

As an aspiring Art Historian I should feel fortunate with having a voice in such a historical time, but I’m not. Actually, I’m upset. I’m upset at how President Trump handled the pandemic with nonchalance, perhaps indifference, at police brutality and how deeply ingrained systemic racism is within our own government. And this systemic racism is even ingrained within our own educational system. This is a great time to uplift the disenfranchised and create an educational system that isn’t just for those who can afford it, but for those who actually want it.

With the switch to emergency remote education amidst the COVID-19 pandemic many professors, although not all, seem to be stuck in a classist bubble. These professors fall into three of the four following categories I describe below.

Type 1: The Financially Unaware

The first of these categories describes how professors view their students as being financially capable of managing the shift to online. They appear to assume that since students are able to afford and have the time to attend school, it must also mean they have inherent luxuries that help them in this process. This is not always so. For example, I had to spend the first month of online courses on my phone unable to afford a laptop. Luckily enough one of my professors directed me to a site where I was able to receive a laptop loan from campus. As I waited in line to receive my laptop I couldn’t help but notice just how many other students were in this same predicament. This experience also made me realize just how much easier my situation was with online courses compared to my peers. I’m fortunate enough to still be living at home and having my living expenses practically paid for. I’m also fortunate to own a phone, have reliable internet access, and a quiet space to work; luxuries that are not afforded to other students. Other students who live on their own and need to work in order to afford the basic necessities are thinking more in existential terms and may not have the luxury of a laptop to attend a Zoom meeting.

Type 2: The Overbearing Overloaders

This leads me to the next category of professors, the “Online classes aren’t that hard, so let’s overload on the course work,” professors. As classes switched over to online what soon followed were drastically altered syllabi. These syllabi did not come close to the original, which leads one to believe that these professors are under the impression that students do not have anything else going on other than their studies, or that online classes are easier than face to face classes, thereby requiring additional work to make the course more “rigorous.” By increasing the course load, these professors are also increasing the stress that students are experiencing during an already tense time. This also does not increase retention and could potentially dissuade students from taking online courses in the future. That same scenario almost happened to me, as I was terrified to be taking six online classes. I’m not necessarily the most technologically savvy person, so the first few weeks I was riddled with self-doubt. This self-doubt later turned into low motivation, which sadly continued all the way until the end of the semester. And this self-doubt, was not just evident with students, but with professors as well, which leads to the third category.

Type 3: Less is More

I was unfortunate enough to personally experience the third category of professors this semester, which is the extreme opposite of the aforementioned categories. This type of professor I’m describing is virtually non-existent. These professors believe in the saying that “less is more,” (and with education I don’t believe that saying rings true). In this type of class, the professor took off every other week to catch up on grading, which was not completed until the last week of school. Discussions were limited to only one post, which turned the discussion into a public statement. I realize that as of late, amidst a pandemic that drastically shifted student and educators’ demands, it feels as if the only thing to do is to give up. But when a professor gives up, it is not only affecting them personally, but it is also impacting approximately 30 other lives. I genuinely feel as though I need to retake several courses in the future, feeling I learned more in just the few weeks of in-person classes than I have throughout the entire semester online.

All three categories of professors hold one true commonality: making unfair assumptions regarding student wealth. The “Financially Unaware” first type expects the student to be financially stable enough to afford the necessary equipment for online courses. The second “Overbearing Overloader” believes that students who can afford community college have all the free time in the world, despite the fact that many are most likely going through financial, emotional, and physical stress. The third “Less is More” category, although perhaps done subconsciously, denies sufficient education, which leads to wasted money spent on courses and course materials.

The COVID-19 Burden

We must also keep in mind that professors were asked to convert their classes within a couple of weeks, meaning that some of these considerations may have been overlooked in the rush to transition online. But as a student with firsthand experience with the move to remote classes, I feel it is imperative to learn from these oversights to make education more accessible. So, how do we make the switch to online more approachable for both returning and new students?

The Change to Help Benefit Students

As we’re approaching this “new normal,” a phrase you may have heard a thousand times by now, it is critical that we treat these courses not the same as we would face-to-face courses, but as inherently different. As students, we are having to learn new material, that we may need to use later in our desired field, through a monitor. So how can a professor transform a class from being just another article or mindless YouTube video, where students might grasp little-to-no information?

Note-taking for Zoom

Zoom meetings have the potential to be a successful teaching platform, but what it lacks is stability. From personal experience with Zoom classes, I found staying focused was nearly impossible and occasionally found myself switching tabs to wait until the class had ended. I understand that it is difficult to teach a group of 30 students that you can not see, but I do believe the only way to confront this issue is by making it mandatory to take notes. This could easily be checked by having the student submit a photo of their notes on a weekly/biweekly basis. By incorporating note-taking into a final course grade, it allows more leeway for students to earn incremental, lower-stakes points in the class. And since attendance seems to be voided in terms of online classes, note-taking could easily take its spot. 

Asynchronous Options

Now what about students who are unable to attend Zoom meetings, or professors who are unable to conduct Zoom meetings from home? A solution for this is that professors could either record and post the Zoom meetings, or record a preplanned lecture on their own time. This alleviates students’ stress if they are unable to attend a meeting at a certain time and then they still have the option and time to submit their notes and learn the material before the next class. This technique is not just for digital lectures, but may also be applied to reading assignments. 

Untimed Quizzes and Exams

There will always be obstacles when teaching in this completely new environment. There is no way, as far as I know, to prevent students from using Google on quizzes and exams. I have found that by giving students the freedom to take a quiz with multiple attempts, there is less of a need to cheat. If faculty give students that extra opportunity to make mistakes they will improve on their next attempt. In this sense, a more efficient solution could be to make exams untimed, but with more free response questions, which encourages the student to think more critically, rather than resort to web searches.

I want to say these are easy solutions to problems faced in online courses, but they really are not. We need both professors and students to dedicate themselves to doing these tasks, or else there will be no net educational gain by the end of the course. The motivation needed during this time could only be brought out by motivated professors, and in turn and assignments that motivate students, rather than inducing stress or adding to lethargy and hopelessness.

Resources and Support

What helped me tremendously during this time were the resources that some of my professors provided. I was able to pick up a loaned laptop and free groceries just from such announcements, both greatly needed and appreciated. When professors keep in touch with their students and provide resources outside of the classroom, this can create a more inclusive learning environment. 

The Change that I Hope to See from Online Classes

I view this time of great distress as a stepping stone for many under-financed public institutions, especially with the educational system. 

Community colleges are finally receiving resources their students have desperately needed for years. Publishing companies are renting textbooks to students for free, saving many several hundred dollars per semester. Some schools are also allowing refunds and grants for students during this time. It is noteworthy to entertain just how affordable education can be and how much we would greatly benefit if we were to divest funding from other areas, such as the police, and instead reinvest in students. It would be a shame for our schools to be further defunded to the point where college students will have to take on second and third jobs to support themselves and their families. It is amazing how it took a worldwide pandemic for people to see how limited and underfunded their educational system is. And conversely, it is amazing how easily these educational resources are being made accessible, not just for those who can’t afford it, but for those who just simply want to learn. This increased affordability and inclusivity of higher ed institutions is what I hope to see in the future of education. Hopefully, this momentum does not fade away like some fad, and remains even after a vaccine is found for COVID-19. Creating a sustainable and affordable learning environment from home allows more low income families and students with unique needs and abilities to no longer fear the unreasonable price of education. 

Sadly, many if not all colleges are overly invested in monetary exploits, rather than focusing on the students’ academic well-being. It is irritating to know that when I transfer to a four year institution I will be paying the full price of an in-person course for an online course. Universities are scrambling to figure out how to acquire their income and are sadly sending out mail stating that Fall courses will include hybrid courses (those of which make up only 10% of all courses in Fall) and some students are eating it up. On top of that, these courses do not specify which will be hybrid and which will not, as it will be disclosed during the beginning of Fall semester. These hybrid classes simply mean that we have only one month to find housing to potentially take 0-1 class in person in the Fall. There is still so much that universities need to do across the nation and I think it is time that we hold these institutions accountable. They are turning education into some grand capitalistic scheme and it should not be. Education now is seen as a business venture, both by students who invest in education and the universities who take their money. 

What is Working with Online Classes

Despite some of the negatives I experienced with the online switch, I have found some positives these courses have offered as well. 

The first being how flexible online courses are for all students. Regardless of whether a student has a disability, lacks reliable transportation, or is juggling work and/or family-care with school, they have the opportunity to learn on their own time. Documents are also neatly organized and stored for students and can be easily retrieved. I have also found that my interactions with my professors have increased tremendously. I have had a longer email interaction with a professor than I would have had I been speaking to a professor in class for four years of college. Which brings me to the final category of professor…

The Final Category of Professors: The Driving Force

This professor not only diligently carried their class through this challenging time, but also motivated and pushed us to strive with our own educational endeavors as well. We were taught to think critically through our readings and had the chance to voice our opinions on both past and current events. This open format of teaching allowed me and other classmates to thrive and interact with one another much more so than in other online courses. Class discussions never became repetitive and allowed students to be open to various viewpoints and learn more from an internal perspective. Art History is a tricky subject to teach, especially online given how tempted students may be to simply look up answers, but if the professor is dedicated that translates for the student. It is a challenging time, especially being an Art History student to memorize and internalize artists, their works and history, but with this last category of professors, their courses become memorable for years to come.

Professors like these were the driving force for us during a time when students were willing to give up on school. If we had more of these dedicated individuals teaching and guiding, I’m more than positive that everyone would gladly take an online course during this “new normal.”

One response to “Student Voices: The Online Switch”

  1. Lindsay Alberts says:

    Thank you for sharing suggestions as well as areas of concern – I will be incorporating some of your suggestions into my fall classes.

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