As the first week of primarily video-based learning ends, professors and students are – mostly – adjusting to online classes.
“As Jackson Lears said, distance learning is to learning as phone sex is to sex,” said David Kipen, a lecturer in the UCLA Writing Program. “There is an indispensable element being dispensed with here, which is rapport among a roomful of people learning together.”
UCLA moved all spring quarter classes online March 13 to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus on campus.
Professors have approached structuring their newly online courses in different ways: while some aimed to change their teaching style as little as possible, others took new approaches to teaching that they believed would better suit the format.
Students, meanwhile, had to confront the innate challenges of online learning, such as not being able to interact with classmates and staying focused. Additionally, some classes experienced lagging, audio feedback, and Zoombombings, where small numbers of users would disrupt lectures that were using the video conference service Zoom.
“I think that we all have a pretty mutual understanding that this is going to be something new for all of us,” said Kenny Kobayashi, a third-year political science student.
John Agnew, a professor in the geography and Italian departments, said professors had only a few weeks to decide how they would approach online classes.
“It’s really difficult, over a matter of weeks, to come up with some kind of super plan or something, that’s necessarily going to work out,” he said. “So we’re all just sort of thrashing around, trying to do the best we can.”
Agnew doesn’t plan to emulate an in-person class at all. Instead, he said he will post detailed lecture slides for his class online each week.
“I think there’s a danger of pretending (that) online, you can reproduce what you can do in an actual classroom – I think that’s mistaken,” he said.
Agnew wanted to make sure his class was accessible to students in all time zones. By forgoing lecture videos altogether, he hopes students will remain more focused on the material than on his facial expressions and gesticulations.
“I would rather, given the circumstances, that they spend their time looking at the actual material instead of looking at me,” Agnew said. “I worry that then it becomes like a performance substituting for engaging with the material classes cover.”
Unlike Agnew, Cynthia Lebow, a lecturer in the political science department, said she hopes to make her class as much like an in-person class as possible.
She normally uses the Socratic method in her classes, in which she asks students to answer questions in front of the class. She said she hopes to be able to continue to do this in an online setting.
Lebow also asked that her students obtain physical copies of the required reading for the class. If students have only a digital copy, they may be less likely to fully digest the reading.
“I want them to buy it, have it physically, hold it, read it, highlight it, mark it up, make notes in the margins – whatever,” she said.
Her class will have the same grading standards as it would if it were an in-person class, she added.
“I don’t think we ought to accept a lower intellectual standard just because we’re doing this online,” she said.
Kipen said he hoped to change his approach to teaching writing as little as possible. Although online classes generally pose a disadvantage to teaching, he did find one advantage in using Zoom for his lectures.
Kipen used the camera feature of Zoom to represent the presence of voice in written works. When discussing an author whose voice was noticeably present in his works, Kipen would lean in close to the camera.
However, when discussing an author whose voice was less present, he would lean away from the camera so that he was not in the center of the screen, emulating the writer’s decision to include less of his own voice in his works.
This is something he would not have been able to do in a regular classroom setting, he said.
Online learning poses accessibility difficulties to students. Kobayashi, an exchange student from Scotland, is currently in Japan to be with his parents. He had to drop one of his classes because the professor would not record their lectures, and he would have had to wake up in the middle of the night to attend the lecture, he said.
The online nature of classes makes it more difficult to interact with the professor and ask questions, Kobayashi said.
“In a class, you might raise your hand or you might make eye contact with the professor to show that you’re visibly confused with something and they will pick up on that, but in an online setting not everybody has a video on or not everybody has a microphone on and lags can take place,” he said.
Additionally, classes feel much more intangible, making it harder to find motivation, said Leika Keys, a third-year political science student.
However, Keys said she finds it easier to talk to her classmates now that classes are online. One of her classes has a group chat and she is talking with her classmates more than she would have in a normal classroom setting, she said.
She said she is sympathetic toward professors.
“We’re all going through a lot, and I just want the professors to show the students some compassion and sympathy, and I hope the students do the same,” Keys said.