Zoom From Your Room. Whether You Like It or Not.

Challenges of Virtual Learning in Traditional College and Implications on Higher Education.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached national attention in March, universities across the country have scrambled to adopt online learning. The lives of students have been fundamentally transformed while harsh realities prevail: the limitations of synchronous learning, the inequity in access to education, and the continuing increase in college tuition all present challenges to college students everywhere.


So far this fall, I have experienced two types of learning at SLU: online and hybrid. For online classes, professors and students never meet in person. All interactions take place via Zoom, emails, and discussion forums. For hybrid classes, half of the students attend in-person sessions on campus and the other half  attend virtually. With the sole exception of on-campus wet laboratory experiments, I participate in lectures from home for my hybrid classes.


Whether You Like It or Not.


As a commuter student enrolled in a mostly online curriculum this semester, I have experienced both advantages and challenges. For starters, class via Zoom allows me to get to class within minutes in just one click. I no longer need to be at the Metro station every morning by 6 a.m. to arrive in time for my 8 a.m. lecture. Club meetings in the evening have also been practical for me. For that, I have Zoom video conferencing to thank for my simplified travel schedule.


Despite these conveniences, however, a quality education consists of more than just comfortably getting to class. It is about mastering and understanding the materials taught in the course. Synchronous learning has worked in my favor, especially for large lectures. With the screen sharing function, I am able to see visuals that I would have not been able to see from an auditorium seat. Zoom is robust in its features. You can see and hear people at the same time, poll the group, share presentations directly from your computer, and collaborate in small groups via breakout sessions. This only highlights the complexity of human interaction that we take for granted when in the classroom. 


Since I started Zooming in the Spring, I’ve noticed the engagement level from students has significantly decreased. What has caused such a decrease? It is the constant fear of interrupting someone’s signals to ask a question, losing signals from the speaker, not being able to share our work on paper to the instructor for instant feedback, and having unanswered questions accidentally left in the chat. It is the tendency to “zoom” out (pun intended) when the class is discussion-based but the pedagogy is teacher-focused.


In traditional classrooms, teaching is an art form. Professors can notice heads nodding, access the learning environment on the go, and alter their pace within microseconds. On Zoom, the task of teaching is complex and modular. Besides lecturing, the professors have to remind themselves to switch views, pay attention to the chat, share their screen, and coordinate breakout rooms. Everything about the art of teaching now takes seconds through technological maneuvers; and yet, the standard lecture time remains 50 minutes. In one of my large Zoom lectures, the teaching assistants serve as moderators of the chat. However, as a learner, I miss the time when my professor could validate and recognize the pace of the class through emotional and social cues. 


In hybrid classes, the professors have to appeal simultaneously to both online and in-person students with a desktop, projector, mic, and recorder. As I see my professor squinting their eyes to read my comment on Zoom and my classmates constantly asking them to repeat questions from in-person students, I realize that classrooms just aren’t built for hybrid learning. 


Moreover, as an at-home student, I sometimes feel left out as there exists a split between classroom and online environments in my hybrid classes. My questions are often left on hold and the sense of isolation behind a computer screen often results in a lack of motivation on my end to actively pay attention during class time.


“We Are in This Together.”


The mantra is clear. From professors to students, we are in this together. However, what they are neglecting is how different each student’s situation may be from the next. The technology can be clunky to use at first but people will get it eventually. Inequity, though, is a different story. It opens many doors of uncertainty, one after another.


In college, everyone is supposed to live and learn together. Social disparities aren’t as clear in person as they are on video chats. Not everyone can afford a fancy laptop with a built-in webcam and microphone. It is almost ironic to see that real struggles can be masked in real life, but be revealed in sharp contrast through virtual interaction.


For students from low-income backgrounds, going to class isn’t just about getting access to the knowledge. It is a personal juggle between their hopes for the future and their reality in the present. First, it is getting a reliable internet connection after having been able to rely on the school infrastructure for so long. Then, it is the hustle in supporting their family during lockdown on top of school work. The “we are in this together, let’s continue business as usual” mentality is counterproductive to those who are socioeconomically affected by this pandemic. Only when these disparities in wealth and class are addressed and eradicated would we have a better virtual learning experience for students.


As a Jesuit institution, SLU prides itself on embodying cura personalis—that is, caring for the whole person. Although the school has released stimulus package application for students in need, the problem cannot be solved on an emergency basis. To me, enforcing the new “normal” among students and promoting a phony slogan during the pandemic completely disregards the existing situations that many students continue to face.


Come To Campus and Zoom From Your Room


Higher education is notorious for increasing their prices. Virtual learning has pushed traditional colleges like SLU to reflect upon whether they regard higher education as a commodity or a necessity. Many are questioning the intention of colleges across the country for reopening in-person school this fall. Many speculate that the quality of remote classes is lower than what they would be willing to pay for traditional in-person classes. Professors transitioning to online learning, however, have spoken from a different perspective about tuition for online education. A professor from Syracuse University tweeted, “Working at a college or university right now is hearing a lot of people say that they should pay less for something you’re working twice as hard to make available for them.”


I do not have all the answers. However, as the pandemic halts the lives of many working people, higher education still continues to be more expensive as per the historical trend. And for what? Professors are working harder than they ever have and students are struggling to learn.


Despite recognizing the flaws of online learning, I am not here to balk at it. I understand the importance of individuals putting aside their preferences and doing their part for the good and the health of others. Although Zoom is only a temporary way to accommodate these dire circumstances, we can’t ignore the hurdles of traditional colleges like SLU enforcing normalcy in the classroom in case of emergency and the implication it has on higher ed.