Over the past month, Fairfield students and faculty adjusted to the fact that in-person classes are no longer a possibility due to social distancing requirements in response to COVID-19. Online classes are held over a variety of platforms, but most notably Zoom, Quip and BlackBoard are used by most professors.
The learning curve of switching to online classes has been affecting students and faculty equally. Many of Fairfield’s professors have never taught a class online before.
When asked if she had ever taught online, Megan Paqua, an adjunct professor in the art history program, replied, “Nope! I’ve also never taken one before either, so I’m a complete newbie.”
Paqua uses a combination of Zoom, Quip and BlackBoard for her lectures, alternating between the three for various assignments. Quip is an online “live document” program similar to Google Docs, which allows students to comment on and edit parts of a pre-made document in real time. However, it comes with its own problems.
“Not only are the written Quip lectures incredibly time consuming to make, they also feel like just another homework reading at best, or busy work for students to go through at worst. However, I don’t think that it is fair to expect students to be attending remote Zoom classes as though everything is fine and normal aside from not being on campus,” Paqua said.
Zoom seems to be the most popular option for classes, as the software allows professors to give lectures over video chat to a live audience of students. The software also allows for screen-sharing, making it possible for professors to stream PowerPoint presentations and slides in conjunction with their live lectures.
“I think Zoom has helped my learning because I’m more of an auditory learner and I like to hear a professor speak about a reading,” said Gwen Mattia ‘20.
Christiana Pitrelli ‘21 agreed, saying, “I think Zoom has kept my learning pretty much the same if not better because some professors who didn’t post slides when we were in person are now posting them.”
“My Spanish professor uploads audio lectures instead of using Zoom, but it is a Hispanic literature class, so the format is mostly lectures with minimal participation,” said Brigid Belger ‘22. “We still have the normal amount of work, reading stories and writing papers, and I think the format works out well for this course.”
Online classes sometimes require extra effort that will ultimately pay off.
“The only class it’s really harmed is my music technology class because we had class in a lab with special equipment which we don’t have access to anymore,” said Pitrelli.
However, much like other students, she’s had to work with the resources at hand and came up with an alternative solution: downloading the same software herself.
“We are able to download software on our computers so we are adjusting pretty well,” she said.
Of course, online learning comes with downsides as well. Some students, including Belger, are noticing that online classes are just not the same as being at an in-person lecture.
“I have had to do a few presentations over Zoom, which were awkward and not the same as in-person,” Belger said.
“It’s very easy to get distracted online and not physically being in the environment is a detriment to learning,” said Robert Baxter ‘22. “A large part of the college experience is being in the classroom and being able to interact with the professor and being in the ‘ready to learn’ mindset instead of sitting in your bed or desk alone trying to reconcile the fact that you’re at home and still have school.”
Switching to an online platform has “proven to be an alternative to the human connectivity of presence, alertness and face-to-face engagement” comments Philip Eliasoph Ph.D., a professor of art history.
“This veteran art history professor is neither convinced or prepared to transform the wonders of classroom learning into an academic form of an XBox or Playstation game with smatterings of academic content woven into the blurry, pixel dotted artifice of reality,” Eliasoph said. “The migration to online teaching should be contextualized as a spur of the moment, temporary fix. Let me first say that our ITS and Help Desk team have truly earned the Medal of Honor for their swift action and patient training of our faculty,” he continued.
Emily Orlando Ph.D., a professor in the English department, feels similarly, describing the switch to online learning as, “a baptism by fire for just about everyone- students and faculty alike.”
She also laments that class participation isn’t the same as it was in-person.
“One thing that’s discouraging is that some of the best talkers are not contributing as much, so we all must be a bit more creative to find ways to engage students in discussion,” she said. “But we are all in this together and there was no other option.”
One major flaw of Zoom is that it doesn’t have the most secure connection during usage. Some people have reported having unknown users infiltrate a Zoom meeting that shouldn’t have had access to it. While most haven’t experienced this, these occurrences seem to be growing as the number of people using Zoom increases.
“No one has joined our class mid-call, but I have seen this on the news recently,” said Belger.
This was first reported by several mainstream news outlets, including a recent NPR article, which dubbed this phenomenon as “zoombombing.” In some circumstances, this can lead to intruders introducing offensive content into meetings and classes, including pornographic material and hate speech. This issue is becoming more and more prevalent, so the FBI has begun investigations into how it happened.
Some Fairfield faculty have even experienced “zoombombing,” including Orlando. Two weeks ago, she came face to face with a few “zoombombers,” but thankfully they left quickly.
“The intruders disappeared the moment I recognized them. Cowards, evidently. So we all have to be vigilant to make sure only invited guests join,” Orlando said.
Zoom truly does have a dark side and it doesn’t seem to stop with “zoombombing.” Eliasoph has had people film his Zoom lectures and post them to other online sites.
“It was extremely disturbing to learn that during my first online Zoom session, a student captured the live class, uploaded it to TikTok and Facebook and made a circus out of the sanctity of our private college classroom,” he said. “My 14-year-old granddaughter in San Francisco called me that night wildly excited: ‘Nonno – you have 79,000+ hits on Tik Tok! – you are a social media pop star!’”
Overall, online classes seem to be a mixed bag. While these classes allow some students to flourish, they push some to the sidelines due to the lack of real human contact and can significantly affect students’ grades in the long run. Zoom sometimes proves to be more of a security threat than it’s worth, but as Paqua says, “everyone is just doing the best with the situation at hand.”