Virtual Teaching Challenges Professors

Lakpa Sherpa, Contributing Writer

On March 12, 2020 at 4:29 pm, the board of trustees and the COVID-19 response team at Clark University sent an email informing students, faculty, and staff about campus closure. The first day students and professors reconnected was through zoom classroom on Monday, March 23.

I remember heading to my evening class with Ronald Schachter who teaches Urban Community Journalism when I learned about the campus closure. While trying to process the email content and accept the reality that was in front of me, I walked in finding Schachter and a few other students discussing the shift to remote learning.

Schachter described the moment, saying, “I was totally unprepared, or at least I didn’t really have the sense of it being a reality in the near future.”

“I’ve got to get over some barriers to be able to feel comfortable using this,” he said in reference to online learning tools like Zoom.

In contrast, other faculty members in the school of management and sociology departments have prior experience using Zoom for professional meetings. Zoom Classroom was new to the professors, but Clark’s Information Technology Services have supported the transition.

Melissa Butler currently teaches three courses: Introduction to Sociology, Doing Qualitative Research, and Religion and Society.  She stated, “We had a meeting prior to Clark’s closure. We were discussing the different contingency plans we would put in place. It was a quite a bit of anatomy on managing our class with an online environment.”

Similarly, Vasilia Vasiliou who teaches two courses, Art and Science of Management and Management and Behavioral Principles, said, “The school of management was prepared for a possible transition to online teaching prior to us actually having to, and so I believe that we were very usefully equipped from Clark.”

Schachter and Vasiliou said they practiced on Zoom Classrooms prior to their first sessions with their students.

“I had practice on my own prior to our first session together because you never know how things are going to go during the session,” stated Vasiliou.

Schachter added, “About two days before we had our first online class, I had my wife and my daughter get on to the Zoom based on the invitation. In the process, I began to manipulate some of the devices.”

Although Vasiliou was familiar with Zoom thanks to previous training provided by the school of management, Schachter relied on Google for online teaching tips.

The shift to virtual learning is different from the traditional classroom setting. Professors and teaching assistants (TA’s) have spoken to some of the limitations presented with Zoom learning.

“What I miss the most about face-to-face teaching is this constant interaction and feedback from the students. The energy that you get from the students is often very different when you compare face to face with online teaching,” revealed Vasiliou.

Similarly, Butler said, “I was worried about getting the spirit going on an online platform since we had a strong and engaged community in the normal classroom setting. The novelty of Zoom has worn off especially since we are going through screen that it feels very distanced”

Maxwell Agyemang, a TA for Introduction to Economics, stressed that, because the economics course involves complex diagrams and graphs, virtually drawing it out on his computer screen has been a challenge.

“We are not able to really express ourselves effectively virtually. Also, you want to be able to read your students’ body language and see their expressions since not every student is confident enough to participate or ask a question. Therefore, body language helps to prompt me in knowing whether my students understand,” stated Agyemang.

While students have been active in reaching out to professors through email, TA’s and professors, on the other hand, are utilizing Zoom and email mediums to communicate and coordinate.

Vasiliou sends a detailed weekly guideline to her students and arranges face-to-face meetings on Zoom to communicate effectively.

Currently living and teaching in Arizona, Agyemang said, “Miscommunication occurs sometimes with the professors because I’m three hours behind in terms of time. I communicate mostly through emails which could be a shuffle. I mean, professors are receiving so many emails, that some potentially get lost.”

Butler pointed out miscommunication with students in her experience.

“Over the past few weeks, some students have completely fallen off the radar and it was hard to communicate with them.  It’s also frustrating to know that there are some students you can’t connect with,” stressed Butler.

Due to the diverse ranges of courses offered at Clark, teachers were faced with unique challenges to restructure their class syllabus in their particular classes.

“In the qualitative class, I took a module approach with mostly asynchronous learning to allow students to learn at their own pace,” stated Butler.

Asynchronous learning means, “reducing the number of assignments to open space for individualized learning.”

Vasiliou adopted an asynchronous mode of learning but also kept some synchronous learning.

“I wanted to be realistic and pragmatic and asked myself what are the absolutely necessary things that I want my students to take from their remaining weeks off of learning?” stated Vasiliou.

Even in these difficult times, professors continue to be optimistic in utilizing Zoom.

“We’re all working towards providing the best resources for our students and help you learn and also be there for you during this terrible, terrible time for the world,” Vasiliou told me with a grin on her face.