A New Kind of Clarkie: Remote Learning at Clark University

Jesse Lowe, Contributing Writer

In past years, attending Clark University has meant one of two things: living off-campus in Worcester and commuting to classes or living on-campus and in dorms. For the first time this fall, students were presented with the third option to live anywhere in the world with an internet connection and attend classes entirely online.

While the focus of the administration, students, and families has generally been on ensuring the safety of the students who are on campus, there has been very little support specifically catered to remote-only students. During orientation, remote-only students and commuter students were generally grouped together, and they tended to be placed in Clark Navigator classes that are run by remote-only mentors.

The week before classes started, there was a remote-only meet-and-greet event styled after the meet-and-greets that have long been held for international students and transfer students. At that meeting, students discussed holding a recurring support group or social gathering over Zoom, but that has not yet materialized.

Now that classes are in full swing, professors and students alike have had some time to adapt  and reflect on the challenges that come with teaching and learning remotely. The Scarlet interviewed Zoe Armstrong (class of 2023), Professor Michael Klugerman from the Math department, Scarlet News Editor Luis Santos (class of 2021), Jen Wong (class of 2023), and Professor Juan Pablo Rivera  from the Spanish department over the phone and via Zoom to get their perspectives on teaching and learning remotely. As an incoming freshman taking fully online classes, I will also be sharing some of my answers to the questions below.

What’s the best part of remote-only teaching and learning?

Lowe (‘24): The best part is having a lot of freedom. I spend a lot of time feeling very comfortable in pajamas in the sunshine.

Armstrong (‘23): I’m able to stay with my family. I don’t have to eat the food from the dining hall. I have my pets with me, and I don’t have to wear a mask everywhere.

Wong (‘23): Having the comforts of home. I feel healthier and I feel like I have a better sleep schedule. That might also be just my ability to take care of myself on campus, so I guess it’s different for everyone.

Santos (‘21): There’s a certain flexibility to being a remote-only student. I feel like I have more control over my schedule. I don’t have to waste a lot of time getting places.

Rivera: The community that it’s created with other colleagues and strangers who are also in the same boat. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to approach this from a place of openness and curiosity rather than fear and rejection.” And there’s been a lot of sharing… like if I read a good article I’ll share it as well, so there’s been this kind of anarchist solidarity that has been good. Once you stop fighting it, that helps.

Klugerman: This is just a theory I have, but I think students feel more comfortable being in their own private spaces rather than classroom in terms of offering input. Breakout rooms are also positive. Something is easier about making them happen than it is with physical groups.

What is the most challenging part of remote-only teaching and learning?

Lowe (‘24): Because there’s very little structure, I feel like I have too much to do and also too little to do all the time.

Armstrong (‘23): The isolation, and being separated from my friends and from campus.

Wong (‘23): Feeling included in campus stuff. I know that most people are on campus in person, so things are obviously tailored to that, in terms of sports and clubs and other activities. I think it’s really unfair that we’re paying a student activity fee in full when we can barely do anything. And there’s things like “join us for yoga on the green!” but it’s not streamed, so we can’t join.

Santos (‘21): Moving back home was a challenge. Establishing myself and creating a work environment was very challenging and took a very long time because I needed to communicate with my family that I’m going to have my classes at home. I have a work environment now, so we have to respect each other’s boundaries.

Rivera: Because everything is flat, it’s hard for me to gauge emotion or affect and it’s tougher to keep track of everyone. I think some people fade into the screen and I have to be very conscious of everyone’s participation and engagement.

Klugerman: Online learning is hardest in classes where you really need to physically show people things. In geometry and when we learn about 3D objects, it can become difficult because physical contact with things is so important.

The question of why you chose not to come to campus can be difficult to answer. Answering honestly, what would you say?

Lowe (‘24): I dodge the question because it’s so personal. It was a really hard decision to make. 

Armstrong (‘23): Yes, I tell them. It’s because I didn’t feel comfortable coming back to campus because of COVID-19. I’m reliant on my family and I need to be able to see them.

Wong (‘23): I’m pretty comfortable with that question. For me, I just didn’t feel safe. I would have been sharing three single-stall bathrooms with forty people on my floor. On campus, I see people’s Snapchat stories, and a lot of people are still hanging out kinda close. I can’t control everyone, or judge them because everyone’s situation is different, but there really is no way to socially distance on a college campus, especially with our current infrastructure.

Santos (‘21): I would say that it was a personal choice that I made because of my family, but also it’s a realistic choice because of the pandemic situation. The situation is that sure, Clark has contingency plans if things go south, but to ask students to move back home again if things were to go south is a lot of stress and a lot of pressure. It’s insensitive to ask that of students. When Clark asks that question, I just hope that the administration understands what they’re asking.

Rivera: I respect everyone’s decision, but the best way to not be exposed to the virus is to not be exposed to the virus! So, if given the option and the privilege to teach and learn remotely for the time being, I’m going to take it. That doesn’t make me more virtuous or less virtuous than my colleagues who choose to teach in person. We are in a pandemic and it’s all about people’s comfort levels and keeping ourselves safe and each other safe.

Klugerman: My answer is simple and true: my dad is 90. If I get COVID-19, I will be shortening my father’s life. It’s not a choice. If I could come in, I would.

 What would have to change for you to return to campus in person?

Lowe (‘24): Cases would have to stay as low as they are right now. I know that it’s likely that people will get complacent and there will be a spike in cases before Thanksgiving, but if everybody keeps it together and there isn’t, I will come to campus for the spring semester.

Armstrong (‘23): It would take a vaccine. Until most people have it and until there’s better treatment for COVID-19 in general, I wouldn’t feel safe living on campus.

Wong (‘23): I would say a guarantee of safety, but you can’t guarantee that even under normal conditions. It’s hard. As long as this pandemic is reaching on, I personally don’t find it safe to come back. Or at least comfortable, because I’d always be on edge. I’d touch something and be like, “Oooh, I just touched this! Am I gonna get sick now?”

Santos (‘21): My family situation would have to change. Jobs are not guaranteed, and you could be laid off any second. What would need to change is for Clark to be a little more lenient. I know the reasons for being strict when it comes to procedures, but it’s a lot of pressure for students. They need to strike a balance between enforcing these rules and being sympathetic towards students whose situations may change.

Rivera: I hadn’t thought of it, really. I don’t have any clear-cut answer, but I think that once no one is dying in our area, in the state, in the New England region, I think that’s a very reasonable line to draw.

Klugerman: They’re doing an amazing job, but… There’s really nothing that can be done. If magically we could teach outdoors, I would consider it.

What do you miss most about being on campus?

Lowe (‘24): As a first year, I’ve never had the college experience that I’m missing out on, so I don’t know.

Armstrong (‘23): Friends. I miss doing schoolwork together, studying together, and seeing people randomly who you haven’t seen for a while and getting to talk to them. It’s much better than awkwardly texting or scheduling things.

Wong (‘23): I miss randomly running into people, even if I don’t know them that well. We just see each other in the hallway and we can just strike up a conversation. Spontaneous stuff. Now everything’s so rigid. You have to plan it, like “Let’s Zoom at this time,” versus just running into people on campus somewhere.

Santos (‘21): The aspects that I miss would be those small moments, where you get to just see people at a cafeteria, meet friends, or see faculty at their office hours. Those small moments where it’s not all about the academics. It’s about just being present and connecting with people.

Rivera: Several things. The sense of being in the classroom and actually using your body to teach. I have a standing desk, and that helps. That performative aspect of teaching, like using the space—I miss that. But again, that doesn’t make up for the fact that people are dying, so it’s something that I’m very much willing to give up for the time being, to keep people safe.

Klugerman: Students. It’s much more personal on campus. People used to be able to stop by after class, and that was much more comfortable. That all has gone away.

How are you keeping in touch with the people you miss?

Lowe (‘24): I have a weekly game session with my friends from high school. I write a lot of snail mail.  

Armstrong (‘23): Texting, and some Facetime group chats.

Wong (‘23): I text people, and we do Facetime or Zoom.

Santos (‘21): Using Zoom or using group chats like Facebook messenger. Personally, I feel like the English department has a strong connection. The professors stay after class if any of the students have questions, and they don’t even have to be about class! It can just be about checking in with a student. That’s something that I admire a lot.

Rivera: Social media has been helpful. I opened up an Instagram account and that’s something that I wouldn’t have done, and I feel like I’m too old for it, but still I’m learning from it and I feel like it’s part of a project to embrace technology rather than reject it.

Klugerman: I have a very small presence on campus anyway because I work another job and come in only on Fridays.

Have you been able to make any new connections while being remote?

Lowe (‘24): I’ve had some really nice conversations with people I met through instagram. It’s just hard to know how to keep a new friendship going when you have to arrange every single time you cross paths.

Armstrong (‘23): I’m not really making new friends. I’ve made some acquaintances by starting private chat convos in Zoom calls.

Wong (‘23): I’ve kind of been able to make new connections, but only from things that were already established. Like, I might talk to the peer mentors who I didn’t talk to much last year, but that’s because we’ve spent so many meetings together. People on campus tell me that people are still in the same social groups from last year. It’s always nice to branch out, but it’s hard, especially if you’re at home, to do that.

Santos (‘21): Making friends has been a difficult thing for me since I arrived at Clark. I’m a transfer student and that’s an additional challenge. The downside would be that we’re in our own groups and we’re too caught up in our own situations, to the point that we don’t make an attempt to make new connections. I’m a senior now, so to me it’s not a priority to make new friends. Of course I’m open to the idea, but right now I’m focused on getting through this [pandemic] situation just like everyone else and just being able to graduate.

Rivera: I’ve become closer with many neighbors. We were always friendly, like I’ll wave to you, but now we stop and talk to people and ask them if they need anything. So walking our dogs has really become our social outlet.

Klugerman: New connections have been nonexistent. It certainly is hard. There’s not much connectivity in that way, and that’s a change.

Do you think that remote learning will continue to be part of Clark University after the pandemic is under control?

Lowe (‘24): I think we’ll try to forget this ever happened and that Clark will stop doing remote learning. I think that’s a loss because although it doesn’t work for everybody, it should be an option that’s available to people who need it for whatever reason.

Armstrong (‘23): It could be helpful in some cases, but losing snow days and days when the teacher is unexpectedly out sick would suck.

Wong (‘23): Maybe some courses will be offered online, but maybe just during the winter intersession, or maybe there would be summer classes online. But if things are “back to normal” I feel like there wouldn’t be many online classes during the normal school year.

Santos (‘21): I do believe that some classes will continue to be remote, while other classes will be hybrid or traditionally in-person. Clark is going to continue to adapt. Personally, I think that they should consider making the online model a permanent thing and make this a part of Clark’s curriculum. They should definitely have online classes moving forward because for some people, it works better.

Rivera: I don’t know about Clark specifically because I don’t think we’ve had that conversation publicly yet. I think there will always be spaces for in-person classes and in-person teaching, but this will change education in ways we cannot foresee yet. I’m certain about that.

Klugerman: The idea that you are going to have the same experience, or as good an experience in your home is misguided. But on the positive side, here are definitely mechanisms in online environments that should not be ignored. There’s going to be a tremendous push in tech development, to enable people to do what they need to do creatively. I could imagine a hybrid model for education, where there’s more use made of this, but campus life stays the way it was in the past. We’ve lost something important with students having limited interactions on campus.

What have you learned from the experience of learning and teaching remotely?

Lowe (‘24): I’ve learned what a huge difference there is between having a surface-skimming conversation with a stranger once and an in-depth conversation with someone I know I will meet again and have a chance at an actual relationship with.

Wong (‘23): I’ve learned to set good habits. My only responsibilities right now are to do my work and take care of myself, versus if I’m on campus I have a lot more things to be worried about. So I guess it is a decent time to just step back and work on my own time management stuff and getting work done on time and stuff like that.

Santos (‘21): It has definitely made my connection to my family stronger. I’ve learned to be adaptable and creative enough to understand that there are other ways to go about learning or to go about meeting people.

Rivera: Many things. I’ve learned to use some software that I didn’t think I would never use or need to use. That online learning will work for some people and it won’t work well for others. And there are some strategies that will work and some strategies that won’t work. I think the all-or-nothing approach is dangerous. I’ve learned to prepare well, and over-prepare. If we had been meeting in person, I would have been totally comfortable winging it. But the overpreparation is helping ease my anxiety. It lets me sleep at night. That matters. 

Klugerman: Isolation stinks. It’s nice to be around people. In the past, I didn’t think that was the case. I had to have this experience to discover it. I’m learning that it is very noticeable to have more limited social contact with people. It’s not the normal human condition.