Remote learning for Spring 2021: students’ feedback

While preparing for the afternoon classes, I saw an email notification titled Plans for Spring 2021. Already knowing about California State University System’s decision to go online, I already had an idea about what this email would entail. Typically, I skimmed through this type of email. However, this time I decided to go ahead and watch the entire video.

With half of a Spring semester, one Summer semester, and almost half-way through a Fall semester, I thought I would have been used to online teaching by now. To some extend, I was prepared to receive the news about online learning in Spring 2021. Yet, as the recording continued, I began to feel somewhat disappointed. Mind you, this decision had to be made. Yet, I still nurtured a small glimmer of hope that things would get better, a vaccine would come out, and we would be back on campus again. Sitting in my office and realizing my own disappointment led me to wonder about how students would feel about this announcement. I decided to open a quick discussion with students in my classes that afternoon and the next day. The students range from sophomore to senior levels as the courses span three different levels (200/300/400). What I learned from the students was moving and enlightening.

Overall, students expressed their dismay upon hearing the news. Several sophomore expressed an interest in taking a gap semester for Spring 2021 and only getting back in the Fall 2021 when classes are back in person. While none of the junior/senior was entertaining the same thoughts, a heavy level of disappointment was clearly displayed. To facilitate the discussions beyond simple venting, I directed students’ comments toward two main questions:

  • What are the bad things about online learning (that leads to thoughts about taking gap semesters)?
  • What are the good things about online learning?

Good things about online learning

  • Commuting, commuting, commuting: Many of our students commute from nearby locations. The time required could range between 15–20 minutes to 1–2 hours, not accounting for the time to find a parking place. My class attendance has been great this semester, and I attribute a significant part of it to students’ ability to, and I quote, roll off the bed and into the class!.
  • Saving: Many students acknowledge significant monetary saving from being able to staying with their parents and not having to commute and pay for parking.
  • Flexibility: Online learning allows students to have more non-traditional choices in balancing work and study. This advantage is highly appreciated by students that are near graduation. Students praised the ability to begin full time work or move to their spouse’ location and can still finish up their degree remotely. Several were able to graduate earlier than originally planned because of this.
  • Course organization: Students felt that having to deliever materials online made faculty to become more organized and more willing to share/publish learning materials online.

And that was about all of the goods. Now on to the bad …

Bad things about online learning

Overall, students were worried about how their grades (and performance) are failing despite their best efforts. Several explicitly thought that online learning would delay their graduation time Their concerns/challenges can be categorized into the followings:

  • Time management: a number of students mentioned that to do well in online courses will require exceptional time management skills. Being at home created a sense of relaxation that caused them to loss track of time, just like how an extended vacation would feel.
  • Outside distractions: students who stay at home, while enjoy the benefit of saving on rents and commute, usually get pulled into doing chores/helping with sibling. Several indicated that their parents do not share an understanding about the time commitment required to study. Having younger siblings also staying home do not help. Others, while not being compelled by their family, felt that it was their responsibility to contribute, especially when many families are facing hardship due to the virus.
  • Lack of interaction with faculty: Without the face-to-face interactions between faculty and students, it is hard to convey body language, and letting faculty to “gauge” students’ understanding and adjust. One student specifically mentioned that if I moved out of the screen, it would be hard for him to read my lips and see what I am talking about (despite captions). They also feel that it is harder to retain information after Zoom sessions, comparing to in-class sessions.
  • Difficulty in getting help: this is perhaps the most critical issue. Getting assistance, feedback, and reminder from faculty and fellow students is very challenging. This can be due to slow in texting and/or difficulty in getting to office hours. Not being able to talk to classmates and inability to discuss details in projects are among other issues that cause frustration in students.
  • Unsuitable format of online learning: some complains were raised about how rigid adaptation of in-person learning activities and assessment can be unsuitable for online learning. Several mentioned that online evening courses that last for three hours are just impossible to follow and many of them fell asleep (I actually agree with the students here. In several conference planning committee, faculty were talking about how technical sessions longer than 60 minutes will cause listeners to tune out. If we can’t do it, how can we expect our students to do it?). Some didn’t like asking questions in online classes because they felt like being put on the spot (Zoom’s focus?). Several students expressed their displeasures in online exams, as they felt that faculty focus too much on ensuring everyone does not cheat and not enough on making the exam truly about assessing students’ knowledge.

Outcomes of the discussion

I intended for the discussion to be just about 15 minutes, and we ended going for 30–45 minutes in all of my classes. Despite all of the above issues, it seems that being able to talk about it was helpful to them. One of the surprising results of the discussion was that students became active in looking for a solution. The most pressing issue, in their opinion, was the lack of interaction (more instantaneous interaction and not the delayed-email interaction) among students and between students and faculty. I was somewhat surprised by this as the department and the Computer Science Club have been maintained an online communication platform called Slack, which were fairly popular in industry.

It turns out that, since most of the sophomore students were younger, they were not as excited/tuned to Slack as our upper classmen (Slack is old technology now!). I wonder if this is a generational issue, that is the underclassmen are coming in with a new set of technologies and are not willing to learn the old stuff so to speak. They probably also find that bonding with their own cohorts is easier. They ended up setting up a Discord channel (which I linked into the D2L course) and had everyone joined for discussions. Discord has voice-activated channels, which also helps with communication. As I typed in this blog article, I am reminded of an instance this afternoon where several of students were working and streaming their coding screens via one of the voice channel in Discord. We are getting there in term of making online/remote learning work better.

Conclusion

After these discussions, the lesson that I learned is that be truthful and communicate directly with students about challenges ahead is going to be very useful. In my opinion, at this moment, as they are frustrated, disappointed, and uncertain about their future, they need to be assured and encouraged. This is especially true for the freshman and sophomore. Maybe there have been study about online learning that mentioned this, and perhaps most faculty are already aware of it. But for the students, to be able to speak about their feelings and concerns and to listen to their fellow students sharing the same feelings are going to help the students to feel belonged and to move forward.

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