Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced many classes to be held virtually, Rawls College students and faculty have made necessary adjustments to maintain strong levels of engagement.
Since mid-March, Rawls College students and faculty have been living in an academic world where most classes have a virtual component to them. Some classes are completely online while others feature a hybrid-model that combines in-person teaching with remote learning opportunities. Several students and faculty shared their experiences with remote learning and how they tried to keep or replicate the level of engagement seen in the classroom space.
Student-Instructor Engagement Concerns
An immediate challenge realized by both students and faculty was the loss of the unstructured, in-person interactions.
For Zackary Arbegast, a senior finance major, the inability to ask questions during recorded lectures was frustrating.
"If you're watching a recorded lecture and you have a question, you can't just raise your hand. You have to write an email and hope that email doesn't get lost with all the other emails that professor is getting. Because you're watching a video, you don't have that immediate access to that resource that is the professor."
Feruzan Irani Williams, associate professor of practice in management, shared similar concerns about potentially losing the ability to serve as a resource for students. In her classes, she splits students into teams and has them work on very involved simulations.
"In face-to-face classes, I can go to the teams and discuss what we're talking about in class, the decisions they're making in the simulation and why or how they should consider alternative courses of action before making a final decision," said Irani Williams. "It was a challenge to do it in an online format. I didn't want [the students] to lose that opportunity to practice making decisions."
For many students and faculty, the sacrifices have been more analog and tactile.
"It can be harder to learn the information when you're just staring at a computer screen," said Megan Hasle, a graduate student in the Master of Science in Accounting program. "If I were in class, I'd be taking notes by hand. I'd have a longer attention span because I wouldn't be fatigued from staring at a screen all day."
Even when faculty do synchronous instruction through videoconferencing platforms like Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate, technology can interrupt the natural flow of instructor-to-student interactions.
"In Zoom you have to have everyone muted so you don't have that crosstalk," said Jeffrey Harper, assistant professor of practice in marketing and supply chain management. "The engagement is a little harder because [students] may not be as quick to unmute. You have to work harder for that first student comment."
Some faculty are also finding time and energy as necessary sacrifices for teaching remotely.
Jack Cooney, Benninger Family and John Walker Professor in finance, is teaching remotely for the first time in his more than 30-year career. "For many of the faculty, this is a new experience. Understanding how to communicate online is completely different from face-to-face. I can't tell you how much work I put into my online class."
John Masselli, Haskell Taylor Professor of Taxation in accounting, echoed Cooney's sentiments about the level of work required from both the instructor and student perspectives.
"There is a different kind of exhaustion after teaching and learning online," said Masselli, who like Cooney is teaching online for the first time in his 22-year career. "Is [exhaustion] natural in a classroom? Absolutely. This is a different kind of exhaustion for all involved, but it's worth the investment."
Creating Engagement in a Virtual Class
As the months have rolled on and remote teaching and learning has become more familiar, students and faculty have found ways to try to encourage engagement in online spaces.
One of the more useful tools has been the breakout room feature in Zoom.
Over the summer, Hasle was enrolled in International Tax taught by Robert Ricketts, department head of accounting and Frank M. Burke Chair in Taxation. After class lectures, Ricketts would give students an "in-class" assignment to complete.
"He'd then send the teams into breakout rooms and just give us an opportunity to talk about the material and work together," said Hasle. "I felt like I mastered the material better that way even though we were online since we were still getting that interaction with our peers."
Abergast was enrolled in another accounting course that also gave students opportunities for peer-to-peer interactions during class time.
"Another thing my professor does well is she dedicates days to group work sessions and utilizes the breakout rooms in Zoom. Students are broken up into groups of three or four, and there are practice questions for the exam. Students can ask questions from fellow peers while working on those practice questions."
Masselli uses breakout rooms in his course not only as a means of giving students time to interact with their peers, but also a means of changing the energy during the class time.
"[Breakout rooms] shift their focus and their energy and how they're paying attention. Then I pop into the rooms and check on the students."
While some instructors opt to use breakout rooms, Irani Williams takes a more direct approach, having dedicated meeting times with groups.
"During simulation days, each team must meet with me once a week to discuss what decisions they've made, what their trajectory is, and how they're going to make their next decision," said Irani Williams.
Some faculty are also finding the importance of having students keep their cameras on.
"I make them all turn on their cameras," said Harper. "Otherwise, I don't know if they're there. If their camera's off, they're not engaged. They're not 'in' class."
Carrying Lessons into a Post-COVID-19 World
While the Coronavirus pandemic continues to impact universities across the globe, there will hopefully be a time when in-class instruction returns in full to Rawls College. There's also hope that the lessons and communication strategies learned during the pandemic can continue being utilized.
Gabby Elliott, a senior supply chain management major, sees the work she's doing now as prep for the workplace.
"Students are learning to work remotely, which is something a lot of us will have to do if we're graduating soon," said Elliott. "Right now, in the workforce, a lot of companies have moved to remote working, so we're getting a chance to develop those transferable skills in school."
For many faculty, there's hope that the lessons and levels of engagement seen during remote classes will continue when in-person classes return to normal numbers.
"I've developed deeper relationships with some of my students," said Irani Williams. "I have at least 6 students right now that I'm having weekly Zoom meetings with. We have conversations that we may not have had if the course was face-to-face. Deep conversations, not just about our class. This is a positive I've seen that I hope continues beyond this [moment]."
Harper has seen himself embrace underused technologies and hopes this will continue going forward.
"I never really used Blackboard much," he said. "It's been a great way to communicate to students in a lot of different ways. I'm able to give students more information that's meaningful and timely. Going forward with face-to-face, I'll utilize Blackboard more than before and really embrace some of the features that I've heard about, but never used."
Harper's also seen his students become more flexible as they navigate these times.
"I have a catchphrase I end class with: You've got to learn to embrace the suck. I'll get emails from students saying, 'My internet quit working, so I embraced the suck and used my phone and its camera. That's why I was gone for a bit and my name seemed different in class.' It's cool the students picked up on that."