Writer Uses Interviews with Students, Professors, to Discover Sustainability of Online Learning

photo courtesy nytimes.com

By Alison Waller || Contributing Writer

In many town halls, F&M promised students that those who would be learning remotely would not miss out on the true F&M experience. After the first week of Module 1, I wanted to check in with both a student and a professor to hear their initial thoughts about online learning, and if they believe it’s a sustainable model for the college to continue using as a means of thoroughly engaging their students at a safe distance. 

First, I interviewed Norah Clifford, a member of the class of 2023. Norah is taking her first semester of classes remotely from home. As someone who was a freshman at F&M months before the American outbreak of COVID-19, I wanted to know how she feels about the juxtaposition of learning in-person to learning online. 

I asked Norah to highlight the best parts of online learning. After a rather tense pause to collect her thoughts, she began by saying that she enjoys the content in her Module 1 classes and that she is, “really glad that F&M is providing some kind of hybrid for us at home and that we get to interact with people in the classroom.”

Next, a seemingly much simpler question, I asked Norah to let me in on the parts of remote learning that she was not fond of. She led by stating, “Even though I do interact with people at F&M, I feel incredibly separated from the community as a whole both in the classroom, with extracurriculars, or just with friends who are either also online or on campus. So I just feel really disjointed from everything.” 

Judging by how isolated Norah felt from the rest of her classmates, I questioned how engaged she feels during classes. She claimed that she finds it extremely difficult to be an active participant in class because she already was a relatively reserved student. She believes that taking classes on Zoom exacerbates her tendency to remain quiet during class and makes it much harder for her to contribute to class discussions. But, on a more positive note, she said, “I appreciate that teachers are also providing other ways to stay engaged, like having discussion boards and breakout rooms. I think those are good ways to kind of compensate for that.” 

In terms of her full F&M experience, Norah feels that she is not experiencing everything that she was her freshman year. She said, “I’m not getting that one on one time with professors that I used to have, and I’m not getting real engagement with other students. And it’s a completely different environment. When I’m at school, I feel more engaged; I feel like my brain is really in it. And then at home, it’s just so hard to kind of switch from my at-home persona to my ‘oh no I have to be a student again’ persona.” 

My final question for Norah was whether or not she believes online learning is sustainable as a valid mode of education for the entire year if need be. She informed me that as of right now, she does feel like she is learning a lot and retaining all of the material necessary to succeed in her classes. However, she believes that as the year progresses, it will start to be even harder to manage. “I really don’t want to be online all year, but I do think that if I had to be, and I worked hard at it, that yes, it could be sustainable. I think if both the professors and the students really worked at that connection, then it could be.” 

After speaking with Norah, it felt clear to me that she did not like the antisocial aspect of being online, both in terms of meager classroom participation and actual dislocation from the F&M campus. But she still feels confident that she’ll maintain good grades and be a successful student at F&M. 

The next person I interviewed was Ana Anderson, a professor of Spanish at F&M. She is currently teaching a hybrid class, which has some students attending in person and some students online.

I began with the same question I asked Norah: What does she like the most about teaching a class online? Professor Anderson answered, “One of the things that I really like is that students can take their time and use other resources. For example, if they need to look up a word, they can have the dictionary tab right there. I think that that helps.” Like Norah, she also stated that with technology, there are so many avenues for participation. So if a student is shy, they do not have to rely on in-person discussions to engage with the class. 

I then asked Professor Anderson about the most difficult parts of teaching a class online. She responded, “My least favorite part is that I have a hard time reading my students online. Especially in a second language, I rely so much on nonverbal cues to understand what my students are saying to see if they understand me. I feel like that’s just so much harder to navigate online. Also, when you get those in-person interactions going, you start to develop these inside jokes. I feel like I’m just losing so much of the context about who my students are as people when all I get is a rectangle of their face.”

Since Professor Anderson spoke about feeling disconnected from her students online, I asked her to elaborate on the differences between the bonds she has created with her students online and those who attend class in person. She feels that she already knows her in-person students better than her online students. “I think we take for granted just how naturally we start to build those connections from day one in person.” She also discussed how students online lean towards being quiet, only speaking up when necessary, while the students in the classroom feel a little more at ease to speak freely. To counteract that imbalance, Professor Anderson is arranging one on one meetings with all of her students to create a stronger bond with them and touch base. 

I concluded my interview with Professor Anderson by posing the same final question I did with Norah, which was to get their opinion about the longevity of online learning and if she thinks students will receive a strong enough education through this platform. Professor Anderson replied saying that online learning will probably be the most successful and effective method through the module system as it eliminates other stresses. It allows teachers to focus on their class. But, the faculty did have an entire summer to prepare for Module 1, while they have considerably less time to prepare for Module 2. She believes that Module 2 will be the telltale sign of whether online learning is a sustainable model of education. 

My biggest takeaway following my interview with Professor Anderson was that she felt roughly the same way that Norah did. Professor Anderson dislikes how distant she feels from her online students and craves to get to know them more, but she believes that there are ways to mold the classroom so that every student can be successful, whether they are online, in person, shy, or extraverted. It will be interesting to see how people continue to feel about their online classes as we proceed this school year. 

First Year Alison Waller is a contributing writer. Her email is awaller1@fandm.edu

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