Jerius Smith is a computer science major mostly taking math and science classes. He was already commuting to classes at Georgia Institute of Technology when COVID-19 sent everyone home in spring 2020, so he thought the shift to remote learning wouldn’t be particularly disruptive.
But even though there’s a perception that computer science lends itself to online learning and he didn’t have to pack up a dorm, the COVID-19 pandemic still had a big impact on the end of Smith’s sophomore year.
At first, Smith and his mom and sister settled into a routine. The television stayed off until after noon, and everyone spent the mornings getting their work done, including online lectures and meetings. He used the kitchen table.
After a few weeks, however, Smith’s dad also began working from home. “That’s when it got a little bit crowded,” says Smith. “We were both working at the kitchen table, so I had to move around and adapt.”
Smith’s family made the best of their new remote work and learning situation. But if being quarantined at home was a challenge to productivity, being separated from classmates and professors was even harder.
Coordinating group projects remotely
Quarantine had the biggest impact on a two-semester-long group project in Smith’s design class. He and his classmates were designing a software application for a client in New York. The client was remote, but his peers had been working face to face until then. When campus shut down, the lecture portion of the class had mostly wrapped up, and Smith and his group were putting the finishing touches on their project.
“When it comes to transitioning from on campus to online for group projects, people are going all across the country,” says Smith. “And just by being at home a lot of people’s schedules are totally off.”
Coordinating with the group for meetings and working sessions became a challenge, and the team dynamic of working in a group changed once they couldn’t meet in person anymore. In the end, Smith’s team did manage to coordinate their schedules for meetings and working sessions to get their project turned in in time.
Missing out on critical discussion
Even in lecture-based classes, not meeting in person changed the experience. Students are able to ask questions during lectures, which is beneficial both to other students in the class, and to the professor, who may not realize students are missing an important concept.
But in a video conference with 300 other people, those questions didn’t get asked organically. “I don’t think people are as comfortable asking questions in that large setting online,” says Smith.
One of his professors decided to record lectures ahead of time for students to watch, then used regular class time as a Q&A session and discussion about the material. In other classes, professors tried to collect questions in the comment tool of the videoconferencing software and respond to them in batches.
In both cases, Smith felt students lost the ability to shape the lecture and discussion with their questions.
Experimenting with the format
Smith’s professors tried several responses to teaching remotely during the COVID-19 crisis.
For example, in his math classes, professors who are used to writing formulas on a whiteboard while they lecture struggled to find a way to do that online. In one case, the professor set up a camera pointing downward to a pad of paper where they wrote the formula.
The mode could have worked, Smith says, “But the quality wasn’t great. In the future I hope universities would have the capabilities to give resources like an iPad to professors who teach that way.”
Many of Smith’s classes relied heavily on teacher’s aides (TAs), who helped the transition to remote learning go more smoothly. In one class, a TA set up a collaborative workspace on Microsoft Teams where students could ask questions. Other TAs set up open office hours through video conferencing software, where students could drop in to ask questions.
“I was blessed with the type of classes I was taking,” says Smith. “It was helpful to keep that access to our TAs.”
Missing the social aspect
In a way, Smith worries that future online experiences will be less successful because they’ll lack what spring 2020 had — an initial two months of face-to-face meetings to form connections with professors, TAs, and peers. The study groups and friendships formed in January and February helped make the emergency transition to remote learning successful in March.
“Starting off online from the beginning will be different,” Smith says. While the design of a course may be better with more time to prepare, he worries it will be more difficult to form those bonds virtually.
“Whether I’m in class, studying around campus, or transitioning from one place to the next, it all has some type of social aspect along with it,” says Smith. “You can meet someone new, or establish a long-time friendship. I don’t think online is a medium where that can really happen.”
Resources for faculty