OU students are trading in their morning walks down the South Oval and flights of stairs in the Physical Science Center for keyboards, Zoom calls and pre-recorded lectures — all due to OU’s recent transition from in-person to online classes.
The COVID-19 outbreak is forcing professors to find creative ways to engage their students in a non-traditional classroom setting, and students are seeking a sense of normalcy and routine while heeding recommended guidelines concerning social distancing.
“I know that there's nothing I can do about this situation and, to be honest, that's kind of given me peace with it,” said Isha Jhingan, a chemical bioscience senior. “I'm doing the best I can in terms of social distancing ... but this is out of my hands.”
Jhingan is currently taking physical chemistry and a corresponding lab, which is considered to be the hardest chemistry class OU offers, she said. Her professor is using Zoom lectures and Zoom’s breakout room feature to keep class running smoothly.
The breakout room feature allows the host to split students into individual groups. For physical chemistry, this allows Jhingan and her classmates the opportunity to work in smaller groups and discuss the topic at hand so they can get participation points in the larger group, she said.
“With online learning it's been difficult, especially with a class that already has very abstract concepts, to follow along with the professor through a screen rather than in person,” Jhingan said. “I definitely would prefer in-person classes, but at this point it is what it is so I'm just trying to take it as it is.”
Adjusting to Zoom lectures was a difficult task in the first transitional week as OU entered into this non-traditional learning environment, Jhingan said. As time has passed, however, online learning has become easier to manage.
On top of her normal classwork, Jhingan is also a peer learning assistant within OU’s Student Learning Center, the provider of UC Action Tutoring. Despite the transition to online classes, she and other tutors have continued offering their services to students who rely on them to succeed.
Nearly all of the classes that were previously covered by Action Tutoring in person are now being offered virtually, said Jami Houston, director of the Student Learning Center. Services including test prep study nights and study skills consultations, which are one-on-one meetings where students can be advised on proper study habits, are available online.
“I think a lot of the same things that make Action Tutoring helpful are still present,” Houston said. “We still get to connect with other students, whether that's students in their class, or the peer learning assistants who have taken the class and understand the expectations.”
Typically, students are able to work in groups in person with other people in their class, peer learning assistants like Jhingan and in some instances, the professors who teach the classes. All of this has been moved online, but not without speed bumps, Houston said.
“I think we've seen some frustration from students that's a culmination of everything,” Houston said. “It's not just frustration with their course content. It's frustration with technology. It’s frustration with the whole situation.”
For some students, this frustration is coming from not being physically present in a classroom, as this is what kept them focused and connected to their work, Jhingan said.
Health and exercise science sophomore Jessica Collette has experienced both the positive and negative aspects of online learning. Collette utilized Action Tutoring for her physiology and chemistry classes before the transition to online learning, and she said the online format has brought new challenges.
Breakout rooms have made it difficult for some students, peer learning assistants and professors to communicate with one another, Collette said. As questions come up during class, Collette has struggled with getting help as she is constantly switching back and forth between the main Zoom call and her individual breakout room.
Collette and Jhingan have also experienced the challenges of doing lab-based classes online without access to equipment. Formats have differed, as Jhingan is being given hypothetical data to write lab reports while Collette participates in a virtual lab, they said.
Collette is able to attend an online recitation period where she receives additional help from the professor’s teaching assistant, just as she did before classes went online. She said the continuation of this resource has helped her as she writes lab reports.
“On Zoom, our TAs will talk about all of the data we analyzed so we won’t be confused as we do the lab report later on,” Collette said. “Having these office hours is great, I just miss being able to ask questions immediately in class.”
Through all of the chaos, women’s and gender studies professor Rodney Bates discovered several ways to accommodate his students through the online version of his class.
Bates’ intro to women’s and gender studies class is highly participation based and, in-person, requires students to lead the class each day in a discussion with a presentation that further analyzes their readings. Bates said this seemingly difficult transition has been made almost seamlessly as students have been given unique options to get their participation points.
“Our class environment was engaging pre-coronavirus, and I believe this shouldn't change post-coronavirus,” Bates said.
Through social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, Bates is allowing students to create content related to the topics they discuss over Zoom and post them to Canvas for credit. He said he is finding this content creation to be very educational.
“As someone who frequently gets on social media, I'm always thinking about ways to engage students,” Bates said. “I am allowing them to use this method as a way to interact and participate, because I realize it can be daunting to host a discussion with 30 people staring at you through a camera.”
Ultimately, Bates has put the emphasis on his students and the ways they want to be taught. He said he realizes students didn’t sign up for online classes, which is something he wants to acknowledge while also maintaining a normal class setting.
“What is important to me is allowing my students to be co-creators of knowledge,” Bates said. “This means that, if they're going to participate in knowledge, they should have a say in how they get to tell that knowledge or how the class should go on through this transition.”
Even when professors are accommodating and understanding, working from home can be a new experience with unavoidable challenges, Jhingan said. As we continue to work through these unique circumstances, there are a variety of lessons we can all take into account.
Houston recommends finding a routine — whether it looks different from a normal day on campus or similar. She also recommends making short to-do lists and creating a warm, inviting space to work in while off campus.
“When we don't accomplish everything that we set out to for the day, (it) can be really frustrating,” Houston said. “Doing something short ... where we can actually achieve our goals but also make progress is really helpful.”
Establishing a routine has been crucial to students experiencing academic success amid online classwork and the overall stress of the current situation. Jhingan said she reserves a block of her day to relax, eat and step away from schoolwork at a certain time to maintain what her mind and body has been accustomed to.
“I have a desk area that I'm now going to whenever I need to go to school ... and Zoom,” Jhingan said. “I've really tried to keep up with the routine I would have if I was going to school.”
Time-management skills are important, Bates said, but caring for mental health and decreasing self-imposed pressure is key as well. Everyone simply needs to give themselves some time to adjust.
“The situation we find ourselves in is not the fault of students or professors — so don’t take it hard or personal,” Bates said. “It’s not always easy, but we have to accept that this is going to be different and work through it together.”