Nearly one year since OU first shifted in-person classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online professors said they hope the “emergency online instruction” has not negatively impacted people’s view of properly planned online education.
For the past two semesters, OU has been implementing a hybrid academic model, requiring classes with over 40 students to be delivered fully online. For in-person classes, students in quarantine have the option to attend a live Zoom streaming from the in-person classroom without any attendance penalty.
Laura Gibbs, an OU professor at the College of Arts and Sciences who teaches exclusively online, said instructors have faced unique challenges in this hybrid teaching model.
“OU is encouraging faculty to try to duplicate their classroom approach online by using Zoom,” Gibbs said. “And in some cases, OU is also expecting faculty to be able to manage students online (via Zoom) and in the classroom at the same time. ... That is the most difficult possible scenario to manage, especially for faculty who are doing this for the first time.”
The shift to online classes during the pandemic — adopted not just by OU but also universities across the U.S. — started an ongoing, national debate about the merit of “online education.” Murat Turk, a teaching and research assistant at OU Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education, said the online classes OU students and faculty have been experiencing the past year overlook what online education really is.
“I need to make one thing clear,” Turk said. “When the pandemic broke out, and higher education institutions with millions of students moved their teaching and learning online, they started doing ‘emergency remote instruction’, not online learning or online education.”
Turk said online education is supposed to be intentionally planned and designed for an online learning environment, whereas emergency remote instruction simply aims to use whatever resources available to continue education under extraordinary circumstances, such as a global pandemic or a natural disaster.
Gibbs, who has been teaching online courses for 19 years at OU, also thinks the “online classes” OU students and faculty have been experiencing this past year is not representative of an online education well-done.
“I don’t want Zoom to become a synonym for online classes,” Gibbs said. “And unfortunately, when people are speaking about problems with online classes right now, I think what they mean are problems with Zoom.”
Gibbs said psychologists have been documenting a worldwide phenomenon called “Zoom fatigue” which is described as the feeling of being drained after being exposed extensively to micro-delays in Zoom audio, low-resolution visual and poorly lit portraits of Zoom participants.
While Zoom classes are fine in small doses, Gibbs said faculty might not realize just how much "Zoom fatigue" their students are experiencing after spending many hours in front of their computers attending Zoom classes.
Most importantly, Gibbs said OU has not done a good job at soliciting student and faculty feedback that are pivotal in figuring out what does and does not work with online classes the past year.
“When I asked in spring 2020 if the course evaluations would be revised to solicit specific feedback and suggestions from students about how to do a better job with online courses, I was told that under no circumstances would the course evaluation be changed to include that question,” Gibbs said.
“Here we are in our third pandemic semester, and the OU administration is still not gathering any information from OU’s students or faculty about the good and the bad of this pandemic online learning effort,” Gibbs said.
OU’s director of media relations, Kesha Keith, wrote in an email to The Daily faculty have used differing approaches to transition their classes online, and therefore could assess student experiences using personalized surveys separate from the official course evaluations.
Last semester, Keith said OU assessed whether students preferred in-person or online classes for spring 2020. The assessment — which was responded to by 2,703 students of OU’s total 27,782 in fall 2020 — found that 60 percent of students who responded to the survey indicated they preferred all or mostly in-person classes.
This semester, half of OU’s courses were offered in-person, 35 percent were online and 15 percent were blended. Of all student enrollments, 25 percent were for in-person classes, 23 percent for blended and 52 percent for online classes, according to the survey results.
“The recommendation to add questions inquiring about online courses was not reflected on course evaluations as this had already been assessed (in the fall 2020 survey),” Keith wrote.
Keith said instructors can add supplemental questions, and students can still include feedback on online courses in most course evaluations if they choose to. OU is developing a new tool to assess student experiences in the classroom and is pilot-testing this tool in 16 departments this semester.
“The tool was intentionally developed to collect information regarding student experiences in courses that cover all modalities,” Keith wrote.
The shift to online classes over the past year has surfaced varying opinions from students.
For Fanni Váradi, an industrial and systems engineering junior, the shift to online classes moved her campus from South Oval buildings to her living room. Her typical lecture halls, normally filled with hundreds of students, are now downsized to a table for two — her homemade classroom where she and her boyfriend log into different Zoom classes next to each other.
“I actually liked online classes more than in-person lectures”, said Váradi. “I found it more convenient to study online, because I don’t have to spend time going to campus. I’m also able to get some studying done between classes, or rest a little, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I had to walk from class to class all day.”
Even though Váradi’s overall experience has been positive, she said online classes also pose newfound challenges. She struggles with connectivity issues — her slow WiFi at her apartment sometimes cutting off her Zoom lectures. She said she misses lab works and group projects, and she struggles with the lack of interaction with other students.
Brenda Rodarte, a psychology sophomore and teaching assistant, said she found the shift in interaction dynamics between students to be a prominent challenge. Rodarte said her office hours where she’d normally meet with her students face-to-face are now without many meaningful interactions.
“Oftentimes, it was just the TAs putting into their group chats ‘Hey, this (assignment) is due this time,’” Rodarte said. “It was less like interacting and more like different reminders.”
However, Rodarte said she enjoys the flexibility that online classes bring, especially in asynchronous classes where real-time attendance is not required.
“Because of what’s happening with the financial circumstances (that the pandemic has caused), a lot of people have to take up new jobs or a different schedule,” Rodarte said. “And it kind of gives flexibility if the classes are asynchronous instead of synchronous.”
Gibbs proposed OU administration should be more open to let faculty teach fully online and asynchronous courses. She said she thinks asynchronous classes are more effective for professors who need to oversee a lot of student interactions.
Gibbs also said asynchronous classes open more opportunities for instructors to explore online learning platforms. While Canvas is the most commonly used online learning platform at OU, she recommends instructors to explore other tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Docs, Hypothesis and Padlet.
“I personally prefer to use a blog network so that every student has their own blog, and then students interact with each other in their own blog spaces,” Gibbs said.
Kara Brightwell, an international studies graduate student at OU, said synchronous Zoom classes could also be enjoyable.
“My favorite online class really made the effort to include casual conversation by including ice-breaker questions at the start of every class,” Brightwell said. “So, we still felt like we were interacting.”
Brightwell said that the ice-breaker questions could both be content related or not.
“One time, the question was ‘Would you rather fight one human-sized cockroach or 1,000 cockroach-sized humans?’” said Brightwell. “Another class we were discussing trafficking, and the question was ‘Have you ever bought counterfeit goods? … The questions could be anything, but they all prompted conversations.
Gibbs said that students are the ones who can best tell instructors what is working and what is not.
“Faculty, you need to make it easy for students to give you feedback, including anonymous feedback, all semester long, not just at the end of the semester” Gibbs said.
For instance, Gibbs said she set up an anonymous Google Form embedded in Canvas called “Suggestion Box.”
Turk, who has been documenting his online students’ feedback, said in an online course, students commonly expect a clearly organized course structure, flexibility and open and frequent communication.
“They find (clear organization) very important in online learning because they need to self-regulate and monitor their own learning process since they do not have immediate instructor or peer support,” Turk said.
Turk also said courses should accommodate students’ special needs and circumstances.
“Especially during the current pandemic, most of my online students have had to deal with various responsibilities and commitments in their lives, including part-time employment, taking care of family members and testing positive (for COVID-19),” Turk said.
Most importantly, Turk said instructors should humanize their online learning environments.
“Openly and frequently communicate with your online students who might feel afraid or hesitant to reach out to you and ask you something about the course,” Turk said.