It’s official. Georgetown University will be conducting virtual classes until the end of spring semester. Georgetown has joined universities like Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Washington in attempting to limit dense social encounters that may spread COVID-19, otherwise known as the coronavirus (Baker et al., 2020). As the school transitions from in-person to virtual learning, students and teachers alike may have concerns over the use of online learning tools in the classroom. In a recent New York Times article, students at other schools have described the use of virtual classrooms as “improvisational and primitive,” (Baker et al., 2020). Proper planning from both professors and students, however, may ease the transition.
Make Course Materials Online Friendly
Instructor quality can make or break an online course. As a result, teachers should take the time to understand online learning tools as much as possible (Al-Fraihat et al., 2020). For systems like Zoom, this may be as simple as logging in and playing around with features like screenshare, to make sure classes can run as smoothly as possible. Teachers preparing to make the switch to online classes should also consider their lesson plans and determine what may or may not be easily converted to an online format (Fetters & McLaughlin, 2020). Partner work and hands-on projects may not work well online, but teachers should also be careful not to sacrifice activities for a simple lecture format that might reduce engagement (Fetters & McLaughlin, 2020).
Familiarize yourself with Online Learning Tools and their Challenges
Students should also familiarize themselves with tools like Zoom. Al-Fraihat et al. (2020) note, “students’ experience and familiarity with the system, and ability to use the system and perform tasks (self-efficacy), can stimulate their positive attitudes toward the e-learning system.” Learning to contribute to an online session may require an adjustment period. Facial expressions and eye contact can be more difficult to read over video (Macdonald & Creanor, 2010, p.60), so make sure you address classmates by name during a discussion. Students should also periodically let others know that they are present and listening during a discussion, as silences can be misinterpreted online (Macdonald & Creanor, 2010, p.60).
Stay Focused on the Task at Hand
I worked from home for two years before starting graduate school, and while it takes some getting used to, remote work can be effective. Many blogs about working from home will tell you to make a space for yourself that is dedicated to working, so your entire apartment doesn’t begin to feel like your office. That may not be possible for students, especially if you have roommates who need to be able to use common areas while you are in class. Personally, keeping myself focused was much more important than anything else, especially when I first transitioned to remote work. It can be very tempting to mute your microphone and camera and try to listen while folding that last load of laundry, or work on other homework, but you do yourself a disservice by not focusing on class. Online-only communication requires more effort to be present, but that presence can lead to a more fulfilling discussion than what you might get during a seminar.
Take Time to Communicate with Others
The form of social distancing necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 poses a unique challenge to students; any effort to combat the feelings of loneliness and social isolation that stem from working from home must also be done remotely. Researchers Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo (2010) note, “[loneliness] is characterized by impairments in attention, cognition, affect, and behavior that take a toll on morbidity and mortality,” (p.224). The effect loneliness has on our emotional well-being should not be underestimated, and students and professors alike should make a conscious effort to connect with others while stuck at home.
Luckily there are a wide variety of digital communications tools at our disposal that make connecting from a distance simple. Slack, an online chat platform for offices, can help you keep in touch with your co-workers and classmates. Discord functions the same way, but is more often used to talk about different subcultures (check out About Me’s episode on discord here). Writer Olivia Judson swears by online co-working groups, where individuals join a Zoom call and work together, virtually (2020). Schedule fifteen minutes to call or FaceTime a different person each day. Combatting feelings of loneliness can be tough, particularly in times of stress, but prioritizing connection is an important first step. The key is to make sure fostering social connection doesn’t fall by the wayside when it’s not as simple as stopping by the student center or grabbing a cup of coffee with a coworker.
Stuck at home with a partner or a roommate? Be honest about your needs. Make sure you know each other’s schedule to avoid unnecessary disruptions during class or meetings. Check in with the other person before starting a video game download that slows the internet to a crawl for two hours. Try to avoid hitting the snooze button for an hour before waking up each morning. Most importantly, be kind; being stuck at home is stressful, but eventually, it will end.
As classes resume, professors and students should start familiarizing themselves with tools like Zoom now, to keep technical issues from wasting class time. Log into Zoom early every time. You’d be surprised how often laptop microphones randomly don’t work. Lessons should be adapted with the limitations of online classes in mind, and students should think about the types of non-verbal cues they use to make their opinions known. Tools like the Zoom Hand Raise button, which displays a virtual hand next to a participant’s name, may ease the transition. Once classes resume, students should avoid the temptation of working on other projects or doing household chores during class, particularly lectures. Combat feelings of loneliness by prioritizing communication, even if it means literally scheduling it. The prospect of social distancing seems daunting, but with a little preparation, we’ll get through it.
Al-Fraihat, D., Joy, M., Sinclair, J., & Masa’deh, R. (2020). Evaluating E-learning systems success: An empirical study. Computers in Human Behavior, 102, 67–86. https://doi-org.proxy.library.georgetown.edu/10.1016/j.chb.2019.08.004
Baker, M., Hartocollis, A., & Wise, K. (2020, March). First U.S. Colleges Close Classrooms as Virus Spreads. More Could Follow. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/06/us/coronavirus-college-campus-closings.html
Fetters, A., & McLaughlin, T. (2020, March). If Coronavirus Closes U.S. Schools, What to Expect. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2020/03/what-will-happen-if-us-schools-close-coronavirus/607621/
Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. The Society of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 218–227.
Judson, O. (2020, March). Working at Home? Self-Isolation Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/16/opinion/coronavirus-self-isolation.html
Macdonald, J., & Creanor, L. (2010). Learning with Online and Mobile Technologies: A Student Survival Guide. Gower Publishing Company. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com