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Online Learning – How’s It Treating Us?

So as we begin to wrap up our term online, we can start looking towards the future. That bright, shining future which right now is as clearly visible as a tarnished penny dropped in a glass of chocolate milk.

Basically, now seems like a pretty good time to be looking back on what we’ve been doing. What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?

I reached out to a couple of people for their experience doing online learning this term, and had two trusted and reputable individuals agree to answer a few questions of mine. One, Justin Soll, is a senior Math major, and the other, Jonathan Lafky, is a professor in the Econ department. Both agreed to be named in this post, and neither were compensated for their time, though they do have my eternal gratitude.

While (as I said) I’m extremely grateful to both of them for taking the time to answer, it’s important to note (and I’m sure they would agree) that a sample size of two is pretty small, so most of this information will be anecdotal. Still, it’s an important perspective to have.

The Student Side

Soll’s main takeaway was that “Online learning has been better than I expected it to be… [but] I definitely prefer in person classes over online regardless of what’s going on”. He mentions breakout groups as an unintentional benefit of having class over Zoom, as the ability to actually separate from an otherwise noisy classroom helps him keep on task with his groupmates. The flexibility of asynchronous classes is also a perk; he prefers to ‘attend’ class during its usual timeslot, but can see how others would benefit from the flexible scheduling.

Asynchronous classes also come with some drawbacks — Soll notes that in one of his classes, which meets asynchronously but assigns weekly group work, “After the first meeting one of my partners just never showed up or contributed ever again.” (He continues “Hm… actually when I put it like that it sounds a little concerning”.)

For synchronous classes, he mentions feeling a pressure to look “immaculate” on camera in case someone is checking out his video screen, as well as the distractions that come with the ability to tab out and do something else during lecture. The mental energy it takes not to give into distraction also prevents him from engaging fully in class.

On the tech side, Soll mentions that technological problems have definitely impeded his learning. Most particularly, high internet traffic which happens during the work and school day slows down or even stops his internet for minutes at a time, which results in Zoom actively removing him from the classroom.

As a senior, Soll feels particularly disappointed, since he set up his class schedule in anticipation of a fun senior spring term. All the classes he signed up for were interesting electives where he would be working with friends, and one class in particular (now made asynchronous) indicated that it would be a lot of group work and no lectures. Meanwhile, the mandatory S/CR/NC policy means that while he’s putting in a lot of effort because he’s excited about his classes, he doesn’t feel the same pressure to deliver polished work which might earn a higher grade.

But overall? “From my perspective Carleton has made the best of an awful situation,” says Soll. “As far as the transition to online learning has gone, Carleton has done fantastic. I feel like the CSA is taking a greater lead than the administration in terms of emotional support and stuff to students, but I see that as the system working as intended.”

The Professor’s Side

Lafky’s perspective on the classroom experience related more to how he understands his students, saying that “I’ve found it to be more difficult to gauge student comprehension on the fly… It’s much harder to read those subtle cues on a video call.” This lack of visible feedback would be extra impactful for professors teaching asynchronously, like Lafky, since only in-person office hours would provide the chance to talk to students one on one.

However, he also notes that asynchronous teaching has benefits in addition to its drawbacks: “…Teaching asynchronously has made me think more carefully about the different topics that I cover, how all of the concepts fit together, and how they can be disassembled into short stand-alone lectures. I think this will sharpen the way I think about structuring my classes even when we’re all back in person.”

Technologically, he feels that Carleton’s support for the transition to remote teaching has been “really excellent”, citing the new hardware necessary to teach, the resources to create and edit video lectures, and familiarity with unusual Moodle features that help structure the online course. “ITS and the LTC have provided amazing support on all three fronts, for which I’m very grateful.”

The Results of Online Learning

The general consensus seems to be that online learning is doable — not great, but doable. If this is how we have to proceed next year, we’re better prepared and better practiced, and we know what to expect.

I’d be interested to see a comparison between professors who teach synchronously and who teach asynchronously (and if there are any professors who do both). What are the impacts on one’s schedule, and what risks (technological, environmental, etc.) come about as a result of either practice? It might also be interesting to survey students to see how workloads differ by department and synchronous/asynchronous classes, particularly under the mandatory S/CR/NC policy. (And will such a policy continue, if online learning persists into the future?) Alas, I won’t have time to conduct those investigations myself — much like Justin Soll, I’m a graduating senior this term!

Once again, I want to extend my thanks to Justin Soll and Jonathan Lafky for taking time out of their schedules to answer my questions. This is a busy and stressful period for everyone, and it was immensely kind of them to do so.

And hey. If there’s one thing Carleton’s known for, it’s our strong community and supportive culture. That doesn’t go away just because it’s happening over Zoom these days.

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