Kennedie Weems was supposed to experience all of her firsts at the University of Georgia this semester. As a junior transfer journalism student from Douglas, Weems saw this semester as a chance to meet new people in class and step out of her comfort zone.
“With my four classes … two of them we do have Zooms and there’s probably upwards of 400 people combined and I couldn’t tell you any of their names,” Weems said.
UGA students like Weems say they are facing challenges with online learning amid the coronavirus, including limited socialization, higher electricity bills and trouble understanding concepts taught in class.
UGA began its fall 2020 semester in-person with social distancing requirements and mandatory face masks on campus. Professors also teach classes that balance face-to-face meetings with online instruction or complete virtual learning. Since the start of the pandemic, UGA has reported 3,739 positive cases of the coronavirus through its DawgCheck service, according to data from The Red & Black.
Losing connections, motivation
Weems has had all four of her classes move online.
“That is honestly so unfair to students on so many levels. I know that me and everyone else paid for full in-person tuition and now you’re never going to class,” Weems said.
While forms of communication are still available through virtual learning, Weems said it’s difficult to connect with people in a virtual class of more than 100 students.
“Going to class was one of the only places that I really met people, so you definitely give up that aspect of meeting people in class and connecting with people,” Weems said.
Weems, who has social anxiety, is concerned for other students who struggle with mental illness and relied on going to class to make friends. By removing the motivation for these students to leave their beds, Weems said, she fears it will lessen the desire for them to want to get up at all.
Elkanah Taye, a junior electrical engineering student from Douglasville, said that he preferred in-person learning as opposed to online classes, but only if the classes are in a completely safe environment.
“Honestly it depends. If the corona[virus] is going on still, I prefer if it were more online but if corona[virus] is done with, I definitely want to go back because the workload is 10 times more compared to what it was in person,” Taye said.
Taye said the handling of the coronavirus comes down to both the university’s administration and its students. He said that while UGA has made some efforts to keep students safe, it is also up to the students to gain perspective for the situation, some of whom he said “don’t really care” about the COVID-19 safety efforts.
The financial burden of online learning was not lost on Taye. He downloaded a variety of extra software, including a virtual engineering lab app, that was required for one of his classes this semester to accommodate virtual learning.
Taye said he’s also faced added living costs due to being at home more.
“Since I am living in an apartment now, I have to pay electric bills. [My roommates and I] just got an electric bill yesterday that was twice as high as usual,” Taye said. “I realized we are spending almost every day in our rooms … using our screens and all of our lights so that’s consuming even more electricity so that’s even more of a financial burden.”
Lost in translation
Danielle Downes, a senior entertainment and media studies student from Tarpon Springs, Florida, believes that while she has kept up with her online assignments, the absence of in-person lectures leaves students missing key information.
Downes said the context of written material given during in-person lectures is lost when simply reading through PowerPoints.
“A large majority of my professors have simply been uploading PowerPoints, telling us to read these pages. Even going to class… a lot of professors read what’s on the board but sometimes they say things that aren’t on the board that are important or you pick up on [while they are talking] and it clicks.”
Online classes reduce the frequency of communication between students and professors, Downes said. Downes said it’s been a challenge to ask professors direct questions as they go over the material.
“If I am reading material or reading through the PowerPoints, I am confused in that moment and I kind of need help then if you were in class listening to that same PowerPoint that you are now doing at home, you could talk to that professor after class,” Downes said. “Now, if I have an issue, I need to email them and hope I get [a response] relatively quickly and if I don’t get a response, I’m not going to sit for two days on this same topic.”
Despite the multitude of voices against online learning, James Castle, assistant director for instructional design in the Office of Online Learning, contends that online classes are a practical means for students to engage and interact with the material as they would expect in face-to-face instruction.
“When our office works with faculty to put together an online class, we try to include as much active learning as is practicable for the class,” Castle said. “This approach to designing an online class is foundational to developing a beneficial online class."
Castle said he understands that students are in full control of their education. When designing an online course, he said it is crucial to create modules that are easily accessible for students.
The modules also has to contain a “clarity of expectations” for students to adopt a sense of responsibility and avoid losing track of their assignments, which could cause them to perform poorly in a class, Castle said.
UGA announced last week that it will extend the hybrid and in-person class format into the spring 2021 semester. It will also require the continued use of face coverings inside campus buildings and social distancing measures will remain in place, based on announcements made from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While disappointed by the news, Weems hopes that the university uses this semester as a model and develops strategies to encourage more social interaction among the class.
“I would like to see all professors requiring Zoom calls. It is so incredibly easy to fall behind when there is no required Zoom call and no deadlines to watch lectures. Then it’s test day and [someone] is four sections behind,” Weems said.