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Instructors at CSULB discuss pros and cons of virtual learning

Faculty at Long Beach State have expressed mixed feelings toward a virtual fall semester, with some professors finding upsides to teaching via Zoom and others longing for things to return to the way they were.

Andrew Jenks, an associate history professor at CSULB, recalls his walks “visiting the Japanese gardens, looking at the Pyramid.”

“I miss random encounters with colleagues and students in hallways that lead to really interesting conversations,” Jenks said. “I miss popping into colleagues’ rooms to discuss teaching, research or writing issues. I miss clearing my head by walking across campus in between classes.”

Jenks, along with many professors on campus, had to adapt to teaching from their homes when the coronavirus pandemic caused the university to transition to mainly virtual instruction in March.

Although Jenks feels that “spring was chaotic given the abrupt transition,” he had some time off during the summer that helped to prepare for a fall semester on Zoom.

He does feel, however, that online instruction has its faults, particularly a lack of adequate communication. Jenks feels that “communication happens with exchanged words” as well as “body language and the dynamics of group interaction,” and that this is being lost through virtual instruction.

“It is impossible to reproduce the experience of connection with other people that occurs in a classroom,” he said. “As an instructor, I can read moments of silence in a real room and use the moments to direct conversations and see which students may have something to say but are reluctant or are formulating ideas but are afraid to speak.”

He said it is “much more difficult to read moments of silence” via Zoom, especially when students have their cameras turned off.

As students tend to keep their cameras and microphones turned off, many professors, including Jenks, have faced difficulty with keeping their focus during class.

“We are coping and doing the best we can, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that we have somehow been forced into a way of teaching that represents the future of learning,” he said.

Some professors, however, have seen advantages to virtual learning and have even grown to like this method of teaching.

David Toyoshima, a graphic design lecturer at CSULB, said that although “physical, in-person meetings are preferred,” an upside to teaching on Zoom is that he is able to have more face-to-face time with his students, including having more availability with his office hours.

“Just last night, a student wanted one-on-one feedback at 8 p.m., long past our usual class time,” he said. “The other day, a student simply wanted to talk about school, family, his career goals, what he wanted to do after college and tell me he was ordering a burrito for dinner. He needed someone to talk to.”

Yevgeniya Mikhailik, a lecturer of illustration and animation, said she had difficulty with efficiency during live meetings and found that recording her lectures ahead of time to post online has been helpful for her students.

“I decided to record brief videos with an overhead shot of me flipping through the books and talking about specific images,” she said. “That way they can pause the video at any point and study the images, which is a substitute for them going through my books on their own during class time.”

Mikhailik said she also has her students using Slack, a platform primarily used for business communication, as a “great tool” for them to stay organized.

“They absolutely love it,” she said.

Yulong Ma, a professor of finance, said he feels that instructors are struggling to adapt to online tools that they didn’t have to use in previous semesters.

“The ongoing challenge is to make sure everything works as it is supposed to during the Zoom meeting,” he said.

Although external factors at home have raised some complications with virtual learning, Ma said he feels they can be managed.

He said that Zoom lectures increase flexibility and availability for students who struggle with online learning, and he posts his materials online “so that students have access to them at any time and as many times as they want.”

“Flexibility may also help enhance student learning in the sense that students can choose the time to study the lecture and class materials when they feel like it, which should help improve their learning experience and effectiveness,” Ma said.

Despite the difficulties with transitioning to teaching on Zoom, Ma said that he feels the advantages of online instruction outweigh the struggles.

“I believe the perceptions, expectations and attitudes toward online teaching and learning are very important for an online class to be successful,” he said. “I also believe the pandemic will help bring ‘a paradigm shift’ of online instruction in higher education.”

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