Two months into UF’s mostly online Fall semester, students and faculty alike are still struggling with the new virtual classroom environment.
UF professors and students agree that it takes patience on both sides of the screen. With 65% of UF’s classes being held online this Fall, students and professors are scrambling to set schedules, struggling to maintain productivity and trying to cope with minimal social interaction.
The announcement of UF’s mostly online Fall semester left Hannah Thomas, a 19-year-old UF animal sciences sophomore, nervous about her productivity and concerned for the lack of collaboration in her courses.
All but one of Thomas’s classes are asynchronous, meaning they do not have any live meetings. She decided to return to Gainesville for the semester knowing she would need to mimic a regular class schedule to be productive.
Thomas wakes up around 8 a.m. to go to the Reitz Union almost every day of the week, she said. She rents a room on the second floor, with a big window overlooking Green Pond and stays for about seven hours doing assignments and studying. If she is alone in her apartment everyday, she can’t be productive, so sometimes a friend will join her at the Reitz, she said.
“I still have a lot of fear and doubt, but I think I'm hopeful,” Thomas said. “As I've been seeing this semester progress, I'm like ‘OK, this can be a reality.’”
As classes progress, having less engagement with her teachers and classmates is a struggle because she is so social, she said.
“It’s mental health stuff, trying to navigate what life will look like now, in a way that's safe for our community and for yourself,” Thomas said. “And it's hard. It's a learning curve for us all.”
Successful learning outcomes depend on proper preparation, said Albert Ritzhaupt, a UF associate professor of educational technology and computer science education.
“Quality instruction, quality learning experiences, it doesn't matter what format you use,” Ritzhaupt said. “It requires a significant amount of training and preparation and planning.”
Students can learn and do well with online learning, but it is important to note that what happened in March wasn’t really online learning because of how sudden the change was, he said.
Online curriculum typically goes through an extensive vetting process before being put in front of students, he said. It has specific procedures and is processed multiple times for quality assurance. This is why he said UF’s move to hold all classes mid-March following confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alachua County is not considered typical online learning.
Professors may not have it all figured out, but they’re learning from their mistakes and making improvements, Ritzhaupt said.
“I guarantee next year, they're going to do a hell of a lot better, you know,” Ritzhaupt said. “But, again, that's because it takes practice.”
Ritzhaupt has taught primarily online classes for 15 years and said he has gone through the necessary trial and error of creating a well-rounded learning environment through a screen. Despite the time and effort he has dedicated, Ritzhaupt is concerned about the general lack of student collaboration, he said.
“I don't know that we are doing a good enough job making sure that the students are engaged with each other, right now,” he said.
The flexible schedule brought by asynchronous classes was a difficult adjustment for Sterling Shipp, a 19-year-old UF health education and behavior sophomore. It’s hard to do everything yourself, like deciding when to watch a lecture or do an assignment, he said.
Before going to bed, Shipp writes out the next day’s assignments on a white board, in order of importance. When he wakes up around 9:30 a.m. the next day, he has breakfast, typically coffee and a croissant sandwich, and starts checking items off the list.
Since Shipp was able to create a routine for himself, he has been able to maintain all A’s with the exception of one high B, he said.
For his biology lab, Shipp will have to dissect a worm in his Fletcher Hall dorm room. He was expecting a virtual lab because he said they are easier, but is nonetheless looking forward to the dissection. He thinks it is crazy that an actual dissection can be done in his room.
“I knew it would be harder,” Shipp said. “But I’m willing to put in the work and do what I have to do because there’s really no point in complaining if you can’t change anything.”
This semester, online proctoring sites like ProctorU and HonorLock, which require webcams and microphones to monitor students while they test, are being relied on more than ever because of less in-person testing.
These proctoring sites aren’t appealing to Corinne Huggins-Manley, an associate professor of research and evaluation methodology at UF.
Instead, she shares stories of times she has caught students cheating in the hopes of encouraging them to be fair and honest during her classes.
Huggins-Manley learns how students write by using open-ended questions on assignments. This makes it easier to tell when things are copied and pasted because they don’t have the student’s voice, she said.
“Ever since I started doing those spiels and appealing to them weekly to remind them of honor codes and fairness, I've seen a lot less of it in my class so I'm very happy with that,” Huggins-Manley said.
Online learning was not the plan for Anna Toth, a UF associate chemistry professor.
She spent the Summer converting her freshman chemistry courses to an asynchronous schedule, meaning she never sees her students outside of Zoom office hours, she said. She is pleasantly surprised at how often students come to her for help with the course material.
“The most important message out of it, for anybody is that we need to be prepared as well as possible for these kinds of circumstances,” Toth said.