One year into pandemic learning, professors tired of mixed format

An+in-person+class+session+in+the+Paramount+Center.

Photo: Zhuoli Zhang

An in-person class session in the Paramount Center.

By Frankie Rowley and Alec Klusza

A year into pandemic, professors—forced to straddle the two modalities of hybrid learning—say the new form has proven onerous, while others have learned to work around its constraints. 

Last March, after all classes moved online and campus shuttered, administrators and faculty raced to improvise a makeshift online learning experience for the remainder of the spring semester. For the following two semesters, as hybrid learning became the status quo, some professors repeatedly faced the same roadblocks: student disengagement, safety concerns, and technology shortcomings. 

Despite some students and faculty saying they are dissatisfied with Emerson’s hybrid learning model, the college has seen an increase in the cumulative grade point average reported by students since the onset of the pandemic. For the spring and fall 2020 semesters, both graduates and undergraduates earned slightly higher GPAs than they did in 2019, according to Assistant Vice President of Institutional Research Michael Duggan. In fall 2020, the cumulative undergraduate GPA was 3.58, .3 percent higher than fall 2019. 

This trend is unsurprising, according to Jim Stephens, a design and technology coach for Mapleton Public Schools in Denver, Colorado, who said the pandemic has affected the “emotional side” of learning more than the academic side.

“There actually hasn’t been a really significant shift or drop [in literacy, numeracy, and mathematics] because of online learning,” Stephens said. “We’ve actually seen the biggest decrease in engagement satisfaction. Students are feeling really disengaged from the learning and from each other.” 

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Despite this, Stephens said many professors feel disillusioned with the implementation of pandemic learning, which has affected student engagement in the classroom.

“Teachers and professors are like ‘This is not what I signed up for. I’m not trained to do this,’” Stephens said. “They feel incredibly inferior in terms of ‘I’m no longer able to meet the needs [of students] and to express my passion for teaching and learning and research that I used to.’” 

According to a survey conducted in November 2020 by Institutional Research of 273 Emerson faculty members, 21 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that “the quality of work I see from my students is roughly comparable to what I’ve seen in the past, pre-COVID-19, compared to the 60 percent agreed or strongly agreed. 

Fewer were satisfied with the quality of face-to-face class discussions or group projects—but 72 percent were generally or very satisfied with Zoom discussions and 76 percent with students completing online collaborative projects.

But sometimes, the barriers to online teaching are logistical ones; 14 percent did not have a computer able to run all their programs and applications needed without freezing up or running slowly, and 35 percent reported taking care of others during the time they worked, the survey reported. 12 percent did not have a reliable internet connection.

Performing Arts Professor Holly Tarnowner, who primarily teaches improvisation classes, said her philosophies as an educator had to change due to the pandemic.

“When it all hit, it was very shocking,” Tarnowner said. “It was a new world. I’m not really the most tech-savvy, and my teaching style and philosophies are very holistic and classroom practice-based. It was a very weird transition.” 

Tarnowner said she gradually learned how to make her classes a more immersive experience.

“The great thing about teaching improv and doing improv is that it’s improvised,” Tarnowner said. “You get to move naturally with the class and what’s happening. With improv, it’s a little easier because improv games are pretty easily formatted to [online].” 

Brooke Knisley, a professor in the writing, literature, and publishing department, said her classes have fared better online than in person due to the reading and writing-based format.

“I always offer a recording so they can revisit the lectures when we do meet,” Knisley said. “Online learning offers accommodations that they [might] need but don’t have readily available when we’re in person—I think the internet space definitely makes up for that.”

Knisley, who is disabled and immunocompromised, has taught online-only classes since the start of the pandemic. She said she doesn’t think the college considered student’s safety enough when developing the hybrid model.

“If Emerson had the safety concern of students in mind when it came to the Fall 2020 semester, they would have moved everything online and put funds and resources into making the online experience more enriching and fulfilling,” Knisley said. “Instead, [we’re] doing this weird Frankenstein hybrid where no one really wins.” 

Professor Joshua Way said one of his primary goals in teaching introductory speech communication is to build a community within the class. 

“That’s really difficult when you’re switching modalities every other class,” Way said. “In my classes, I’ve seen people actually talk to each other before class starts. Students get to know each other, maybe they’re even friends or something. I love seeing that. I really made a point in the fall semester to …  take the time to make sure everybody’s okay. That’s not necessarily my responsibility, but sometimes [for students] it’s nice to know that somebody cares.”

Way, a fervent adversary of Zoom learning, said the atmosphere of online learning is as uncomfortable as talking to a television. 

“It’s very difficult to see subtle visual cues and body language cues from people—you just see their face, you don’t hear anything,” he said. “When it’s just your voice in silence for an extended amount of time it’s weird because you’re getting absolutely no feedback. You’re just staring at faces on the screen. [And] it’s really hard to stay engaged when somebody’s talking at you that way.”