Remote classes bring innovation, frustration


Dana Gerber

A Zoom class meeting in Spring 2020.

Theatre education professor Bethany Nelson had no idea how she would adapt her class material when the college transitioned to online learning, because so much of the work involves students interacting in the same physical space. 

“When it was announced, people were flipping out,” she said in a phone interview with The Beacon. “[Professors] have very serious thoughts and beliefs about their art form. And so telling somebody that they’re going to have to figure out a different way to teach something that they feel that strongly about is threatening, in a way.”

Students in Nelson’s class, however, rose to the challenge, she said. Her students adapted one exercise to only show the body from the waist-up, so that others could easily see them over camera. Despite the online environment, students were able to create complex acting scenes.

“You put your hand against the edge of the box, and the other person puts their hand against it, and it’s as though they’re touching,” she said, referring to the layout of the Zoom video screens.

After the college announced the move to remote classes on March 10 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, professors across all departments of the college modified their classes to an online format with only a week of preparation. A number of professors chose to teach synchronously over Zoom at a scheduled class time, others opted for asynchronous activities such as discussion boards and recorded lectures, and some chose a combination of the two methods. 

“There’s no cookie cutter approach for every class,” Nancy Allen, a professor in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, said in a phone interview. “I think faculty are having to make decisions that work best for them in their lives and their course content, and we’re all learning on the fly.” 

Allen uses a mix of synchronous and asynchronous teaching; she posts discussion boards on Canvas, but also holds optional Zoom meetings that she records for students unable to attend due to time zone differences or other home commitments. She said the Zoom meetings touch on class material, but also give students an opportunity to vent. Although students have responded well to this setup, Allen said she understands this was not how students intended to learn. 

“This current situation is not what any of us signed up for,” she said. “Everyone’s sort of trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

Allen added that professors themselves are now being confronted with uncharted waters—at home, she balances teaching with caring for her young daughter.

“That’s probably been the hardest part—just the juggling,” she said. 

The curriculum of many hands-on classes, such as Visual and Media Arts and Performing Arts classes, lack an intuitive online substitution. Robert Colby, chair of the Performing Arts department, said many professors and students have gone above and beyond to offer creative solutions during the transition to remote learning.   

“All kinds of exercises have been reinvented playfully and productively to work in the online environment,” he said. “[Faculty] got a lot of new plays from playwrights, or some existing plays that are actually set, for example, as conversations in a radio studio, or two people on the phone in two different apartments—so that we can actually use the online environment and reality to perform this scene. And it works beautifully.”

Colby said many Emerson faculty are using strategies in their own classes that performing arts instructors across the country have shared online, such as how to teach scene study or run dance classes. However, Colby also acknowledged the limitations of the Zoom format, especially in the performing arts field.

“I don’t want to pretend there’s 100 percent success every time someone has tried things like that, but it certainly speaks to the possibilities,” he said. “I think the ‘different’ we’re getting is not necessarily ‘less’. It’s different and it’s useful.”

Linnea Gardner, a junior theatre and performance major, said she’s learned many useful skills that she might not have learned if she didn’t have to study remotely, including how to self-tape an audition. The nature of performing, she said, is learning how to think on your feet. 

“A whole lot of our work is kind of trying to be put in places that we’re not used to being,” she said. “It’s kind of informing the work pretty well.”

Other majors have also navigated difficulties in acclimating to long-distance learning. Journalism Professor Cindy Rodriguez said she asked many working journalists how they cover unsafe events, such as wars, from a distance, so she could try to figure out alternatives for her students. Due to social distancing guidelines, Rodriguez tells her students to interview people over Skype or phone, and to seek out archival footage to create broadcast material. 

“How can I teach my students how to create packages when … they really can’t leave the house?” she said. “This is going to prepare us not just as human beings, how do we deal with it and contain it, but also how do we continue to report on what’s going on and still take care of ourselves?”

Nelson said the fearful nature of this pandemic has made it hard for many of her students to throw themselves into a new learning environment. She encourages her students to think of class sessions as a respite, rather than a burden. 

“What I’ve been doing with students is to encourage them to look at the time that they’re actually online in class … as a vacation,” Nelson said. “To really throw themselves into whatever the topic is that we’re talking about.”

Anthony Cabrera, a junior creative writing major, said his nonfiction workshop class is now done completely over Canvas, where students submit their stories and then receive a thread of comments. 

“Something is a little bit lost in just not being in person, and in describing what it is we read,” he said. “But switching over to Canvas, just writing things down, it does make our points I think a little bit more succinct. We can hone in on what we want to say I guess a bit more clearly than just speaking off the cuff.”

Other online classroom experiences have not been so positive. Sophomore creative writing major Ana Hein said her evolution of comedy class got ‘Zoom-bombed’ on March 31, where a non-student came into the Zoom classroom and yelled expletives and threats at specific students. While she said she quickly recovered after they started a new class session, it was not what she expected from a learning environment. 

“It was just really unsettling that it could happen,” she said in a phone interview. “In the moment, it was really distressing.” 

Gardner said many of her classes already relied heavily on reading and writing, so the switch to online learning was not too challenging. In a few of her larger classes, however, she said a Zoom classroom loses a sense of community that is established by an in-person dynamic. 

“It’s hard to get a good rapport going in online when you have thirty different microphones,” she said.

Gardner added that she appreciates the hard work professors have put into running classes as normally as possible, but being off campus has made it harder for her to focus. 

“My brain has not been as productive as it should be, when I’m at home,” she said. “My mom is working from home, and my brother in high school is studying from home, it just feels too familial and casual for me to be fully productive.”

Nelson said that besides the eye-strain caused by staring at a computer for an entire class period, the transition to online classes has been positive. Although she had her doubts about teaching theatre over a webcam, it has become a welcome distraction during the health crisis.

“I actually think the active classes are easier to transfer just because you can keep people interested, working with you, doing stuff,” she said. “They don’t have a chance to drift off and think about how scared they are, or the anxiety or depression that’s beginning to creep into this situation.”