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Photo of individualized Blackboard homepage, courtesy of Ann Weisgerber.

UMBC needs to do more to support professors in online classes

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

While there are several distinct advantages to online courses, the overall consensus this year has been that they suck. Attending classes exclusively online, interacting with new classmates and professors virtually, and learning curriculum originally developed for in-person classes has made attending university during a global pandemic even more confusing, frustrating and difficult than anticipated. 

Students aren’t the only ones struggling, of course. Professors are also feeling the pressure of losing online assignments, dealing with technology and communication issues, and not being able to interact concretely with students. Many professors who have previously chosen not to teach online courses, because they are technologically challenged or because the class material is not conducive to a virtual format, have essentially been forced to modify their curriculum on the fly for this semester. 

But that doesn’t even begin to cover the technological issues. Blackboard Collaborate, Webex, Zoom or any other online learning format, need high-quality internet to work consistently, and with most professors teaching from home, the connection is not always reliable. There have been many instances in which students (and professors) arrive in the wrong classroom on Blackboard, can’t connect their own audio to respond to the class or are repeatedly kicked from the call.

The technology issues don’t stop there. Many students have complained that their professors don’t even know how to use the online services available. Junior computer science major Avneet Sahi said that her professor doesn’t seem to know how to organize content on Blackboard; every time the professor uploads a new PowerPoint or document, it creates a new “Untitled” folder. “It’s so confusing to find anything,” she expressed. “And we don’t even know if we’ve missed any assignments yet, because the professor hasn’t entered any grades.”

Junior Victoria Joya Euceda, a geography major and Spanish minor, also experienced similar issues in her classes. “At the very beginning of the semester, it was obvious one of my professors was having serious issues navigating Blackboard. We [the class] repeatedly asked her to hold class on Webex or Zoom but she refused. So now we just have to suffer through an incredibly disjointed and confusing class where the professor kicks herself off at least three times.”

There is a general agreement among students with technologically challenged professors that the issues the professors are experiencing are not incredibly difficult. Most problems arise from professors not being able to comfortably navigate Blackboard. While it is not each professor’s fault for being unable to immediately pick up a new online program, it is nonetheless extremely disruptive and frustrating for students. 

There are, however, several possible solutions to this issue. One such solution is to assign a student to a class, similar to a teaching assistant, who would collaborate with the professor in navigating Blackboard, conducting online class, communicating directly with students and fixing general technology issues as they arise. While this would require a large number of students to take on additional responsibilities to serve as technology liaisons in online classes, not all professors would require such assistance, and the ones who do would benefit greatly. 

Considering that the University of Maryland, Baltimore Country is a heavily stem-oriented university, there are a large number of IT and technology students that would be adept at troubleshooting and supporting those with technology issues. This solution would not only greatly benefit their professors, but the students in all of their classes as well — and in exchange, these student technology liaisons would be exposed to real-life experience and gain better insight into their field of study. 

This new normal is difficult for everyone. The new adjustments, restrictions and problems faced during this pandemic have not missed many, but the struggles professors and students have to deal with are unique. Offering support like designated technology assistants in classes where professors are not as comfortable with the interface is one step UMBC can take to make this time a little easier for everyone.