As University of Maryland, Baltimore County students watched snow pile up outside their windows this past week and received the emails of campus closures, many wondered whether they would ever have a snow day again.
Since the transition to virtual learning in March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Blackboard Collaborate and Webex have become a daily fixture in UMBC students’ and professors’ lives, offering an opportunity to continue teaching despite something like a campus closure. With the possibility of returning to in-person learning next fall, many students, faculty and staff are questioning the efficacy of online learning and whether it has a place in the post-pandemic learning environment.
Professor Brian Cullum, Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, described how many professors use the physical reactions of students to judge if they understand the material well, or if the professor may need to change their approach or delve into the topic more in-depth. With few students using their cameras on platforms like Blackboard Collaborate and Webex, Cullum said there is little physical feedback from students.
“There’s just no comparison between [online and in-person learning],” said Cullum.
The strain is not necessarily equal across the board. Increasing Cullum’s exasperation is the difficulty in transferring his specific courses to the internet. He felt that hands on skills from labs are impossible to truly recreate online.
“In the physical sciences, a lot of what you do is dependent on hands-on skills,” said Cullum. “Imagine being the first patient of a neurosurgeon who just spent the last two years learning to do it virtually and was never involved in a surgery. I don’t really want to be that patient.”
Compared to Cullum, Professor Rebecca Adelman, Chair of the Media and Communication Studies Department, said she felt more energized by online learning because it presents a brand new challenge and space for professors and students to conquer. However, she did acknowledge that the challenges of online learning can feel too big to overcome.
“[Sometimes] I feel frustrated by the limitations of the medium and miss the nuance and flexibility of in-person work with my students,” said Adelman.
Like Cullum, Chair of the Department of Theatre, Professor Colette Searls, believes you cannot replace the physical aspects of certain majors and their requirements. She said she is eager to get back in-person with her theatre students since they have struggled to achieve the same feeling of performing on a stage over Blackboard Collaborate and Webex.
Despite the difficulty of transitioning theater to an online classroom, Searls said that virtual learning taught her a lot about equity during online schooling.
“The pandemic has made me much more aware of equity issues and the importance of being human with my students who may be learning differently than I might have assumed, or need a different sort of support without being pressured to explain why,” said Searls.
While most professors would like to return to in-person teaching as soon as possible, UMBC students’ opinions varied.
“I’ve taken a total of four online classes when I was a student at CCBC [Community College of Baltimore County],” said junior media and communications major Maryam Tori. “[But] sitting in front of a laptop, especially for more than four or five hours a day, is really exhausting and boring for me.”
Amelia R. Torres, a senior media and communications major, said that she enjoyed the flexibility of online classes. This flexibility allowed her to hold a full-time job and a virtual internship, all while still attending her online classes. She also added that she does not miss the daily commute to attend in-person classes. For these reasons, she would be interested in taking a mixture of online and in-person courses once the pandemic is over.
Whether willingly or unwillingly, many students have adapted to online learning. This adaptation causes Dr. Adelman to worry about the transition back to in-person learning post-pandemic. Dr. Adelman predicts that some students will have a difficult time re-adjusting to in-person classes after such a long period of online schooling.
Searls added that universities might not want to transition back to in-person teaching to save money.
“I’m concerned that the conversion to so much online learning could be largely maintained post-pandemic, across higher education, as a cost-cutting measure,” said Searls. “If a large portion of classes are taught online, we begin to lose so much of the purpose of going to college: to create community, build friendships, collaborators, networks, and relationships that come from hallway conversations with the professors and other students before and after classes.”