To open the Winter Quarter, Ben Miller '22 reflects on the challenges of online learning and what it has taught him to appreciate about in-person class. For more of Ben's writing, check out "Diary of an Online History Student" Part 1 and Part 2, or his blog, Circa.
Last week, UChicago students began a third quarter of remote learning. Many of us have not sat in a classroom since last March, and a few weeks from now will have finished a full year of college almost entirely online. It is a strange experience to reflect on, striking in its broad strokes but remarkably mundane in its daily rhythms. Simply put, completing coursework in this environment has been an unsatisfying substitute for the traditional classroom experience. But if there is any consolation, virtual learning has made me appreciate what makes in-person courses meaningful, creating some hopeful clarity to carry with me as we await a return to the classroom.
The Autumn Quarter, which ran from last September to December, was the first in which students and instructors had a chance to prepare for life online. I took three remote classes: a history colloquium on race and slavery, a course on Black women in colonial America, and a core class about food chemistry. In each, the contrast with the slapdash Spring was stark. Everyone knew the ins-and-outs of Zoom, eliminating most of the technical snafus that afflicted Spring courses. Instructors also had a chance to shift their methods to fit the virtual space. All three classes made effective use of break-out rooms, avoiding the awkwardness of the Gallery View and creating environments for small group discussion. They also shifted how class time was used, pre-recording lectures and creating new spaces for exploring content.
These improvements made my remote classes much more engaging than the Spring. However, experiencing virtual learning “done right” also highlighted just how hollow and frustrating it is for me. For instance, the sense of “Zoom fatigue” I attributed to technical issues in the Spring persisted in the Fall. Even in the best of circumstances, I find it challenging to stay sharp during a lengthy video call, both from optical weariness and the off-putting juxtaposition of always being on camera but never able to meaningfully read others’ faces. As staring at the screen becomes a chore, distractions inevitably creep in. I would never check my phone in an in-person class, but when my attention is fading and my pocket starts buzzing, it becomes harder to resist. I do not think these issues are attributable to pedagogical failings or a lack of self-discipline on my end, but instead seem to be unavoidable features of the remote classroom.
In a similar vein, the increased contact I had with other students in the Fall simply showcased all the interesting people I was not having a chance to actually meet. I appreciated the opportunities my professors created to interact with classmates, for instance, reserving the first five minutes of each class for one-on-one chats with no requirement to discuss course content. But even as I had interesting, brief conversations with many people, I rarely felt like I could get to know them. There was no idle chatter in the minutes before class, no walking to the Reg afterword, no chance meetings in Hutch or Cobb Cafe from which real relationships could be built. Outside the timed, two-dimensional window of the breakout room, I never saw them. We have moved much of our lives online over the past year, but spaces to make friends out of acquaintances have not migrated, and there is not much the online format can do to change this.
In addition to my three remote courses, I took one in-person class in the Fall, an anthropology course on racial theory. It was held once a week in Haskell Hall, with 10 students and a professor all ensconced behind masks. It was hardly an ideal environment. Hearing voices behind masks was difficult, and I constantly worried about airflow. Considering the public health realities, the in-person model is certainly no alternative to virtual learning at scale. But limited as it was, the course gave me a taste of what I was missing from online classes. I took the anthropology course with a friend of mine, and after each session we would leisurely stroll back to our apartments, chatting about the class. We would share what stood out to us, continue debates, and laugh about silly moments that arose. Casual as they were, our conversations helped me process the class in a way that the finality of the red “Leave Meeting” button on Zoom does not allow. Their absence from remote classes helped me realize that this informal dimension is truly an essential component of taking a class. Especially for history courses, where sessions often present more questions than answers, casual discussion creates space for making sense of the material and hashing out ideas beyond the constraints and expectations of the classroom. I am not sure there is a way to replicate this facet virtually, and we suffer for it.
In my last post, I argued that remote internships should stay relevant after the pandemic because their flexibility can outweigh the benefits of in-person work in certain circumstances. I cannot say the same for remote classes, at least at the University of Chicago. Students and instructors have worked creatively to make the most of the virtual landscape, but Zoom and Canvas offer an unavoidably incomplete rendering of the classroom that just cannot compete with an in-person environment. But as we imagine a return to the classroom in the not-to-distant future, we should consider what we value in the course experience, which virtual learning does a powerful (if painful) job of illuminating. The answer may not be “casual banter” for everyone, and that is okay. I only hope that when we do at last return to desks and whiteboards, we do so with a clear sense of how to make the most of it.