Shen Bohan/Xinhua Press
As COVID-19 sweeps the nation, college students have been forced to experience the severe measures of abruptly evacuating campus and transitioning their university environment and curriculum to online school.
Kimberley Tran, an undergraduate freshman at Princeton University, details her personal experience managing the abrupt change, and the steps that the college she attends has taken to implement online schooling. Tran, along with other college students on the East Coast, began to receive news about potential cancellations during midterms week, at the beginning of March.
“A lot of people were very stressed and anxious, and overall very unhappy,” she said. “They told us this news right in the middle of midterms, so a bunch of people couldn’t focus, myself included. We were worried that our grades would drop. Everyone was so distracted by how you would have to leave campus soon.”
Not only was the news a strain on academics, the abrupt cancellation was also disappointing for Tran and her peers.
“I was having a very memorable and great second semester. We lost three months in a matter of days.”
Karina Chen, an international student and undergraduate junior at Washington University in St. Louis, explains that, before spring break, there was tension between students about travel plans, and fear around students coming back from break with symptoms. Eventually, school was canceled.
“I think the school made a smart call to extend spring break for another week, and then make everything online,” stated Chen.
As international students, Chen and her peers faced a particularly uncertain and anxious experience when school was cancelled.
“The freshmen and sophomores were panicking because they thought they were basically being kicked out of their dorms when the school sent out the email [that students would not return home],” said Chen.
Fortunately, international students were eligible to fill out a form to stay on campus for an extended time. Chen thinks that roughly half of the students later returned to their home countries, while the other half stayed in St. Louis for research and summer volunteer opportunities.
For Tran, upon receiving the final news, Princeton students had about a week and a half to leave campus. These circumstances were especially difficult for some students.
“Students who had unstable home lives or were international couldn’t get back home due to travel restrictions,” said Tran. “They were allowed to apply to stay on campus, however, I heard that situation was very messy because a lot of people were denied even though they had very good reasons to stay on campus.”
After spring break, students began online classes.
“Most classes are either pre-recorded or available live on Zoom, but teachers no longer expect their students to attend live classes, in case they live in different time zones. Office hours are now on Zoom as well. Precepts, which are smaller versions of class lectures held by a teaching assistant (TA) are either canceled, on Zoom, or optional,” Tran said. “All of our lecture material can be found online on either Canvas or Blackboard. But you submit assignments for some classes using GradeScope.”
Washington University has used a similar system with programs Canvas and Zoom, but they have also opted to use a lockdown program that locks the browser and has the ability to record the student for exams and quizzes.
Tran finds that the overall experience of online school has been more challenging without the ease and efficiency of in-person contact.
“It’s really hard to ask questions during class because your professor can’t really see you as well. It’s awkward whenever you try to jump in, and then you interrupt someone. It’s not as nice as being able to receive help for a problem in person from a teacher or a friend because they can’t be there to show you in live time right next to you on the paper.”
Technical issues have also resulted in some difficulty with converting to an online structure, for instance lag and the adjustment to using the available electronic tools.
As for the content of the classes, Tran finds that the material is harder to grasp due to the lack of focus and accountability some students have when working from home.
“My peers and myself are [definitely] less focused when at home. You can see that during class whenever we break out into small rooms to do small group work, then a lot of people just turn off their webcams and mics and don’t say anything,” Tran said. “It’s easy to tell a lot of people are clicking on other tabs or using social media while classes are in session.”
Chen expresses similar sentiments, agreeing that lack of focus and accountability are significant concerns with online school, and that some students find it easy to fall asleep during class.
The workload ranges from daily to weekly assignments, depending on the class. Compared to conventional classes, Tran feels that the workload is greater and accumulates more quickly when using an online system, due to tendencies of procrastination and continuous pausing and replaying of lectures.
Despite a generally more difficult and inconvenient experience, the online schooling system does carry some benefits, Tran citing the greater convenience of accessing professors through an online method, and Chen mentioning the ability to watch lectures at a quicker speed.
Another issue that students are facing as a result of the pandemic is the expensive tuition for what is now online schooling. Some colleges are keeping the same rate of full tuition, while others are discounting only room and board. Princeton is a member of the latter situation. A common sentiment among students confronting both situations is that the standard of learning when online has now decreased.
“In general, I wish I was back on campus to take these classes, and controversially, I think there should be a major tuition decrease or reimbursement for students,” added Tran.
Despite student opposition, Princeton University and many others have continued to charge the original flat fee for tuition, claiming that the same quality of teaching is still upheld. Chen’s tuition at Washington University has also remained full price, with only the housing and meal plan being refunded.
Even after the school year, college students will face the next challenge of finding new summer opportunities. These summer opportunities are critical for students to gain experience in their intended careers and develop a resume for future positions or graduate school admission. Students’ initial summer opportunities, nearly all international and some domestic, have been canceled, leaving students to start from scratch in finding new internships and jobs either online or later in the summer.
Chen had originally stayed in St. Louis for her MCAT exam scheduled in mid-August and to perform research, but her research opportunity was recently canceled.
Both Princeton University and Washington University have turned to a selective pass/fail grading system, where students are able to choose which classes they would like a pass/fail grade or traditional grade for.
While college students have the unique struggle of abruptly leaving their second homes and having more advanced coursework to complete online, high school seniors have their own disappointments and high school juniors face a brand-new standardized testing system.
The spring sessions of the ACT and SAT have been canceled. In response, some colleges have made the announcement to no longer require or waive ACT/SAT scores from the current juniors who are applying for admission in the fall of 2021.
In contrast, this year’s AP exams have instead been adjusted to account for COVID-19. The exams have been shortened to 45 minutes, and the answers will now be free response, as opposed to multiple choice. The test will be open book and open note.
CHS Junior Koray Akduman, who is taking five AP Tests this May, thinks that the exams will not necessarily be more difficult, as the College Board has likely taken needed preventative measures to ensure that the test scores remain in range with past years.
However, he thinks that for some students, the adjustment needed to take the new AP test will be challenging.
“Multiple choice is straightforward, whereas for free response, there’s a lot of ways to go with it. There’s also less tools that you can use to study from,” said Akduman.
In addition, Akduman brings up the concern of time management and accessibility for individual students.
“Some students may be worse at managing time, and other people might have less access to textbooks, and they can’t get them from the libraries because all of the libraries are closed.”
China’s Ministry of Education has requested that students watch pre-recorded lesson videos for their online schooling. One of the purposes of pre-recording lessons is to provide students with the convenience of being able to create their own timetable for the day, as they can watch the videos on their own time and do not have to follow a schedule set by the school. Additionally, if students are struggling to understand the material being taught, they can always rewind a video or play it slower until they understand the subject. However, there have been numerous complaints about this method of learning, especially from parents with younger children.
“Especially for the younger students, I think it’s better to have live courses… In a recorded course, [teachers] cannot interact with students,” said An Haitao, a mother to an elementary schooler in China.
There has also been concern with students lacking the drive and accountability that comes with a live classroom. When students are in a classroom, surrounded by their peers and educators, students are motivated to actively participate and learn. However, when a younger individual is left to watch a video, it’s easy to procrastinate on an assignment and end up speeding through rather than carefully completing the material, because when given the choice, many students would choose efficiency over an in-depth understanding of the subject at hand. Without a teacher watching in, students lack accountability. A pre-recorded lesson makes it incredibly easy to play a video on 2x speed and complete assignments with a significantly less amount of effort.
Despite all of these shortcomings in the online school programs, students with access to technology are lucky. Due to parents also needing technology to be able to work now, many Chinese families face the harsh reality of not being able to afford multiple devices for the whole family to continue with their work.
Students in schools in Germany first began anticipating a school closure in February. Evelyn Pearce, a high school student living in southern Germany, recalled the fear in her area after northern Italy was declared a danger zone and many of her classmates were there for vacation.
“It was a slow buildup to [the thought that] it’s going to come to Germany, and it’s going to get as bad as it is in Italy. I think everyone was worried about that.”
Ultimately, school was cancelled. On March 22, Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, announced restrictions on free movement and business and school closures. As a result, German schools moved to online teaching, a switch that countries worldwide have been making.The structure is based off of either video calls or posted assignments, with the former or latter form varying on the student’s school and grade. Pearce’s younger brother has video calls, whereas Pearce’s coursework is solely posted online.
Similar to Clayton High School, teachers have posted weekly assignments that allow students to have increased flexibility.
“You can do school whenever you want. You just have to turn in the assignment by the time the teacher wants you to turn it in,” stated Pearce.
However, Pearce finds that online school naturally leads to a lengthier workload.
“With [online school] they’re giving you the same amount of work, but none of it is done in class where you just talk through it. You have to write down every answer [for online school, and] it takes a while to write everything down. I was working seven hours a day on [online schoolwork], and our school day is 5 hours on its own here,” said Pearce.
An additional struggle for students is grasping the concepts without instruction, along with the large quantity of reading and writing, which her coursework is mainly composed of.
“I miss just being able to listen to a teacher explain a concept to you, instead of just having to research everything yourself,” said Pearce.
As of now, schools in Germany are scheduled to begin the week of April 19th, but Pearce believes that with the current circumstances, that is unlikely to happen, although the possibility of cancelling the remaining school year still remains uncertain. Additionally, Pearce’s school has not yet received word on the grading system, and if there will be any adjustments to account for the effect of coronavirus on learning.
“It’s frustrating that everything’s so up in the air with school,” said Pearce.
In late February, the Italian government ordered the complete lockdown of the country, and since then, all school has been held online. Antonio Rizzo is a professor at the University of Siena in Italy, teaching physical computing. He does not pre-record his lessons for his students but instead hosts live courses.
“I chose Google Meet because I don’t have many students. I have about 10 students. I can connect quite easily with their calendars,” he said. “The platform is quite easy to use and it’s possible to share not only your screen but also a whiteboard. If someone wants to write or draw something, we can cooperate on the same piece of digital paper.”
Each class period is about ninety minutes, and teachers must cover all the material in the time given while allowing every student to interact and participate in the lesson. This task is much more difficult when a teacher handles a large class.
“[If] we had 30 students, I could give three different topics to be addressed by the three groups,” explains Rizzo. “Then, when we meet, they will have one or two representatives for each group that present to the other groups what they have done.”
Rizzo firmly believes in the concept of blended learning and its effectiveness.
“It will be important to organize the teaching according to the flipped class and to give the materials out to the students to study. When you meet with them, you [can have discussions] and you will have a more interactive session where the students can present their own issues, their own problems and misunderstandings,” Rizzo states.
Rizzo is currently applying this method to his own classroom, by allowing time for students to revise previous work and then proceeding to give new material. So far, his main obstacles are the limitations of the functions on online video platforms.
“To give [students] support with the external device is a bit tricky. [When] it’s just the coding, it’s okay. But as soon as you move away from the screen and you need to work on any kind of hardware, it is not as effective as when we’re in the same classroom sharing the same physical environment,” said Rizzo. “I think the best thing [for me] now is an improvement in sharing and connecting [external] devices to my computer.”