The difficulties of a virtual reality

Since March, nearly every student across the country has been forced to contend with “Zoom University.” Although the concept of online schooling is far from new, 2020 marks the first time in history that the computer screen has completely eclipsed the classroom as the primary medium for higher education. Given the instability of epidemic control in the United States, this reality does not look like it will change anytime soon. With just over a month of the semester left, the question must be asked: How is “Zoom University” going?

The Zoom format has resulted in a temporally decentralized learning environment. Students that have not returned to campus this semester are forced to work across time zones. Students logging on from different states or even countries might have to take classes in the dead of night or the wee hours of the morning and are forced to completely shift their sleep cycles as a result. Professors should be aware of these different time zones and considerate of students having abnormal sleep schedules as a result. Wi-fi differences are a major concern, with some students routinely losing connection throughout a single class. 

Fortunately, many online classes are recorded and can be watched at a student’s leisure, and this affords a greater degree of schedule customization to Brandeis students than ever before. Unfortunately, the consistency of this practice is not the same across all classes and departments and some professors are reluctant to fully embrace the online nature of modern teaching. Regardless, staring at a screen all day is not healthy or ideal. 

It’s crucial to remember that students are usually stressed even without a pandemic. Professors should be mindful that students have just as much work this semester as any other and taking online classes does not make school work less time-consuming. In fact, most classes now take up more time, meeting for 180 minutes in a week rather than for 150 or 160 minutes as was the average in previous semesters. Some professors have added additional asynchronous lectures for students to watch outside of class, which can be another burden on a student’s time. 

The updated course schedule builds in 30-minute block breaks between classes, to allow students to clean their work spaces between classes, instead of the typical 10-minute passing period. However, with the new class blocks being mostly either on Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday, many students have classes for multiple blocks in a row. And while these 30-minute breaks are nice between classes, between back to back classes, virtual club events and other meetings, students can spend the majority of their day on Zoom calls. “Zoom fatigue” can take a toll on students. Professors should continue to be conscious that some of their students may have had a long day of classes and recognize that online learning can be draining.

Technical problems happen: glitches, files failing to load properly or online course sites crashing. Small offenses—such as turning in an assignment a couple of minutes late—should not invoke harsh punishments.

It is not difficult to hate Zoom University, but the new normal carries some benefits for students with disabilities that should not be overlooked should Brandeis eventually transition back to the in-person model. Professors have become more flexible with attendance, which inherently aids students that have some difficulty physically attending the classroom. The hybrid model should really be the new standard in order to accommodate all students even after the pandemic has come to an end. Recorded Zoom meetings also offer the opportunity to include captions, but, of course, this feature is not utilized across the board nor do live Zoon sessions generally have captions of any kind. Google Meets does offer live captions, but this is not a technology utilized by the Brandeis faculty. The loss of campus transportation this semester has made live attendance nearly impossible for some students, so the utilization of every convenience of Zoom technology should be a top priority among staff.

The question remains, however, as to whether or not a Zoom education holds up to the old standard. An objective measure of education quality could perhaps be garnered through a comparison of grades, but such statistics would really only apply to hard STEM classes. Are discussions as lively? Is the attention and sense of immersion as strong? It is certainly easier than ever before to completely tune out a class and check social media or play a game. It is all too easy to meet a class’s participation threshold and then tune out for the remainder of the lesson. The expectation to remain physically alert has never been lower, and the sense of attachment and immersion inherent in a wonderful class is perhaps impossible to emulate through a screen. Truly great professors will never be diminished by Zoom, though their job is a lot harder.

Online learning comes with all sorts of difficulties: internet connections fail, fire alarms go off in the middle of class, people living with you interrupt, computers and laptops break. Everyone needs to understand that these complications are out of our control, and we must be patient and flexible. This goes both ways. Yes, it can be frustrating to have to wait as professors try to figure out how to screen share, create breakout rooms or simply turn up the audio on their computer. However, if students want professors to be patient with us, then we must extend the same courtesy to our professors. Try to help them out when you can, and don’t be too judgemental.

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