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From the editor’s desk: What I’ve learned from a year of online learning

Channing Wang/Thresher

By Rishab Ramapriyan     3/9/21 9:40pm

“All classes moving online.” These four words headlined an historic email sent on March 12, 2020, the day when the Rice administration announced that campus would be evacuated for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester and the classroom experience would fundamentally change for an ever growing amount of time. On the one year anniversary of Rice and other universities’ move to online learning, it is worth reflecting upon this once-foreign experience and critically considering the future direction of education upon the pandemic’s conclusion. 

There is much speculation on whether online learning would replace face-to-face classroom experiences in the post-COVID era, but I find any wholehearted acceptance of this novel learning format to be shortsighted at best. 

Two weeks into the start of remote learning last spring, I authored a feature article titled “The Zoom Experiment” in which I talked to faculty members across different departments to gauge their transition to online learning. While some shared the creative adaptations they had come up with, many lamented the loss of the classroom community. History professor Lora Wildenthal remarked, “I can’t imagine starting class this way,” suggesting that the online learning community in the spring succeeded due to the foundation of eight prior weeks of in-person learning. 

I found this to be consistent with my personal experiences as a student that semester. In my smaller seminar classes, where mutual trust and a culture of openness was crucial, my peers and I found a similar sense of intimacy in the Zoom space after eight weeks of learning together in person. We had already reached a level of trust where we could have candid discussions and debates over complex issues, often incorporating personal experiences. Yet this degree of vulnerability was rare to find in the majority of the classes I have taken during the current academic year, where the majority of classes have been fully online.  

I have pondered over why it is so hard to establish the same levels of intimacy, humility, and trust across the computer screen. I believe these factors are crucial to taking full advantage of Rice’s small class sizes and unique educational experience.  As chemistry professor Laszlo Kurti aptly said during an interview for my feature article, the natural classroom interactions become “sterilized” in the online format. Bereft of the subtle, nonverbal communication in the physical space, the classroom dialogue becomes a series of unidirectional exchanges between individuals and the screen. Without the body language, eye contact and dynamic facial expressions, only half the message is received, and there is a lack of personal connection with the speaker. Kurti told me his students last spring seemed “shyer” online and less willing to ask and answer questions, which again aligns well with the experiences I have had as a student. 

Beyond the lack of intimacy, the lack of engagement with the class is apparent and likely due to the new concept of “Zoom Fatigue.” It is not uncommon for larger classes to have an overwhelming number of black screens, or students to be entirely zoned out during a class. It is incredibly hard to not feel exhausted from staring at not only the mirrored version of myself, but also dozens of other classmates and the instructor. There is too much input for the brain to process, and the subtle, verbal and nonverbal, elements that make human conversation meaningful are lost amidst the distractions and technical delays of the platform. The simple act of looking at a screen for hours at a time is draining and demoralizing on a daily basis. 

Online learning was a necessity due to the safety considerations surrounding in-person learning. I am grateful to a number of my professors who challenged themselves to provide the same level of classroom intimacy online via strategic breakout rooms, thoughtful discussion and probing questions and keen attention to each student on the Zoom call. Yet, the ease of delivering education in this format does not outweigh the lost intellectual and personal benefits, especially in the college setting where learning often happens through questions and subsequent discussions, rather than didactic lectures. 

There are still many novel opportunities to apply what we have learned to expanding education access globally and bringing knowledge to the general public more readily. Asynchronous lectures can overcome time zone differences, and online webinars can help reduce the carbon footprint of guest speaker travel. Knowledge becomes a few keystrokes away, and academic collaborations can happen more fruitfully. 

While I am graduating this semester, I am hopeful for the Rice community to safely return to full in-person learning this fall semester, so we can once again cherish the benefits of our intellectually vital community. 

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