I woke up an hour late Wednesday morning, and by the time I had thrown on a sweatshirt, prepared my glass of Emergen-C, and logged onto Zoom, my class had been going on for 15 minutes. The night before I had taken cough syrup for my seasonal cold, and this was the first day my school switched to virtual instruction. Over the course of the three-hour workshop, I noticed my puffy eyes on the panel of faces and became self-conscious. I turned off my video. I became distracted with the noise of sirens outside and muted my speaker, only to then realize: by the time you’re done muting-and-unmuting, the right moment to join the conversation has already passed. I found myself texting on my computer, stepping away to make coffee, running to the bathroom, writing a couple e-mails, and staring at my classmate’s dog in one of the video panels. I don’t think my experience is unique; I imagined similar situations playing out in virtual offices and classrooms across the world.
In the aftermath of the World Health Organization’s designation of the novel coronavirus as a pandemic on March 11, universities across America are shutting down in an attempt to slow its spread. On March 6, the University of Washington took the lead, canceling all in-person classes, with a wave of universities across the country following suit: University of California, Berkeley, U.C., San Diego, Stanford, Rice, Harvard, Columbia, Barnard, N.Y.U, Princeton and Duke, among many others.
This shift into virtual classrooms is the culmination of the past weeks’ efforts to prevent COVID-19 from entering university populations and spreading to local communities: cancellation of university-funded international travel for conferences, blanket bans on any international travel for spring break, canceling study-abroad programs, creating registration systems for any domestic travel.
Columbia University, which I now attend virtually, moved all classes online starting on March 11. The following morning, president Bollinger declared that classes would be held virtually for the remainder of the school year, and suspended all university-related travel; both international and domestic. The pandemic has affected over 114 countries, killing over 4,000 and shows no sign of abating, leading to chaos in university administration and among students. I find myself obsessing over my family in Japan, especially my mother, whose lung cancer puts her at particular risk. Cancellations are affecting future students as well—admitted students’ events, open houses, and campus tours are all being canceled to minimize contagion.
The quick turn to platforms like Zoom is disrupting curricula, particularly for professors less equipped to navigate the internet and the particularities of managing a classroom mediated by a screen and microphone. I had professors cancel class because they had technical difficulties, trouble with WiFi, or were simply panicked over the prospect of teaching the full class over the new platform. With university IT services focusing efforts on providing professors with how-to webinars on using online platforms, individual student needs for these same services have been placed on hold.
While the initial shift online has created a flurry of chaos, there are benefits to a virtual classroom. Especially in a place like New York, students can continue participating in discussion sections and lectures without riding the subway for an hour, avoiding the anxiety of using public transit or being in other incubators like classrooms, public bathrooms and cafeterias. Students can “sit in” on a class while nursing a common cold or allergies that come with the season, but which can make students a target of serious threats or violence—particularly racialized harassment for Asians. I have found immense relief in not having to pay for Lyfts to campus, avoiding side-eyes for my runny nose or using the little remaining hand sanitizer I have left after holding subway poles. In some situations, online teaching may not even affect student behavior or learning. Studies have shown that medical students learn and perform equally in live versus recorded lectures, and these results are reassuring at a time like the COVID-19 outbreak.
However, the reality is that some subjects are much harder to transfer online. A biochemistry or introductory economics lecture is easier to teach virtually than a music or dance class. The creation of a film or theatrical production requires physical bodies in close proximity. Even in my creative writing workshop, responding to a colleagues’ memoir about her mother’s death is hard to do without looking her in the eye. The screen creates an emotional remove that makes it difficult to have back-and-forth dialogue between multiple people, and it’s almost impossible to provide thoughtful feedback without feeling like you’re speaking into a void.
Over the last few decades, online learning in higher education has been studied extensively. Online MBA programs are on the rise, perhaps unsurprising for a field that often requires virtual conferencing and remote collaboration. Universities now offer online master’s programs to accommodate full-time work and long commutes, or to circumvent the financial barriers of moving to a new location with family. Online bachelor’s degrees are offered by a growing number of schools: Ohio State, University of Illinois Chicago, University of Florida, Arizona State, Penn State and many more. The benefits are the same: classes can be taken anywhere, lack of commute offers more time for studying or external commitments, and the structure is more welcoming to students with physical disability or illness. And yet, online learning hasn’t threatened the traditional model of in-person learning.
A large part of this can be attributed to accountability. Online classes require significantly more motivation and attention. I found it difficult to focus on a pixelated video screen when I could browse the internet on my computer, text on my phone, watch TV in the background, have one hand in the pantry, or just lay comfortably in my bed. The problem, too, is that webinar technology doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Noise and feedback—rustling papers, ambulances, kettles, wind—make it impossible to hear people talk, and so everyone is asked to mute their microphones.
But muting your audio means you can’t jump into a conversation quickly. The “raise hand” function often goes unnoticed by teachers and the chat box is distracting. Sometimes the gallery view just doesn’t work, so you’re stuck staring at your own face or just two of your eighteen classmates. It also means another hurdle for those who hesitate to speak up, even in the best of circumstances. It means you’re just one click away from turning off your camera and being totally off the hook. In an online class over the summer, I once watched a woman—who forgot her camera was still on, though she was muted—vacuum her entire kitchen and living room during a seminar.
In a recent New York Times article, columnist Kevin Roose wrote about his experience working from home while quarantined after COVID-19 exposure. Roose, once a remote worker, cites studies that suggest remote employees are more productive, taking shorter breaks and fewer sick days. But he also writes extensively about the isolation and lack of productivity he feels: “I’ve realized that I can’t be my best, most human self in sweatpants, pretending to pay attention on video conferences between trips to the fridge.” He notes that Steve Jobs, who was a firm believer in in-person collaboration and opposed remote work, once said, “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
In educational settings, creativity is arguably one of the most important things at stake. The surprises and unexpected interactions fuel creativity—often a result of sitting in a room brushing shoulders with a classmate, running into professors in a bathroom line, or landing on ideas and insights that arise out of discomfort in the room. This unpredictability is often lost online.
In the essay “Sim Life,” from her book, Make It Scream, Make it Burn, Leslie Jamison writes about the shortcomings of virtual life: “So much of lived experience is composed of what lies beyond our agency and prediction, beyond our grasp, in missteps and unforeseen obstacles and the textures of imperfection: the grit and grain of a sidewalk with its cigarette butts and faint summer stench of garbage and taxi exhaust, the possibility of a rat scuttling from a pile of trash bags, the lilt and laughter of nearby strangers’ voices.”
Classrooms offer these opportunities for riffs and surprise, and a large part of being a student is learning to deliver critique through uncomfortable eye contact, or negotiating a room full of voices and opinions that create friction with your own. When I Zoomed into class from my apartment, I missed being interrupted by classmates who complicated my ideas about a poem or short story. I missed being in workshop and bouncing ideas off of each other to find the best structure for a piece. I missed handwritten critiques, and felt limited in Word: no check pluses, no smiley faces, “Wow” feels flat when it’s not handwritten in the margins, and "Great" feels sarcastic in 10-point Calibri. I was frustrated that I could sleep in because online class meant I could wake up five minutes before class and pretend like I’d been ready all morning.
The COVID-19 pandemic will likely continue presenting challenges beyond those that come up in the course of routine virtual education. Even if this viral spread subsides, or a vaccination becomes readily available, the shift from online classes back to in-person learning may create disruptions of its own—adjusting back to higher standards of accountability, weaning off of phone-checking habits, and transferring comments back to hard copies instead of digital notes. Hopefully, these phases of trouble shooting can provide universities, professors and students the opportunity to practice adaptability, patience and resilience. And hopefully, these experiences will serve as preparation for future challenges that come with the next epidemic, pandemic and other disaster.
For now, I am trying to not look at myself in the gallery of faces, stop being distracted by my expressions, resisting the impulses to check my phone or e-mail, or at least recognize these urges when they arise.
Read more about the coronavirus outbreak here.