When a Zoom licensing issue prevented several students from joining David Burk’s 331-person “Econ Principles Micro” lecture on the first day of classes, he was devastated.
Before this semester, Burk had only held Zoom lectures of about 30 people, so he was not aware that the standard Zoom license limits meetings to 300 participants. Even after asking the teaching assistants to leave the call to make room for more students, Burk was still unable to accommodate all the students in the class.
“For many students, this wasn’t just the first class of the year, it was the very first class of college,” Burk wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Not only did they have to tune in from their high school bedroom rather than a lecture hall, many of them couldn’t tune it at all. Talk about anticlimactic.”
Although Burk was able to fix the Zoom licensing issue with help from Georgetown University, the technical issues he encountered on the first day are just one example of the difficulties of online teaching this semester.
“Before the second class, we reached out to the Georgetown Service Center who was able to ‘boost’ my Zoom license for the rest of the semester,” Burk wrote. “But on that first day about 30 of my new students were left out in the cold!”
To Zoom or Not To Zoom?
Technical issues with Zoom and other academic tools, such as Proctorio, an online exam proctoring system, are not limited to large classes. Professors in a variety of departments have had distinct struggles adapting to online teaching.
Raina Lucas, who is teaching the GU Dance Company course this semester, noted how poor internet connectivity and differences in students’ living conditions can make it difficult to hold virtual dance classes.
“There are many challenges to teaching dance synchronously online. First, there is a lag between the music I share on Zoom and what my students see or hear me do,” Lucas wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Then, there is the issue of space, which is a big component to being able to fully move the body. Some of my students are very fortunate to be able to work in larger spaces, while others are crammed in tighter areas, making it difficult to fully dance.”
As a result of these issues, many professors have had to change the structure of their classes and lessons to better fit the virtual environment. Science professors like Heidi Elmendorf, who teaches the large lecture class “Foundations in Biology I,” a requirement for pre-med students and a prerequisite for higher-level biology classes, have struggled to teach traditional lab courses without access to on-campus equipment.
For this semester, Elmendorf has redesigned her lab courses into kitchen science labs as a way for students to incorporate experiential learning techniques at home.
“Turns out that you can do things the fancy way in the lab, or you can do things like on your kitchen counter, so we’re doing a bunch of that,” Elmendorf said in an interview with The Hoya. “We know it’s not nearly as much fun as being in lab, but it feels at least like they’re still feeling like they’re really interesting and engaging their learning a lot.”
Other professors have decided to forgo Zoom altogether. Mark Giordano, who teaches “Map of the Modern World,” a required pass-fail one-credit course for undergraduate students in the School of Foreign Service, opted to make the course completely asynchronous by posting all lectures on the course Canvas page for students to watch at their convenience.
Asynchronous classes come with their own set of issues, including difficulty gauging student understanding and creating engaging lectures without a live audience, according to Giordano.
“The number-one difficulty is talking by yourself in a room with no feedback — if it’s working or not working, and trying to set the tone in a way that sounds somehow engaging if someone’s listening to it outside,” Giordano said in an interview with The Hoya. “So I’m talking to a screen, trying to motivate myself as though there were people in front of me.”
To address this issue of engagement, Giordano has implemented a new policy requiring students to meet with teaching assistants, as well as dividing his lectures into shorter chunks.
Although some courses can function asynchronously, others, such as Lucas’ dance class, work best in real-time, as it allows for more bonding and a better understanding of the dances.
“I teach mostly synchronously because dance is such an experiential art form,” Lucas wrote. “There is nothing wrong with asynchronous work—it provides so much flexibility for the students, but discussions with student leadership reminded me how important it was that we continue building community even in this virtual landscape.”
Establishing a sense of community in virtual classrooms is more important than ever, as social distancing takes its toll on professors and students alike.
Issues of stress and isolation can be overwhelming, with 53% of American adults reporting in mid-July that their mental health has declined because of COVID-19-related stress. However, being able to gather online for classes can serve as a grounding point, according to history professor Adam Rothman, who this semester is teaching “Atlantic World,” a survey course that fulfills the general education requirement.
“The biggest difficulties are not technological, but the many psychological stresses that we are all facing,” Rothman wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We have all been through a lot in the past six months, with no end in clear sight. Honestly, the time I spend with students on Zoom are actually a respite for me. I take comfort in the fact that I can still do my job.”
In light of these difficulties, professors have gone to great lengths to provide students with more flexibility and understanding by implementing strategies like Zoom breaks during classes.
David Ebenbach, who teaches a 19-student fiction writing class, usually includes a brief 10-minute break in his 75-minute discussion to mitigate Zoom fatigue students may experience from being in online classes all day. During this break, students are allowed to turn off their cameras and write freehand in a notebook, use the restroom or lie down, according to Ebenbach.
“I think the first thing, and I think we’re all there, is the recognition that Zoom fatigue is real,” Ebenbach said in an interview with The Hoya. “I think we sometimes think, ‘Well, I should just kind of tough it on out,’ and ‘What is it? I’m just looking at a computer. I already looked at a computer. What’s new?’ But, actually, no one’s ever asked us to do this for this length of time.”
Classes that require more creativity from students are especially affected by the overwhelming stress and fatigue of this semester, according to Thomas Xenakis, who is teaching a studio art class.
“I’ve always been passionate about my students’ mental health and physical health, because you can’t be creative with stress,” Xenakis said in an interview with The Hoya. “If I was engaging in the class, I would see it all over their faces. Now, in Zoom, you can hide behind that computer a little.”
Xenakis has implemented many new strategies to help alleviate student stress, such as setting up a tripod system to record himself painting in real-time and sending personal emails to students who have shared their distress with him.
Given the diversity of students’ living situations and the difficulties of virtual learning, the burden of classroom engagement can feel especially heavy for professors, according to Rothman.
“I take it as my responsibility as a teacher to make class interesting and engaging enough so that students want to be present, attentive, and participatory,” Rothman wrote. “I’m afraid that I don’t always succeed.”
It Takes a Village
In spite of the difficulties of online learning and teaching during a pandemic, students and professors have largely been able to come together and support one another, according to Manus Patten, who is teaching “Foundations in Biology II” and a lab this semester.
“I’ve been warmed by the students’ efforts,” Patten wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Maybe their grieving process for the loss of the usual semester was quicker than mine, and maybe they got to acceptance sooner, but I haven’t encountered much of the anger or despair about Zoom that I myself felt. I’ve been able to draw on their willingness to give it a go to motivate myself to give it a go, too.”
Professors have been especially conscious of the struggles first-year students may face in adapting to virtual learning. It is important for not only professors to engage these first-year students, but also upperclassmen, who can help them feel more connected to the larger Georgetown community, according to Lucas.
“I knew the freshmen might struggle to connect socially, so the returning student leadership and I organized some projects to promote peer-to-peer interaction,” Lucas wrote. “The returning students are working to do more virtual social activities outside of class time to help the freshmen feel better connected.”
The university has also offered a lot of support for professors both before and during this semester through programs such as the Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship, which has served as a resource on teaching practices and technologies for professors since 2000.
Over the summer, Georgetown offered courses specifically designed to prepare professors for the potential of an upcoming virtual semester through CNDLS. About 1,900 faculty members participated in these summer workshops, with about 1,200 also undergoing intensive training for virtual learning techniques, according to a university spokesperson.
“We are extremely proud of the efforts being taken by our faculty members to make their courses accessible and flexible for students, who are in their first full semester of virtual learning,” the university spokesperson wrote. “We will continue to support our faculty into the future.”
Even with the unpredictable and taxing situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shift to virtual learning, the resilience and unity of the Georgetown intellectual community should continue to inspire professors, according to Rothman.
“Teaching at Georgetown is an incredible privilege, in part because the university is a community of people who are truly dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge,” Rothman wrote. “We have to defend that concept right now; it’s under tremendous stress.”