What do virtual classrooms look like? The answer varies, but since the mid-semester switch to online instruction, faculty have become creative, adapting with digital tools for virtual labs, adding podcasts, adjusting with video streaming software for lectures and discussion, directing choirs on pitch in Zoom rooms, and even creating virtual space for mindfulness and self care.
But teaching through a pandemic calls for more than simply providing lessons from afar; it calls for additional compassion and patience.
Having the virtual classroom setting now inside the homes of both professors and students makes for some lighter class moments, like seeing the stuffed animals that adorn a childhood bedroom or being interrupted by children or parents or pets, who sometimes make guest appearances in the “classroom.”
The change also provides a window into the more challenging aspects of lives altered by stay-at-home orders, including students who struggle with a host of problems, from internet access to financial and mental health needs, to caring for sick relatives or being ill themselves.
Whatever their circumstances, about 21,000 students are trying to complete a spring term like no other.
“It’s too early to know definitively how successful we are at supporting students during the COVID crisis, but faculty are positive if cautious,” says Emily J. Isaacs, executive director of the Office for Faculty Advancement. “They report that students are coming to classes, although attendance is lower, and students tell them of family members who are ill, and even more frequently, out of work.”
While taking classes, many Montclair State students are working on the front lines of the pandemic, including first responders, nurses and public health professionals. They are essential workers, cashiers at the grocery store, teachers home schooling both their own children and those in New Jersey classrooms.
Assistant Professor Thomas E. Franklin says his experience as a journalist prepared him for this crisis. “I’ve been in situations where the unpredictable happened and you’re trying to function under the strain of an emotional world occurrence. You just figure out a way to still do your job and be productive.”
Like other professors, Franklin is learning of the hardships many students are experiencing – students like Diana Ortiz, a senior majoring in Communication and Media Arts who juggles her course load with working full time as a unit secretary on a trauma floor at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital to pay tuition.
The coronavirus is always on her mind, she says, whether she is at work or at home. At the hospital, “you don’t know what you’re walking into. Talking to nurses, and seeing their eyes, there is a lot of anxiety.”
Her biggest worry, Ortiz says, is bringing the virus into the home she shares with her parents. And while no longer commuting nearly an hour to campus, the stress at work and pressure of finishing the semester leave her more tired than usual. “Half the time, I’m in a daze,” Ortiz says. “My mind just isn’t there.”
Ortiz says she is grateful to the professors like Franklin who recognize what she is going through. “It goes a long way – the support you get, it goes a long way.”
“Faculty at Montclair State have always felt great compassion and even affection for their students, but perhaps more so than ever before, faculty are communicating this compassion directly to their students,” Isaacs says.
Pass/Fail options for undergraduates and flexibility of deadlines are among the ways the University and faculty are removing barriers as students transition to the online learning environment.
“That’s been a big thing for us,” says Rebecca Linares, an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning. “We’re trying to be mindful to not make any assumptions about what it means when a student doesn’t show up or doesn’t turn something in. Our students are navigating totally different realities right now and different responsibilities.”
Supporting the rapid preparation with the mid-March decision to move all classes online, the University developed a peer-to-peer model to share strategies and instructional technologies. The support includes developing a variety of ways for students to attend class, access content knowledge and demonstrate their comprehension. Faculty say they’re finding ways to bring mindfulness – the practice of paying attention to a moment with openness and curiosity – into their virtual assignments.
In a class on religions of the world, meditative practices were integrated alongside the introduction to Asian religions, students listening to a recording of chants to soothe their minds. “I’m trying to incorporate some of the things we’ve been learning as tools for potentially coping with this situation,” says Assistant Professor Kate Temoney.
“It’s become so much more important,” adds Heather J. Buchanan, professor in the Cali School of Music. “I am trying to help students cope and find a sense of purpose through meaningful learning experiences. Also encouraging them to understand that when this situation is eventually over, hopefully it will be a small blip in the context of a whole life. But for most students, it is tremendously overwhelming right now.”
Distance Can’t Keep Them Apart
Students find ways to connect online to socialize, stay fit and maintain a sense of ‘campus life’
How do college students connect when they must be physically distant? Turns out, when they tune in, Zoom in and plug in, there’s actually quite a lot.
With stay-at-home orders to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Montclair State students are getting creative and staying connected by posting on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and other popular social media sites.
The screen time is helping them get a sense of normalcy back. “We live in a time where we can do things like this. We can do video calls, we can game together, we can FaceTime together,” said Kaya Maciak, a sophomore Communication and Media Arts major.
For students missing the rituals of the spring semester, and especially the seniors disappointed by the postponement of Commencement and the cancellation of special events, putting their energy and creativity into the videos has lessened the sting.
Senior dance majors raised the video barre, recording a virtual “last” performance of their spring showcase, Martha Graham’s “Ritual to the Sun” from Acts of Light. The dancers move across their lawns or kitchens, wherever they could find the space, performing the choreography they have been rehearsing for months before COVID-19 canceled their show at the University Partners Showcase in New York City.
Even the school mascot, Rocky the Red Hawk, while social distancing from his “nest,” created a video with other university mascots.