Jack Sleeman is a 4.0 student who is passionate about his major, spends most of his time studying in the library and has big aspirations for an elite medical school. He is among many students at the University of Miami struggling to adapt to remote learning.
Sleeman, a sophomore biochemistry and chemistry major, started the spring semester with a hefty course load, taking physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, nanomedicine, cellular biology and evolutionary biology.
“I picked these classes because I thought I could handle them really well,” Sleeman said, noting that before the switch to online he had no problem managing everything. “Now it’s really hard to find motivation to stay on track.” Without the academic community and consistent study space he has when he’s on campus, he said virtual learning has been really difficult to get used to.
One student is determined to make the most of the situation. More than 5,000 miles away from the Coral Gables campus, freshman Jodi Nicole Kain is continuing her studies from her home in Anchor Point, Alaska.
When classes resumed virtually, Kain said she was happy to have some semblance of normalcy and routine back to her life. However, Kain’s schedule is now far from normal. Operating on a four-hour time difference, Kain’s 9:30 a.m. class has now become a 5:30 a.m. class.
Most people would likely hit the snooze button and watch their recorded lecture some other time. Instead, Kain said she now wakes up at 4:30 in the morning, makes some coffee, gets dressed and starts her day off in her English 106 class alongside classmates meeting from all over the world. Students from Brazil, Mexico, China, Italy, California and elsewhere sign on each Tuesday and Thursday despite their time zone differences.
Along with universities and colleges across the nation, UM transitioned to remote learning for the remainder of the spring semester in response to COVID-19. Over an extended two-week spring break, faculty and administration worked to transition all undergraduate and graduate programs to an online format starting March 24.
Jeffrey Duerk, the executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at UM, said that this transition to remote learning has marked a historical moment for higher education.
“It’s probably the only time in academic history that faculty and students are learning at the same rate, and that the faculty are learning how to apply and how to deploy curricula in a completely new format that was not widely used at the University of Miami,” Duerk said. “At the same time, students are learning they can learn in this format.”
In-person lectures and discussions turned into virtual classes mostly held either through Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Hands-on classes such as chemistry labs now require students to watch videos of the labs taking place rather than performing the experiments themselves. For students with back-to-back classes, this can mean spending several consecutive hours of their day staring at screens. Nearly a month into remote classes with just two weeks left in the semester, many students are finding that learning from their homes isn’t the same.
“When I go onto Zoom classes it’s really hard to pay attention and learn,” Sleeman said. “I’m very discouraged because I don’t feel like I’m learning anything.”
Sleeman said that while he appreciates his professors’ efforts, the online format is not as conducive to learning, especially when students aren’t used to it.
On top of all of his classes, Sleeman is a workshop leader for organic chemistry, which he continues to host virtually. There too, he has noticed a similar trend among students.
“Less people show up to workshops and I think that’s indicative of less motivation,” Sleeman said. “I used to have 10 people show up and now I have two or three. Even though there is more time in the day, people aren’t going to things like this involving school.”
Continuing classes from home has also been a big adjustment for junior Aloki Patel, a biology and criminology double major. She said her house is always loud and distractions like binge-watching tv with her family can make it harder to be self-disciplined with her workload.
In most of her classes, lectures are pre-recorded and posted to Blackboard, and assignments, quizzes and exams can be completed as the students are ready anytime before the end of the semester.
A visual learner, Patel also said it is more difficult to master anatomical structures in her anatomy lab without the models she had in class.
However, any trouble she has had has been evenly matched by gracious understanding from her professors and consistent communication, she said.
“I can see them putting an effort in this virtual transition as well,” Patel said.
For Frost music students, taking classes online is very different. Now that students don’t have the ability to perform and practice together, Frost School of Music Dean Shelly Berg said students are learning how to properly record their music and overlay it with their fellow classmates’ tracks using audio engineering programs.
While this presents an opportunity for students to learn new skills, Dean Berg said that music is a very social activity, and he’s sure students are missing that aspect of class time.
“Music students know each other, they play music together. There is a strong family bond and I think they’re really going to be missing that and they’re going to be anxious to get back together,” he said.
Jasmine Ortiz, a sophomore in Frost studying musicianship and artistry development and entrepreneurship, has found some classes to be lenient and manageable, while others are now more work with less reward.
Attending classes and meetings and making time to complete school work while also taking care of her dogs and helping around the house has been a juggling act for Ortiz. When she’s in class during the day, like many others, Ortiz said she has found it difficult to pay attention and engage.
Ortiz said staring at her screen all day has also been bad for her health.
“It’s been really hard on my eyes to be on the computer all the time and I’ve been getting much more frequent headaches from intense screentime,” Ortiz said.
Senior Katie Kean said that while she has enjoyed collaborating with her classmates virtually, she has found some frustration in an increase in busy work assigned now that her classes are running remotely. Kean, an economics and political science double major, said that in some of her classes her workload has quadrupled.
“Much of this work is not meaningful or useful,” Kean said.
Sleeman said he thinks a lot of students are struggling right now because academics isn’t their priority during this time of crisis.
“A lot of people have the anxiety of worrying that their family may get the coronavirus and die. When you have a pandemic going on people aren’t able to perform at the same level,” Sleeman said. He has expressed his own concern over his father who works as a doctor at Jackson Hospital in downtown Miami.
With this in mind, the university is providing a credit or no credit option for classes. Students that opt into this are able to take classes and earn credit as long as they pass them without any impact on their gpa. Provost Duerk stressed that students should consider taking classes for credit if they think it will help them manage their academics during this time.
“I think one of the things we recognize both for the faculty and students is this is highly unusual, highly disruptive and it’s not the new normal,” Duerk said. “If that little pressure relief is useful, then we want to make sure that you take advantage of that.”
Some students, however, are unsure if taking classes for credit will impact their prospects for graduate schools.
While remote learning during this pandemic has made his courses more difficult, Sleeman said he likely wouldn’t consider taking classes for credit or no credit due to uncertainty of how this will look on his transcript.
Students, professors and administrators alike agree that virtual learning is not an ideal format. Meeting over Zoom or Collaborate Ultra has changed classroom dynamics, Kain said.
Kain, a political science major, said she misses meeting in person for her conspiracy theories class, which featured several special guest speakers throughout the semester.
“Our professors record their lectures and guest speakers, but it’s not the same as being able to interact in person and see what percentage of the class believes in which conspiracy theory in live time,” Kain said.
John Funchion, an associate professor and director of graduate studies at the College of Arts and Sciences, also agrees that online classes have a less organic feel to them.
“When there is a silence in class it’s often because people need to think about the question, but on Zoom it just seems like an empty void,” he said. While Zoom has been a reliable resource for him to continue instruction, Funchion said he won’t miss it.
“As nice as Zoom has been, I will be happy if I never hear the words Zoom or Blackboard Ultra again once this is over,” Funchion said.
Over in the computer science department, however, department chair Geoff Sutcliffe said that the online format has actually enriched his classes. Teaching “onlive,” as he calls it, has in some ways been better than in-person instruction.
For example, in his course on android applications, Sutcliffe can provide helpful one-on-one attention to students with questions by using break-out rooms on Zoom.
“Being able to break out into a private interaction with a student allows me to focus very strongly on their personal needs,” Sutcliffe said. He is also pre-recording lectures for students to listen to before they meet over Zoom, which Sutcliffe said is something he may continue to implement once in-person classes resume.
While remote learning has provided opportunities for more efficiency, Sutcliffe said that it can make things less spontaneously imaginative.
Provost Duerk said he appreciates the efforts of both students and faculty to make virtual learning work for the time being.
“I really look forward to the students and the faculty continuing to commit to this as the way that the learning has to be for this period of time.”
Duerk reasserted however, that online classes will not be the new normal.
“I don’t want anyone to think that this is the way it’s going to be in the future,” Duerk said. “This is a temporary sort of incident in the world. We’ll get through this and we will be a better university as a consequence of it.”
Katherine Begg and Jesse Lieberman contributed to the reporting of this story.