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Online Learning From Professors’ Perspectives

While uncertainty over COVID-19 and the subsequent hybrid learning model has been difficult for students across the country over the last two years, the professor and educator experience has varied just as much.  Professors across departments revealed their individual perspectives in interviews. Some preferred to remain anonymous. While each professor’s response held its own unique tint, there were some clear commonalities. 

Multiple professors noted their increased gratitude for the maskless, in-person learning that we got to experience for most of last term. Dr. Jennifer Schaefer, a professor in the History department reflected, “The experience of the last two years has made me appreciate in-person learning even more. I really value it not only in the context of class periods or office hours, but also for the way that it facilitates more impromptu conversations with students and colleagues.” These conversations are important for both faculty and students, as others noted the impersonal nature of masking and how much connection can be missed without facial expressions. 

It seems one of the most difficult aspects has been consistency, which the cyclical nature of the COVID-19 crisis has interrupted. This has caused many shifts to and from distance learning. It is difficult for professors to plan lessons that integrate and connect students online with in-person students, all while delivering same information to both groups. It is substantially harder to plan lessons during Winter Term, when professors no longer have the option to conduct the outdoor, unmasked classes that were helpful assets in the early parts of the fall. 

Professor Michael Hemesath of the Economics department pointed out the tradeoff of the hybrid model: “The average quality would have been higher if you just said ‘We’re going to do everything remotely,’ but for the students that could’ve had the in-person experience, it would’ve been a worse one.” He felt that the consensus was that the online experience is inherently inferior, especially in the hybrid model, but that the benefits of having most in-person students far outweigh the drawbacks of having a few online. One professor discussed the new difficulty of using the chat function, which was extremely useful during the fully online model as a way to hear the voices of quieter students. Multiple professors appreciated that the hybrid model has allowed them to be more flexible with class attendance. 

Other professors echoed their feelings about the inherent limitations of the online and hybrid models but said that more technology could improve the experience. Professor Eddie O’Byrn of the Philosophy department noted that “seeing some more investment in that (microphones, speakers, etc.) would make hybrids more possible. There are certain inherent limitations to facilitating online class and in person [class] at the same time.” He mentioned that while policies vary from department to department, Carleton will reimburse teachers for technology purchases relevant to the hybrid model but typically do not  give out things like lapel microphones directly to professors.

Professor Hemesath appreciated Carleton’s support in this dynamic situation: “Carleton has worked very hard to make sure faculty have access to all the resources we need. We have got a great IT crew, we have a great set of people that know about the distance learning stuff. There’s a learning and teaching center which has helped faculty get up to speed. I can’t imagine a better support system than Carleton for those of us that have had to do some level of distance learning. Compared to many places around the country, we’re very lucky. As far as compared to the ideal Carleton experience…we want to get back to that for sure.” 

Hybrid learning affected professors’ abilities to both get their message across and understand students. Some noted that masks make it slightly difficult to understand students at times and that it can be hard to be fully present in the classroom while still monitoring the chat on Zoom. Some, however, also pointed out that having a more significant portion, or even all, students online was a reality that all faculty had to deal with during the past academic year. This meant they developed the skills necessary to project and communicate with students properly. This often happens through virtual office hours, which multiple professors said they are likely to keep after restrictions are dropped. 

Professor O’Byrn also discussed the varying experiences between professors, noting his recent experience in graduate school where he was expected to be proficient in some level of online teaching. He said that as a relatively young professor, it has perhaps been easier for him to adjust to changes: “The whole first year of the pandemic Carleton offered trainings, but if you’re a person who’s been teaching for two decades, or even a decade, then you have a sense of what you like and what you don’t like and it becomes harder for you to learn a new method for teaching and delivery.” 

Conversations with professors illuminated the bumpiness of their experiences over the past two years. The rhythm they began to experience after the initial online semester was interrupted by constant moves to and from the hybrid model. All professors noted how much they value fully in-person learning, and some discussed how the pandemic has reminded them of what they previously took for granted. Perhaps  empathy towards our professors, colleagues and friends should remain at the forefront of our minds even as restrictions begin to wind down.

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