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Perspectives on Virtual Learning

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Pandemic-prompted online classes are problematic. That's no secret. Both students and teachers have had their share of difficulties with them. Some have taken the time to articulate their issues and I'll explore a few of those perspectives in this article. My emphasis will be on higher education, but the attitudes cited can also apply to high school and lower grades, since online classes have been underway since March of this past spring.


Teachers attempt to be transparent in their online classes. By that, I mean the process of their teaching comes across the internet with little or no sign of strain. Students watching rarely perceive difficulties in what's being taught or within the person teaching it. This is a significant credit to teachers, whose major prep time is invisible to students.

Students, on the other hand, are less likely to hide their frustrations, either real-time or in time-shifted sessions (pre-recorded lectures). Part of outspoken student frustration, especially at the college level, may be due to resentment — the ongoing disappointment of not being able to participate in the full experience of the educational arena. Sitting in a classroom among peers is much more conducive to community learning than viewing disembodied images on a Zoom screen.

Zoom Courses Present Challenges for Instructors

Considering teacher perspectives first brings me to a cogent statement by a college professor, written during last spring's "lockdowns." In her Inside Higher Ed article, Why We're Exhausted by Zoom, University of Notre Dame Anthropology Professor Susan D. Blum says, "Twitter, Facebook and the news media are filled with people lamenting their weariness after Zoom class sessions. I feel that, too."

Why is that? This ties into the "transparency" effect. With virtual instruction, teachers are not energized by the communal power of the "real" classroom. Being in close proximity to a group of students is a stimulus. Presenting the same information across the internet with only a computer-generated "classroom" is largely sterile. Thus, presenters must raise the game to come off as the kind of teachers they really are. Virtual teaching requires extra effort on multiple levels. Blum notes:

... In a Zoom classroom with 30 students, we see faces — just like in a classroom. We see eye movement. We can hear voices. It can even be enhanced by chat — almost like hearing people thinking out loud. It is multimodal, to some extent. We see gestures, at least some big ones. All this is information used by our human capacity for understanding interaction. So far, so good.

Zoom works well for faculty members who lecture, or for groups that have formal meetings, with rules for who speaks and how to signal an interest in speaking. As long as the symphony is directed by an authority figure, order can be kept. The trumpets come in on cue. It is calm. Information and views can be exchanged. It beats a long email exchange any day!

But in the more interactive, active classrooms that I aim to create, this is terrible ... Over my decades of teaching, I've learned to read a room pretty well: the harmonized posture, the breaths, the laughter, the eye gaze. My classes are successful when everyone is so excited that they want to speak over each other out of sheer exuberance. When people sit up straight and say, "Wait! Do you mean …?" because they have a brand-new way to understand the world — that's the superpower of anthropology. When students huddling around a text point to it, their gazes converging, and create a document they're proud of. When people laugh simultaneously. When the affect and the cognition and the interaction work together ...

This is the energy that stimulates students and energizes teachers. I've been in classrooms like that and it's a memorable experience. One particular experience I recall is a music history class I had my first year of college. Our professor was discussing Beethoven's three compositional periods. As an example of his "classical" period, he played a recording of the slow movement of Beethoven's "Pathetique" piano sonata.

Since I was quite familiar with compositions that spanned all of Beethoven's compositional periods, I spoke up and noted that Beethoven sometimes reused previous melodic elements in later compositions. Our professor immediately asked me for specifics, so I cited the opening melody of the Adagio movement from his iconic Symphony No. 9, which was composed near the end of his "late" period.

A fellow student in my class, an accomplished classical pianist, challenged my point, so I retrieved a piano score of the Ninth Symphony from the classroom library, opened it to the Adagio movement, placed it on the nearby piano and asked the pianist to play the first page. He did and was amazed at the similarity between the melodies of the sonata and symphony, composed a quarter century apart. Even our professor had never noticed the likeness. Imagine trying to bring off a point like this on Zoom.

Breakout Rooms Offer Some Assistance

In her summary, Blum accurately appraises the difference between in-person and virtual classes:

I have used Zoom's small-group breakout room for some tasks to some effect, though it is cumbersome. In one class, where they are in project teams, I have to manually put the students into groups, and it takes measurable minutes, and then joining groups takes a little while, and then exiting each group takes time … I haven't counted, but it definitely takes time, and students are frustrated with all their teachers having to learn the intricacies of Zoom. The dead time is, well, deadly to the rhythms.

When I see that technological platforms such as Zoom provide some imitations of face-to-face interaction, what I notice the most is that I miss the three-dimensional faces and the bodies and the eyes and the breaths.

Humans are delicately attuned to each other's complete presence. If a perfectly tuned conversation provides a "vision of sanity," then it is no wonder that an awkward, clunky, interrupted conversation provides the opposite. We are constantly interpreting others' movements, timing, breaths, gazes, encouragement. It is our beautiful endowment. So we're interpreting the misaligned gazes, the interrupted conversation, as stemming from the technology, not from the interlocutor. And that, my human friends, is a tale of human-technology-semiotic mismatch.

I think the reason that Professor Blum finds Zoom so exhausting is because she is trying her best to effect in-person intimacy and community for her students. That's nearly impossible in a virtual world, but her students should be mindful of her efforts as they see an education professional delivering learning with seeming transparent ease.

Students Say They're Dissatisfied With Online Learning

What about students' views of virtual learning? Inside Higher Ed's Doug Lederman investigated some of them in How College Students Viewed This Spring's Remote Learning. He cites a Wisconsin professor's survey that queried students before and after courses went virtual. It revealed some interesting attitudes, similar to the results of several other earlier studies, such as these:

But there is hope. In his survey, Loepp posed this agree/disagree statement: "I could learn at least as much as I did in face-to-face meetings."

On a scale of one (strongly disagree) to seven (strongly agree), the average response for students in his courses was 4.89 — "squarely on the 'agree' side, which is great, particularly given circumstances that severely disrupted both the micro and macro learning environments," Loepp said via email. "But it also suggests there is some room for me to develop and grow as an online leader/facilitator."

Teachers should be willing to expand their virtual skills and effectiveness since it appears that virtual learning is going to be an active component of education for the foreseeable future. "Flexibility" is the needed keyword for both teachers and students.