Professors Stumble Through Online Teaching As Classes Resume

Through an ad-hoc mix of videoconferencing, discussion boards and recorded lectures, university students across the city are back in school.

college online
The Loyola University Chicago campus is deserted save the occasional dog walker now that students have left and classes have all moved online. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
college online
The Loyola University Chicago campus is deserted save the occasional dog walker now that students have left and classes have all moved online. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Professors Stumble Through Online Teaching As Classes Resume

Through an ad-hoc mix of videoconferencing, discussion boards and recorded lectures, university students across the city are back in school.

Loyola University Chicago history professor Ben Johnson was in the middle of a lecture on World War II one early morning last week when he tried to share a picture of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms with his class via Zoom video. As he started to describe the picture, freshman Molly Sheehan interrupted.

“I don’t see the PowerPoint,” she said, hesitantly. In fact, no one could see it.

“That’s intensely irritating,” Johnson said as he and the students troubleshooted until the picture appeared.

Students at Loyola said these kinds of situations are the new normal as professors and students have adjusted to online learning after universities shut down in-person operations to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Many local universities are resuming classes online this week after allowing professors to shift courses online over extended spring breaks.

Loyola had already held their spring break earlier in March and shifted classes online almost in real time. Students said it’s been a confusing time as professors scale up courses differently, some communicating better than others. Sheehan said Professor Johnson’s class has been a welcome constant.

“He is like the absolute pillar of what people should be doing,” she said via Zoom from her bedroom in Eden Prairie, Minn., just outside Minneapolis. “He’s done a really good job of trying to adjust, but not completely change everything.”

Sheehan says Johnson communicated often, quickly and alerted students early that going online was probable during their last in-person class.

“My other three professors that I had that day said, ‘Oh, we’re not going online. That’s ridiculous,’” Sheehan said. “It was the last time I ever saw them.”

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Campus facilities are closed at Loyola University Chicago and other schools across Illinois and the country during the coronavirus shutdown. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Students said they’re craving routine and clarity from their professors during these uncertain times. There’s no such thing as too many emails and they want direction academically.

“I don't really need someone holding my hand through it all,” Loyola sophomore Emily Slimko said. “I just need someone to tell me what to do. [But] they don't know what to do either.”

For professors who have gone online, some are holding live Zoom video classes at the same time and day as their in-person classes. Others are recording lectures and posting them, shifting to online discussion boards for class conversation.

Alex Bean, an adjunct film professor at Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, said his main goal is to remain flexible. Some students can’t access good internet for live classes so he’s posting recorded lectures on YouTube. He’s searching for ways students can watch movies online for free. He wants them to save their money.

“It’s a handful of dollars, but if it’s a choice between staying in class for the rest of the semester and groceries, buy your groceries,” he said.

At McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, nearly 100 staff who don’t have assigned duties have been trained as “online navigators,” including maintenance and cafeteria workers and those who work in the registrar’s office. Jessica Rizza works in development and is helping students in four courses on top of her regular duties. She recently helped a student connect online.

“She didn’t have reliable internet at home so she reached out and asked me what [she] can do,” Rizza said.

If students have a specific person to contact who can help address their needs, school administrators hope it’ll prevent them from dropping out.

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Normally bustling with students, the University of Illinois at Chicago campus is empty on March 31, 2020. Students were all sent home for rest of the year to finish school online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

For some students, Zoom classes can be difficult to attend at the same time now that they’re scattered across time zones. But recorded video lectures can also be tough, especially for hands-on classes, like nursing or science labs. In Slimko’s nursing class, they’re watching videos of techniques rather than doing them.

“I can't see what they're doing [in the video] because the nurse doing it is [leaning] over the dummy and you can’t see everything she’s doing.” she said.

Slimko said nursing students are told Loyola will hold boot camps in the fall so students can pick up skills they aren’t practicing in person.

On top of all of this, students said it’s difficult to motivate to do school work from their homes. It’s also distracting. Loyola junior Hannah Dershem went back to her parent’s house in Michigan along with four younger brothers and her fiance.

“There’s eight of us trying to do meetings and school work, so there’s a lot of schedule conflict,” she said. “I’m like, ‘OK, guys, you have to be quiet. I’m in a class,’ and they’re like, ‘But it's lunch time!’”

Slimko said she put a schedule on her bedroom door so her family knows when they shouldn’t burst in.

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DePaul University’s Student Center is nearly empty on March 31, 2020 as students have moved off campus to do their schoolwork online. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

By the end of Johnson’s lecture on World War II last week, students were able to not only view the pictures and have a discussion, but also watch video clips through Zoom. Still, Molly Sheehan said her favorite part is seeing everyone’s faces.

“Being able to see Professor Johnson and other people in my class and hear our voices and talk about stuff like we used to before all this, it’s almost like a comfort during times of such turmoil,” she said.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.