Distance and Virtual Learning: What I Would Change

by Jake Balthazor

We are all trying to talk at once, the audio keeps dropping in and out, and some people have problems getting online. Eventually these issues get sorted—after ten minutes or so—and the seminar can start. After losing part of class time while waiting for everything to work, we rush through the rest. The professor—unable to gauge fully how focused his class is (webcams are usually switched off)—sprints through as much content as possible. There is just enough time for a Q&A at the end. We repeat this in every class meeting until the end of semester. Some professors decide that they can deal with the technical issues that accompany—almost by definition—virtual and distance learning. Another professor of mine simply cancelled all their future classes, prematurely putting an end to teaching.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected the way we learn. It drove us out of the classroom, into our homes, and onto our computers. This is, of course, not the extent of the pandemic, and part of me feels bad for criticizing the virtual learning experience. It was something we were all quickly ushered in to, teachers and students alike. How can I expect it to work straightaway?

Peter Wright and Hamish Macleod wrote in 2006 that there had been a shift from classroom learning to “e-learning” or internet learning, which, they claimed, would forever change the way we learn and the way academics and students gather sources. Our university libraries would now be online, and all essays would have to be typewritten and submitted via an online portal (136-48). All of this seems very normal to me, and it is hard to remember what learning was like before we had resources like online catalogues and JSTOR or platforms like Canvas. Maybe, then, we are now undergoing another evolution in education. There has been some suggestion that virtual learning and online classes will remain a more prominent feature of university life after the pandemic is over.

If the switch to virtual and distance learning is embraced by more universities, I hope that some of what I had experienced until my last semester as an undergraduate student was interrupted—closeness and community among students, debate sometimes running over class time—is not lost. These things, I felt, contributed to an experience that is vastly different from what an hour in a virtual or online classroom has been. I think some of the most enjoyable and important parts of education—especially in an arts and humanities course—are the student-led discussions. For example, before the pandemic, during a class meeting about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, peers brought up personal experiences, and sometimes passion would see them rise out of their chairs. This was embraced. You would get to know one another, and this helped me understand the impact that a text or film could have. For me, this is all lost in the current state of virtual classrooms. I think the way online classes operate currently is too formulaic: we have lost our sense of community that comes from being in the same physical classroom and, because of that, the comfort to express ourselves, which helped facilitate a rich class discussion. It is harder to be excited, outraged, or infuriated.

I accept that the switch to virtual learning during the pandemic has been necessary for almost everyone and can also be more cost-effective for universities. However, if this classroom format becomes more pervasive and permanent, teachers should consider allowing and inviting people to talk more, and class meetings should be longer to allow for both discussion and wading through technical issues. All my seminars during the autumn 2020 semester were one hour, and I think that students would benefit from more time together so that each meeting does not feel like another lecture, with the teachers trying to explain as much information as they can before the time is up. I can sense their frustration. They leave one class just as it might gather some momentum to then be stuck for ten minutes trying to get everything working with the next group of students. Longer class times would be a practical solution to allow for more discussion and help re-create the feel of a seminar.

In these virtual classrooms, often dialogue or questions took place through the “chat” function. This remains an extremely narrow method of communication that does not open the topic up to other students as it would if vocalized in a classroom debate or in group work. The claustrophobic sensation is enhanced by the fact that most students decide to turn their cameras off. This practically wipes out the feeling of being part of a class at all, emphasizing the absence of a strong student presence. Furthermore, although Q&As at the end of class can be useful, they do not feel explorative in the way that a debate or discussion can be. It is important to keep student voices the focus of seminars. One way to make online and virtual learning more effective could involve the teacher selecting students to respond to their peers’ questions. Although we may be unable to talk in pairs or in groups as in a physical classroom, at least this way there can still be some student-led discussion.

Another solution could be to add more group work. Students could have group meetings over Skype or Zoom and then present the results at the start of each class, guided by a set of questions or just based on their reflections from the meeting. I have also focused mainly on seminars in this essay, rather than lecture classes, since this part of university seems to be the most affected and feels the most different in a virtual environment. For me, seminars were never simply note-taking exercises, and they do not need to be, even when taking place online.

Works Cited

Wright, Peter, and Hamish Macleod. 2006. Get Set for Psychology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Jake Balthazor is a recent graduate from Queen Mary University of London. He currently holds a BA in history and comparative literature, and his research interests at the undergraduate level focused on utopianism and revolution in literature. He hopes to go on to further study in the future.