Monday, June 1, 2020

Online classes pose challenges for STEM, arts majors

April 9, 2020
Photos taken inside a biochemistry research lab on March 15, 2020.
Photos taken inside a biochemistry research lab on March 15, 2020. —
Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

While adjusting to the sudden switch to online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students and professors have realized the new learning platform poses unique difficulties across academic disciplines. 

Many of the courses, from biology labs to language courses, are now on the online video chatting platform Zoom, which many professors say currently provides the best alternative to in-person classes while still abiding by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order.

Arts and humanities students have struggled with actually benefiting from the classes now that they have transitioned online, theatre senior Sarah Davis said.

“Overall, it’s been disappointing,” Davis said. “It's been a letdown to end my college experience on this note because the majority of my classes — being a BFA in theatre — are performance-based. So, it’s been a big challenge to try to still get any sort of benefit from these classes and not just be doing them for the sake of getting the grade.”

Davis said online learning makes it difficult for students in performance-based classes to complete projects.

“We definitely miss a collaborative, supportive energy that we receive from our classmates,” Davis said. “That’s something that’s really nice about acting and performance-based classes, is if you experience a roadblock, you’re in a class with however many people who are probably experiencing the same exact thing.”

For those learning a foreign language, moving to an online learning platform takes away a crucial part of the course — communication.

“Languages rely on communicating with each other,” Matthew Kanefsky, basic language instruction coordinator for French, said. “Being in an online environment, you aren’t actually with each other. ... language courses, at least the way we (at MSU) teach them, are supposed to be communicative. It’s sort of an artificial environment when you’re staring into a computer screen.”

For STEM majors, the online platform has made it difficult for students to get the necessary assistance from professors for science labs, freshman Tushya Mehta, who is studying biology and German, said.

“It’s really hard to convert everything which is supposed to be done in the lab to an online version," Mehta said. “Basically the struggles we’re facing is we’re being given artificial data, and analyzing those different data sets without actually doing anything and writing a report on them is really challenging right now. That’s the part we are all struggling with because the grades and the number of points and everything remains the same.”

Students said they’re struggling with the lack of interaction with other students during online labs, since collaboration with lab groups is an important factor in the course.

“I think one difficulty of not being in person anymore is not being able to interact with people in person, and talking to them in person for assignments,” computer science freshman Henry Xu said. “Even though we still have Piazza and a question/answer form in Zoom, it’s not the same as that in-person feeling.”

Transitioning STEM labs to an online format poses a challenge for professors, as they have to ensure students are getting quality learning.

"I think the biggest difficulty for faculty, in terms of how to make this transition, is, obviously, that it was very abrupt," Ryan Sweeder, associate professor in the Lyman Briggs College, said. "We already had in place what we were going to do for in-person labs and most of the things you would design for in-person labs don't necessarily easily carry over. However, if we step back and really consider what the learning goals are for many of them, there may be other ways to achieve those same learning goals."

Though the online courses have their share of struggles, students and instructors agree that there are some benefits as well. Xu said he believes the online classes allow STEM students to learn at their own pace, while Kanefsky said he thinks the online platform reduces the anxiety of foreign-language students who must practice their oral skills in front of their entire class.

"There's also a lot of advantages to having that sort of situation where you don't have to necessarily have students sit there for an hour and listen to you," Sweeder said. "One of the obvious things is that students' attention spans waver quite a bit, and so the idea of moving to much smaller segments — rather than thinking that 'Oh I have to record an hour of lecture'  ... might change to, 'Hey, I need to provide three or five little snippets of lecture' and then we'd have other activities ... I'll then expect the students to do in between."

Additionally, the switch to online classes allows students and professors to gain new skills that can set them apart in the workplace.

“An online class means you learn a new tool,” Philip Effiong, associate professor in the department of theatre, said. “You learn new resources. For instance ... the test that I was going to give in class, I have to give online. It’s slightly different because it’s a closed-book test. So how do you enforce that? You enforce that by restricting the time. So ... the exposure to new tools, new resources and the new technology that’s out there that can be useful. Learning is — for me — is one of the major advantages."

Some classes have even altered their end-of-the-semester curriculum to allow students to contribute to this unprecedented time in an online, creative way, Mehta said.

“We had to read a whole book this month and then we had to do these different projects,” Mehta said. “But the class decided, ‘Okay, we’re not going to do that because it’s going to be lots of pressure and really uncertain.’ Instead ... the whole class and all the different sections are coming together — around 70 or 80 people and three professors — and we’re all going to work toward a website on coronavirus.”

Overall, the online classes will have different effects on different students and professors, depending on their major, familiarity with technology, and personal preferences.

“I guess it’s better than not having any classes at all,” Davis said. “At least we’re not not having any classes. But in-person is how art is meant to be taught — directly to people. So it’s a learning curve.”

Administration reporter Karly Graham contributed to the reporting of this article.

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