Spotty Wi-Fi, different time zones, and chaos on Canvas: these are just a few of the difficulties associated with online school. Classes are about learning, whether online or in person, but when the classroom is housed on Zoom, learning can be harder. Since the pandemic began, both students and faculty have faced countless obstacles to creating a fruitful learning environment in the virtual setting, however these obstacles are not always clear through a screen.
This was the premise for the Faculty-Student Roundtable, an initiative started by senior international studies major and transfer student Jocelyn Lambert with help from international studies professor John Zarobell, and the Tracy Seeley Center for Teaching Excellence, USF’s support organization for faculty. The roundtable has been meeting bi-weekly for the last two months where students and professors come together in a Zoom room to talk about the virtual learning environment.
“I’ve really appreciated the immense effort my professors have made to continue to support and engage with their students. However, I also observed that, in many cases, remote learning has created even more of what is already a pretty formal divide between faculty and student communities,” Lambert said in an email. “I found myself actively wishing that there were more opportunities for faculty and students to connect and communicate, and to become more of a cohesive community.”
Lambert facilitates each roundtable with an ice breaker and a general theme. Recent themes have included “inclusivity in online courses” and “digital identity in the online classroom.” “We use these themes as a very broad framework for getting the conversation started,” Lambert said. “We try to make sure that, themes aside, the forum is an open space to share.”
At the most recent roundtable on March 24, students discussed some of the challenges they and their peers have faced in accessing the help they need to learn, and faculty shared some of the strategies they have adopted for making classes more accessible, like being more flexible with deadlines.
While not every shared need is groundbreaking, participants at the most recent roundtable emphasized the importance of having a space to share ideas outside of the classroom.
“Over the course of the spring and fall, I’d been getting bits and pieces from students about what their experience was online, and I was like, ‘We need someone to be collecting this information and then disseminating it back out,’” Leigh Meredith, an assistant professor in the rhetoric and language department, said. “It just felt like we were all reinventing the wheel because we were having conversations with students but there was no place to kind of share that. So it really felt like this was something that needed to happen.”
Many participants also mentioned the impact of the student-teacher dynamic on communication. “Even if I’ve worked really hard to cultivate a good working relationship with [students], there’s still a power dynamic because at the end of the semester I am still giving them a grade,” communications professor Marilyn DeLaure said. “What is so brilliant about the faculty-student roundtable is that you have faculty who care a lot about teaching, and students who care a lot about learning… It’s this space where I can hear about the student experience from people who aren’t my students now.”
For students, like economics major and transfer student Ciara Folan, the roundtable not only allows them to voice their experiences, but to better understand what professors are going through. For example, “I never really knew before that the week before class [begins] is really big for professors,” Folan said. “That really took me by surprise, hearing them talk about how much preparation goes into the semester before the semester even starts.”
Junior finance major Sana Allam entered USF as a transfer just months before school went online. She and Lambert had a class together and discussed the need for the roundtable before it happened. For Allam, the roundtable is also a chance to represent transfer students who may be less equipped to navigate online relationships with professors because they are new to the University.
Allam noted how relieving it was to hear how much professors wanted feedback on their teaching strategies. “In this conversation, professors were so willing to be like ‘What do you guys think helps?’” she said. “It was interesting to hear how they get frustrated when students don’t want to come to you to help.”
At the March 24 roundtable, there was a consensus that they would like to continue meeting into the fall with the hope of gaining more participants as time goes on. “It’s been a bit difficult to find avenues to connect with the larger student population, and we are still actively working on this,” Lambert said. “I hope that during these semesters I can create a nurturing and interactive space for faculty-student engagement and this will simply be the foundation for longstanding discussions about our shared learning processes and what it truly means to develop community at USF.”
Dates and times, as well as more information on the remaining faculty-student roundtable discussions, can be found here.
Mardy Harding is a senior international studies major and Scene Editor at the Foghorn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.