In a Sept. 2020 Foghorn article, several University professors commented on a common sentiment among faculty and students: the lost communal sense with online education. While most campus community members have returned to the classroom a year later, some faculty members and students have remained online.
Currently, classes at USF are conducted through a variety of instructional modes: online, hybrid, hyflex, and in-person. Though some faculty members chose to continue teaching remotely because of obligatory health and logistical circumstances, others have been assigned to continue instructing virtually by the University.
Ken Sonkin, a performing arts professor, made the choice to conduct his acting class online this semester in the interest of safety. “We are not done with this pandemic,” he said. With uncertainty surrounding the Delta variant, Sonkin said he felt a personal responsibility to hold his larger classes online.
While Sonkin said he does not regret this decision, he did admit that there are certain elements of in-person instruction that cannot be substituted. “You cannot teach acting on a computer,” he said. Ultimately, though, Sonkin has been able to adapt to online instruction, finding his own, unique ways to build a sense of community in his classes.
“Everyone has a story,” Sonkin said. He is still able to form connections with his students by getting a glimpse of their lives through their Zoom screens. However, when he had the opportunity to meet some of his virtual students for an in-person workshop that he hosted outside of class, Sonkin described it as a thrilling experience that felt more like a reunion than their first time meeting.
Sonkin’s views were echoed by some students. Kassandra Lopez, a freshman nursing major, said, “There are definitely things about in-person education that cannot be replaced. Things like a professor deciding to hold class outside because it was a nice day or having audible and authentic reactions from other people. In-person education, in my opinion, is truly irreplaceable.”
In contrast, freshman psychology major Nikita Thomas finds that Zoom fosters a flexible and low-pressure environment that best caters to students’ needs. Thomas said she struggles with social anxiety and when creating her schedule she aimed to have a balance between in-person and remote classes. “It is nice to have a break from class one day and actually go into class another day, it brings a sense of relief, in a way.”
However, Thomas did acknowledge that online classes can become “incredibly distracting” and said there is an added sense of personal accountability that comes with virtual learning.
This level of distraction was a common issue through the last two remote semesters and has continued among students for some professors. Sangman Kim, a biology professor said, “It is understandably easier for students to feel anonymous and it is certainly easier to get distracted.” He said the amount of students who have their cameras off can be “discouraging to instructors” as some students are “clearly not present despite being logged on.”
Kallie Barrie, a senior politics major, is also balancing in-person and virtual classes. For her, there are positives and negatives to a hybrid learning experience. “My Spanish class meets once a week remotely. It’s nice just for a foreign language to have once a week where we’re not talking with our masks on because sometimes you need to be able to read somebody’s lips,” said Barrie.
Her anthropology class, which is fully remote, is an 8 a.m. which she gets to complete from the comfort of her apartment. She said, “We get to actually do some cooking demos. We did a taste experiment last week which we wouldn’t have been able to do if we were in person because I don’t think I would have felt comfortable taking off my mask to eat.”
Admittedly, there are days where Barrie struggles with navigating her classes. She finds in-person classes to be taxing because “going from seeing the same five people all of the time to what feels like a million new faces and having to be so social is just a different energy. It’s awkward to balance the two of them. I definitely feel like on the days where I am fully remote, I have more free time. Mental health wise, it’s easier to balance everything I have going on.”
After months of longing for a sense of normalcy and familiarity, a majority of students and faculty have enjoyed the return to campus. Even so, the adjustment to a modified classroom experience has some receptive to the continued integration of virtual and in-person connections.