Welcome to the new normal for a learning environment. With the Zoom-boom and in-person classes pushed back, eating cereal during class, listening to a lecture in bed and hovering the cursor over a call button to arrive just at the right time is now something nearly every college student can say they have experienced. Regardless of how teachers decide to move a course to a remote format, each online platform has its benefits and its downfalls.
This semester, NAU introduced Blackboard Learn’s Collaborate Ultra feature as a virtual classroom. Teachers are able to choose between this and an all-too-familiar Zoom call, which quickly grew in popularity to accommodate the transition to online instruction following the shutdown of in-person services due to COVID-19. While both Collaborate Ultra and Zoom are similar, there are some differences that affect a classroom’s overall tone.
NAU offcially went virtual and has been since the end of spring break last semester. In-person instruction is scheduled to return on Aug. 31, despite protests from faculty and worries from students and parents. NAU’s politics do not necessarily affect the learning platform itself, but they are going to shape a large part of how the school year goes. According to an article by The Arizona Republic, over 100 nontenured faculty were let go and stripped of health insurance in order to keep NAU’s student-to-teacher ratio the same. NAU President Rita Cheng and her executive team will take 10% salary cuts this semester. As for NAU’s online classroom, Collaborate Ultra seems to be running smoothly aside from some student complaints.
Freshman Claire Elliott just started her online classes. Elliott said she is more familiar with Zoom because she used it during the end of her high school career and over the summer for appointments. She said her first experience with Collaborate Ultra was a bad one. Elliott only interacted with it for one class, but she said it was glitchy because students were getting kicked out and it was harder to communicate within it than in Zoom.
“For the time we’re in now with the coronavirus, I think [Zoom] is a good learning environment,” Elliott said. “Obviously, I would rather have it in-person because I’m just a lot more focused and the visual learning really helps, but for what we are given, I think [Zoom] really helps.”
Elliott said she feels like the downside to most websites is the potential for unwanted tracking, and even if students did have other options, those would probably have the same policies in place as well.
Zoom made the transition from classroom learning easier for many, but there have been some controversies about the company that have surfaced since its user base skyrocketed. According to an article from Vox, Zoom has gone through several updates this year in order to combat Zoom-bombers, or people who could jump in a call and play explicit material or otherwise disrupt the meeting. However, the company’s privacy policies sparked outrage when Zoom announced that the company will be working with law enforcement to investigate its users. The company also announced they will offer end-to-end encryption and that they work with law enforcement to prevent crimes like child sex abuse being shared on the platform.
Regardless, the announcement put a bad taste in people’s mouths and the article suggested that if users are going to coordinate police protests, they should turn to software such as Signal, WhatsApp or Telegram.
Whitney Stefani, a communication lecturer at NAU, said she has done online teaching before. However, she said she usually instructs in an asynchronous way or with different technology, so it is her first time teaching with Zoom or Collaborate Ultra. Regarding the aforementioned security information about Zoom, Stefani said she has been avoiding a lot of news stories about things she cannot control at this time and is just trying to use whatever will work for her and her students. For the most part, she said she is still able to have the same experience that she and her students had in person.
“One thing I do note, though, is students feel very differently about it,” Stefani said. “And so I get that communication a lot, that this format is uncomfortable, or it’s nerve-wracking, or it’s just not the same for them. I can still see [students’] faces, I like having the name there, that helps me, so I feel like being able to call students by name the first week of class is really nice. I guess I don’t really feel that different about it compared to in-person teaching.”
Stefani also gave insight into how teachers were prepared to instruct remotely. Stefani explained that teachers had access to a tutorial video with an invited team member from another university who had experience with this sort of technology before COVID-19. The video focused on how to make the class accessible both in person and remotely. Stefani said the instructor focused on meeting students’ needs and making the class accessible, and her decisions were guided by these comments. She said she hopes students will begin to feel as though they don’t need an in-person experience to have a connection.
These transitions are not only affecting students’ educations, but their careers as well. Senior Katelyn Hurst is an elementary education major and is the president of NAU’s chapter of Educators Rising. Hurst has been adjusting to changes in her own education and has had to adapt to learning how to teach virtually as well. She said for any classes that are purely lecturing, Collaborate Ultra is good but that for her classes in particular, they are very collaborative and Zoom seems to work better. Hurst said a lot of education majors are sad that they will not be able to teach in classrooms this semester, but she said she thinks it is better to look on the positive side.
“Doing Zoom and everything teaches us how to use these online platforms because this is a new normal and we don’t know when we’re going to be back to us being in a classroom,” Hurst said. “So, I think that we’re just trying to be positive overall. I do think it’s not the same learning.”
Hurst said she and her friends are hoping to get back to normal soon, but that she does not know how to feel about the current state of classes. She explained they are often distracted by other technology and worry about focusing in their online lectures.
This new environment is different for a generation that grew up surrounded by technology, but not unknown. There is no perfect way to teach a class where students are potentially miles apart, but these new methods will grow and adapt — and so will NAU. People do need to be cognizant of the fact that their responses may be recorded and the internet can be unsafe, but there is still a connection and good experiences that will come with this. Students and faculty are tasked with picking a platform and sticking with it because there is no option to choose none at all.