As Loyola’s two weeks of virtual learning come to an end, Loyola professors and students are once again met with the challenges of transitioning from online to in-person learning.
Since Jan. 18, faculty and students at Loyola have returned to online learning in hopes to curb the spread of COVID-19 before in-person classes begin Jan. 31. While a majority of students and faculty on campus used online learning from spring 2020 through the spring 2021 semester, some students and faculty still face difficulty in the virtual classroom.
History professor Richard Bucholz said the transition back into online learning was more difficult than he anticipated.
“Actually, I have found and I think that many of my colleagues have found it harder,” Bucholz said. “I am not quite sure why. Perhaps the answer is that, having gone through so many permutations of what it takes to teach in the midst of the pandemic, we are all fatigued.”
Ainsley Jacobson, a junior human services major, expressed a similar difficulty with getting reacquainted to remote learning.
“This time around going back online did take some time getting used to after a whole semester in person, I had to get used to looking at my computer screen for long periods of time again,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson wasn’t alone — other students said they can distinguish a major difference in their ability to maintain focus on coursework when they are in-person versus when they learn online.
Isabella Martirano, a sophomore advertising and public relations major, said she noticed a significant improvement in her grades during the fall semester.
“I noticed a humongous change for me when we went to in-person our first semester, my grades improved significantly,” Martirano said. “I felt more engaged. It felt more like a normal classroom and I participated more.”
While Martirano told The Phoenix it wasn’t too difficult to return to learning online this time, she did say that the experience still doesn’t really feel like school.
As students navigate online learning again, some professors have altered their teaching styles based on student engagement. Sasha Adkins, a professor of environmental sciences and global health, approached online learning by offering two class sections to split class sizes into smaller, informal groups — which Adkins said helps the students feel more comfortable sharing their opinions and thoughts.
“I have, you know, sometimes 45 in a class, and if I don’t break it up it’s really difficult,” Adkins said. “A lot of students will turn their cameras off and disengage or multitask.”
Adkins also discussed how they encourage students to use certain strategies while in smaller breakout rooms. Paying attention to different types of listening, such as active or passive listening, is one of the ways in which Adkins says students can stay tuned into class conversations.
“In one semester while teaching online, I found that the students really gelled with each other,” Adkins said. “We would stay two hours after class sometimes just talking about how the concepts in class applied to the real world. I don’t think that that kind of interaction would have happened face to face.”
Greg Prestipino, a criminal justice and criminology professor, said he has faced difficulty applying his teaching style to an online platform. Prestipino often uses a style called “teach-backs” which allows the student to interact with material presented to them before reporting their knowledge of the subject back to the professor.
“Those dynamics in my experience just aren’t as fluid and as frequent when we’re doing online versus in-class,” Prestipino said.
Prestipino said he doesn’t have any radical changes to his online teaching methods versus in-person but he tries to engage students by teaching them about topics they’re interested in.
While some professors aim to adjust their teaching styles to help students focus online, some students say issues lie in how easy it is to get distracted online.
“I’m someone who has a bunch of learning disabilities so I thrive in an in-person classroom where I can see things visually and I’m not staring at a computer screen all day,” said Sarah Hoffman, a senior studying human resources and information systems. “It’s so much easier to get distracted when you’re online. When you’re in the classroom, you walk in and you know it’s focus time.”
Bucholz said he tries to help students facing mental health issues by working hard to create a welcoming classroom atmosphere that allows students to have a positive online experience. He believes creating this space encourages students to work hard in the course.
“Knowing that students have been dealing with a lot of uncertainty, both with regard to their academic life and life in general, I try very consciously to be friendly and welcoming and upbeat in Zoom and office hours,” Bucholz said. “This sometimes requires digging into my reserves of energy to let them know that I am on their side and ready to help them.”
Bucholz said in addition to trying to approach students positively, he also holds extensive office hours and tries to be within easy reach of his email late at night or early in the mornings. He also aims to provide all recordings of his lectures on his courses’ Sakai pages.
Despite work from professors like Bucholz, some students still face issues regarding their mental health while learning online.
“I am someone who deals with regular depression and also seasonal depression and so the isolation from it all definitely makes it very difficult,” said Julia Moreland, a senior political science major.
Some students felt social isolation not just from online classes, but online social events as well.
“I know that my organization suffered immensely when we had to do everything online and people couldn’t see each other and connect,” said Hoffman, the president of Loyola’s Gamma Pi business fraternity. “It’s the same thing with the classrooms, you can’t see each other in person, you can’t get that connection.”
In addition to online classes, Moreland, 22, suggested Loyola consider passing out better quality masks such as KN95s, holding classes in bigger classrooms or providing a hybrid option where students would get to decide what classes to attend virtually or in-person.
University spokesperson, Anna Shymanski Zack, said masks are accessible to students at a number of locations on campus.
“Free N95 masks are available at all Loyola surveillance testing sites, and three-ply medical grade surgical masks will continue to be available in classrooms if needed,” Shymanski Zach said. “Students, faculty, and staff can also pick up free N95 masks at several pharmacies and retailers across the city and state.”
Shymanski Zach said neither Chicago’s Department for Public Health nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommend social distancing at this time in university classrooms. In addition, university ventilation rates, filtration strength and outside air levels are being used to their fullest extent, according to Shymanski Zach.
In regards to the decision to remain online for the first two weeks of the semester, Bucholz emphasized how difficult of a decision the senior administration had to make.
“I recognize that this is a no-win situation for everyone and it’s easy to second guess, but any decision the senior administration would have made through the pandemic was going to make some people unhappy,” Bucholz said. “In general, I think they have made the right calls so far.”
The university encourages faculty in need of support to work with their department chair, program director, associate dean or refer to the resources through the Office of Online Learning, according to Shymanski Zach.
“The university remains grateful to our faculty for their continued commitment to providing a transformational education to our students,” Shymanski Zach said.