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By Kiara Bean, Correspondent
When Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was forced to transfer to online education after Spring break last semester due to COVID-19, nobody at that time thought that the University will find itself in almost the same situation this Fall. With strict restrictions in place to protect everyone’s health, the format and the size of classes were adjusted as well as the setup of the last two weeks of the semester. Instead of the usual single study day before the regular in-person finals, this semester, students will have one full study week and online finals. This new adjustment to the semester schedule has been met with positive and negative reactions.
For some people, the transformation to online classes did not cause any major problems. “The semester is going well. I am so proud of our campus community for the care they’ve taken in keeping everyone safe. The leadership is truly inspirational,” said mathematics professor Dr. Christopher Briggs. This semester, Dr. Briggs is teaching Calculus 3, Probability and Statistics, and Linear and Abstract Algebra 2. Some differed in their opinions based on what class they were talking about. Ian Cunnigham, a sophomore Forensic Accounting and Fraud Examination major, shared his opinion: “I think the hybrid format depends on both the subject and the student. Some classes are more theoretical, and, I find, are easier online. However, the classes that need more hands-on application are obviously more difficult as you don’t have readily available guidance, or as much time to make errors and find out how to make it work correctly. Overall, I think that some staff has done a good job trying to make the transition as easy as possible.”
However, there are a lot of students and teachers who found this format very difficult and not conducive to good learning. Professor Marion Mager, who teaches English Composition this semester, shared her worries:
The hybrid system creates a lot more work for professors. Students who willingly take online courses know and remember to check their Canvas courses for instructions and communications, and have a tendency to be readers…Students who prefer in-person classes are used to being told and reminded in class, in person, what to look for and when, and seem to have a more difficult time understanding written instructions. The hybrid system, being forced on students who prefer in-person classes, is difficult because students are not used to self-management and successful time-management; this creates a situation where they miss out on clarity of information as it is not provided verbally – they miss out on the opportunity to listen and ask questions immediately. Another problem I have seen with the hybrid system is that the day that students are supposed to be reading information provided in Canvas, students are treating like a day off. The creation of videos to post in Canvas takes a lot of additional time and preparation, when, during a regular semester, students would be getting the information in the classroom.
Many students share the same concerns. Erin Clark, a senior Forensic Biology student, said, “Honestly, this has been the most difficult semester I have had at Embry-Riddle…While every student is different and learns in their own ways, in-person learning is the only way to have my full attention…Staying motivated has been the biggest struggle. It is so easy to become distracted while working remotely.” Sophia Renee, a Global Security and Intelligence Studies junior, shares a similar opinion: “It was very challenging to constantly change my schedule [from in-person to Zoom]. Since I am a very routine person, I would say this semester was one of the most stressful semesters.” Cunningham added: “Meeting with teachers virtually has been inconsistent at best and a pain at worst. I am used to doing things face to face and getting instant feedback/results. Person to person communication helps to overcome ‘noise’ that occurs in the virtual environment and leaves less to individual interpretation.”
After Thanksgiving break, students are not returning back to classrooms. Instead, they will have one week to study and review material for finals, and then the online finals will begin. This concept also arouses mixed feelings among teachers and students. “More lecture time is great,” said Dr. Briggs. “So is more study time for students. I think students will appreciate the extra week to digest material before taking final exams. I’ll still be holding my office hours for students who want some pointers.” Professor Mager pointed out, “Losing that week does make the semester feel a bit cramped. Of course, losing a day during the week also created the feeling of a much-shortened semester…I do hope that students take the time [study week] as a serious study time and not as an extra week of Thanksgiving break.” Some students appreciate the week to study the material, but would rather be on campus to be able to get more help from teachers. Clark expressed her feelings: “In all honesty, I would probably work more if I were here [on campus] reviewing with teachers because my attention would be there with them.”
It seems like a majority of the student body and professors hold the same feelings about not returning to campus because of COVID-19, though. “I think that it is a good idea that students do not come back to campus after the holiday, especially now, with the newest blooming of CV-19,” Professor Mager said. Clark agrees with her: “With the stress that COVID has brought, and the shortened semester feeling jam packed, I know that, mentally, I will be in a better place with my family and having the time to destress.” Dr. Briggs is thrilled about the extended study week: “I think it’s great. I’ve been advocating for this change for years. It’s risky, even with a ‘normal’ flu season, to disperse all over the country, then come back for 1-2 weeks of high-stress cramped studying. I hope this change persists in future academic years.” However, there is a group of people who believe that if proper health guidelines are followed, returning to the campus after break would not be a problem. “I wish people were not so averse to studying on campus in person; [but] I still feel this helps all those involved. As long as everyone is taking the standard precautions, I don’t see that there is anything to really worry about; it’s the same as being in class,” Cunningham asserted.
There are also mixed reviews regarding using technology during the finals. Cunningham thinks, “As long as the platform for the finals is something familiar, that is, something the students have already used during the year, there should be no problems.” Clark agrees: “This is not a worry of mine because I trust that if there is a major technology issue, and I cannot complete the final at that moment, my teachers would understand, and we would find another way.” But last Spring, not all students were lucky enough to have a teacher who understood the students’ struggles. Many students had technology issues because they did not have computers that were compatible with school platforms and programs or lacked sufficient internet service. A lot of students also live across the US in various time zones, or even in other countries on different continents, which posed other issues like coordinating times during the final exam. For example, if the final is given during the morning hours based on Arizona time, it might occur during the middle of the night for others. “It’s hard to coordinate with given times when school is online and you live in a different time zone,” said Renee. “It’s also hard when teachers are not willing to work with you if you don’t have the appropriate technology.” Clark also had issues with technology: “I had slow internet because my parents were working from home, and the overall speed was slow, but it was still manageable.”
There is a lot of uncertainty, and no one can really predict how the situation will develop. For now, the University is planning to continue in the hybrid/online model for the Spring semester. The interviewees had some constructive suggestions for the Spring semester, and they hope that their voices will be heard. “If we do remain as a hybrid campus when the time comes to begin in the Spring, I suggest that students use this semester (Fall) as a learning experience and then improve their study, research, and life habits for next semester,” said Professor Mager. “This situation is created by something that we have very little control over, it is something that we all have to adjust to, and I don’t see it going away for at least six months. So, hopefully, all of us will feel more secure in using the technology provided for our classes next term,” she suggested. Dr. Briggs agrees: “We’re all learning as we go. Openness and adaptability to change are major strengths and signs of leadership. I think we’ve been doing great, and we will continue to navigate challenges as they arise.” Clark wishes “that teachers would not speed through their course material and teach at the rate they normally would if this situation was not apparent right now.” Cunningham has another helpful suggestion: “If students drop, or there is room in class, students should be offered the opportunity to come more than once a week to a particular class as long as the safety standards are still being adhered to.”
Students and teachers all want study week to be beneficial and online finals to be successful. And no matter what the format of education in the Spring will be, teachers are hoping that they will be able to continue imparting their knowledge to all students, and students are wishing for a meaningful learning experience.