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Virtual Classrooms: A Post Pandemic Trend?

Professor Dan Fernandez teaching his online physics class at CSUMB.

Earlier this spring, the California State University system announced it will hold most fall classes online. Online classes existed at CSU before the pandemic, but never on this scale. Now many in academia are wondering if virtual classes are a short-term solution or a long-term trend.

Professor Dan Fernandez teaches physics at CSU Monterey Bay. He’s taught the classes dozens of times to scores of students in his 24 years at CSUMB, but this spring was different. 

It changed on March 16, with the global pandemic and CSU, the largest university in the nation, decided to shut down and then reopen teaching online. There were no classrooms, no desks and the students were miles apart. Professors, many of whom had never taught a class online before, had just five days to figure it out. 

“I think for most of our faculty it was a challenge,” said CSUMB Chief Information Officer Chip Lenno.

Fortunately, there were already systems in place. The university established a learning management system almost two decades ago. The system not only enrolls students but also organizes course outlines.

“[Students have] the ability to submit homework assignments. The ability to do grading and provide students feedback via a grade book,” said Leno.

Essentially all of the things a professor needs to teach a course. Plus, a few years ago, in a move that seems remarkably forward-looking, CSU signed an agreement for Zoom to be the teleconferencing provider for all 23 campuses. 

“We had pretty much all of the tools in place that were necessary to make the pivot. It was just supporting the faculty who weren't prepared for going to a 100 percent not face to face pretty much overnight,” said Leno.

“Well, as you can imagine, people were dismayed. They were a little taken aback,” said Interim CSUMB Provost Fran Horvath.

But, no one wanted to abandon the students in the middle of a semester.

“For CSUMB, students are everything. That's the center of our universe, whether you're a faculty or staff person. And the faculty really stepped up. They figured out how they could do it,” said Horvath.

But in a week, all they could really do is set up the first classes. After that they were building the airplane in flight. 

“It's not something that you want to force people to do, but as we see that this works well, as we learn how to do it better and constantly striving to improve what we're doing, there are some benefits to perhaps not a complete virtual environment, but certainly to a hybrid modality.” Horvath said.

Credit Monterey College of Law
Monterey College of Law building in Seaside, California

Over at Monterey College of law, Dean Mitch Winick is a longtime proponent of online learning.

“I actually thought it would come 20 years ago. So, I'm accurate, just not timely,” said Winick.

He emphasizes that online education is not just putting a classroom on the internet. It’s a whole new way of looking at education.

“It's really the difference, as a professor, from going from being the actor on the stage to the director of the production,” Winick adds.

Like a director, bringing in all kinds of educational production and using remote guest lecturers, scheduling offline discussions with fellow students and professors, getting students to read and watch videos before class and come better prepared for discussion.

But Winick warns we are still learning what works and what doesn’t: how many quizzes, how long should the videos be?

“I think we're still feeling our way through many of those things and that will evolve over the next couple of years.” Winick said.

Not everyone is so certain about the future of virtual classrooms. Mustafa Memon is an international student from Pakistan attending CSUMB. He found the switch to online learning overwhelming. He says the quick closing of campus caught him by surprise. He had a week to find a new place and move. Plus, many professors were not prepared to teach online, and attending class at a distance was full of distractions.

“Finding a quiet place to study in was a problem for me. It is harder to focus on a computer screen than it is to focus in person,” Memon said.

That last point, communicating by computer instead of in person, is also an issue for Professor Fernandez. Back in his physics class at CSUMB, he talked about how he missed being in the same room with his students.

“I really miss that interaction of really seeing the students and getting to know what where they're getting stuck,” said Fernandez. 

But he is accepting the need for change. The pandemic is forcing colleges and universities to reexamine their most basic function, how to teach.

“So there will be new tools, new ways, new paradigms of instruction that are going to come out of this experience. They're going to change teaching forever.  There's not going to be a going back to how things were for better or worse. It won't exactly be the same as it was before the pandemic,” Fernandez adds.

Like the philosopher and baseball catcher Yogi Berra used to say, "The future ain’t what it used to be."

KAZU is licensed to CSU Monterey Bay.