Fortunately, my life has not significantly changed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, this quarantine feels like any normal break from school: I’m at home with family, reading, writing, watching television, etc. I have been very thankful to not lose loved ones or have family members lose their jobs. Fortunately, COVID-19 has only had an academic impact on my life. The switch to virtual instruction after the cancellation of in-person university classes was a defining feature of this pandemic for me, as I believe it was for many college students at the University of Michigan and nationwide.
One reason this switch had a detrimental impact on students is that they lost the chance to finish out semester-long stories that were being told in their college courses. A recent New Yorker opinion piece explains accurately this stymied academic experience due to the cancellation of in-person classes: “A college course is a narrative form, a story told collaboratively, over time. Ideally, the professor establishes early the story’s shape, pacing, and tone, and the syllabus gives the students ideas of where to look for what happens next. But no course—no good, dynamic course—knows ahead of time what story it will tell.”
Indeed, the best courses are just collaborative stories told over the course of the semester. They’re opportunities for students to engage with one another to form a coherent understanding of the subject matter. Moreover, there is a sense of anticipation before each lecture, as more material is unveiled: the accumulation of all the information builds up to a greater, clearer picture. Though this applies more to the best classes in the humanities (as opposed to the rarity among the sciences), this is what you’ve missed out on — the chance to reach an end to the unfurling of a semester-long educational story. The result is that college students are left with an unsatisfactory ending to these courses, losing the chance to complete the story for themselves.
Another component of this mess is the virtual educational experience itself. I think most students can appreciate that the chief purpose of a college experience is to receive an education. Academics should supersede all social and extracurricular purposes of the university. As such, moving education to a virtual system was a fairly consequential decision, and there are some drawbacks. The social interaction is less natural, so interactions with classmates and instructors are not as fluid and productive as they would be if the conversations were taking place in person. Moreover, the level of engagement decreases when you are not in the same classroom, when you cannot see each other and when it is easily possible to distract yourself with your phone or internet browser without being noticed by anyone. Overall, students likely put less effort towards their coursework because they aren’t being held accountable by the physicality of a classroom and the metaphysical natures of social pressure. (The University of Michigan even instituted a “Pass” or “No Record Covid” policy on the Ann Arbor campus for the Winter 2020 term, which is a matter of its own, but this likely impacted levels of motivation, too.)
This switch to virtual teaching has impacted classes differently. As a student of both chemistry and English, I have exposure to courses in the sciences and the humanities. The humanities are likely to be affected heavily by this new policy because they are necessarily built on interpersonal dialogue, whereas most of the sciences are just classes in which instructors just repeat what’s on their PowerPoint slides (which are easily accessible on Canvas if you never attended the lecture in the first place). Moreover, based on accounts from fellow Michigan Daily members, this has impacted students in the School of Art & Design and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, more heavily than LSA, for example. One need not require much imagination to realize that a painting or theatre class is difficult to facilitate virtually.
To be sure, the switch to online instruction is a product of circumstance and the best response to maintain educational standards during a worldwide pandemic. The University of Michigan, and other universities, are making the best of a difficult situation. Moreover, the feasibility of converting classes to this mode of delivery is impressive because it demonstrates the adaptability of professors and lecturers, showing that they can still deliver complex information somewhat indirectly and in the face of inconvenience. And there’s certainly something to be said about the privilege of being able to even receive an education online because the University has the funding and capacity to move to this format. Yet, there are still major problems with this virtual manner of instruction. Certainly, for some students, internet access is hard to come upon, and they have to download software or programs to participate in video calls. The technical challenges, the feasibility of teaching certain types of courses online, combined with the lack of social interaction and decreased motivation make for a stymied educational experience.
Though virtual education has filled an educational gap due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has its drawbacks. My hope for the future is that the University of Michigan, and other universities, return to an in-person mode of instruction in the fall semester so as to avoid these inherent problems with virtual instruction.
Neil Shah can be reached at email@example.com.