Revamp virtual learning, our well-being depends on it

Monday, October 12, 2020 - 10:42am

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College students have done everything they can to acclimate to the new pandemic lifestyle. Months of quarantine followed by continuous social-distancing and adherence to public health guidelines brought us to a point today where grabbing a mask before heading out the door has become a natural instinct. Though maintaining six feet of space between ourselves and those we encounter is not exactly how we planned to live our lives as students at a Big Ten university, we’re making it work. After all, University of Michigan students, for the most part, understand the severity of the pandemic and do their part in keeping our community safe.

What I have not been able to acclimate to is remote learning, and I believe I speak on behalf of the rest of the student body when I say that it’s extremely challenging to do so. Quite frankly, our current virtual learning environment is making it hard to do so. 

Back in August, as the fall 2020 semester was approaching, University President Mark Schlissel’s optimism about in-person instruction and eagerness to get back on to campus made many students believe in the possibility of a positive virtual learning experience. Despite returning students’ apprehension to resume virtual learning after a dismal, lonely ending to our winter 2020 semester, it seemed like logging back on to Zoom and Canvas this time around would be different. After all, the University administration and instructors alike had four long months to brainstorm and execute new ways to create an effective and valuable virtual learning environment. 

Other than a few courses being offered in a hybrid format, very little has been modified since the commencement of remote learning in mid-March. It seems as though many instructors have done nothing to alter their curricula to better accommodate these circumstances, thinking that students would fare well learning material at a similar structure and pace as semesters past. We’re not well. This is not the “Michigan Difference” we signed up for. 

In no way am I denying the necessity of remote learning; it is the safest option for continuing our education amid the adversity we are facing. That said, University instructors need to recognize that they are no longer in the classroom. They need to recognize that the majority of students no longer enjoy a refreshing walk to class in the morning, the ability to greet and catch up with their friends in the Diag or collaborate on assignments with classmates in the library. 

Our minds are continuously working while our bodies stay put; we spend the majority of our day in a cramped space, staring at a screen with little pause or break. This change of pace correlates to a decline in mental health across the student body — instructors and the administration need to adjust their current methods of virtual teaching to better accommodate our needs.

Let’s further examine student mental health and why the current means of virtual learning is digging us into a deeper hole. In early August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released research in light of the pandemic which reported that a disproportionately high number — roughly 25% — of American citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 “seriously contemplated suicide in June.” 

To reiterate, one in four young adults between 18 and 24 years old reported having grievous thoughts of ending their lives. This research was conducted in June, a time when the weather was finally warm again and most students were relieved from their studies. If a quarter of young people in that age range were seriously contemplating suicide then, I cannot begin to imagine what that statistic is now. October brings colder weather and shorter days, and though we used to look forward to this month to celebrate fall, game days and Halloween, our celebrations largely have been put on pause. 

The remainder of this semester is going to be dark — literally and figuratively. Student mental health is only going to get worse as school work picks up. Instructors must acknowledge this moving forward and reflect it in their teaching. 

On behalf of students, please attempt to make virtual class both more manageable and enjoyable. Enable rolling deadlines to account for the possibility of adverse situations. Make lectures more interactive and entertaining. Make yourself a resource for students to reach out to with concerns regarding mental health or any troubles they are facing. It is not enough to include a statement on COVID-19 in course syllabi and never again address the topic for the remainder of the semester. 

This is not to say that virtual learning is necessarily easy for instructors, but you are the ones in control. University administrators, too, need to do their part, as they are the ones to oversee and facilitate our education. It is their responsibility to urge instructors to assess the needs of their students and adjust their curricula accordingly. 

Some students might be managing these changes well, but many feel lost, unable to break away from the mental fog that virtual learning is pressing upon us. We are not doing well now and it will only get worse, and we must reflect this in our approach to virtual learning. There was an expectation among instructors and faculty at the University that taking past curricula and implementing them virtually without any changes would work seamlessly. 

It does not. We are not coping. Let’s work together to make this virtual format as bearable and effective as possible before it’s too late. 

Spiros Kass can be reached at spikass@umich.edu.


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