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Professors noted that instructing through virtual platforms, like Zoom, went smoothly and appreciated features like speaker view and chat windows. Credit: Kylie Cooper

While the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Penn students and professors still returned to class — connecting virtually from different cities and time zones across the globe.

After Penn announced on March 11 that all classes would move online for the remainder of the semester to prevent the spread of coronavirus, professors had under two weeks to prepare for their first virtual classes which began March 23. 

For many professors, the first day of virtual classes, conducted via online platforms like Zoom, went well despite worries that virtual learning would detract from the quality of instruction. Some professors said the chat feature was particularly useful while others said students seemed particularly engaged despite not being in a classroom setting.

“I thought it was going to be so weird and stilted, but it turned out to be far less so,” English professor Paul Hendrickson said. “I started out trying to project an air of calm even in my own fear stricken way as I was thinking ‘How will this really work?’ But it quickly found its own form and rhythm.”

Hendrickson teaches ENGL 156 Photographs and Stories, a three-hour, discussion-based class, conducted over Zoom. He said that the ability of the web-camera to flip to whichever student was speaking helped the class feel more personal. 

Chemistry professor Ivan Dmochowski, who teaches CHEM 567 Bio-Inorganic Chemistry, echoed Hendrickson and said he was “positively surprised” by how smoothly his class ran on Zoom.

Computer Science professor Andreas Haeberlen said his first Zoom class of CIS 455/555 Internet and Web Systems went well overall,  but added in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that not being able to see the students made it difficult for him to see if he was "making sense" to them.

While Dmochowski’s class is comprised of seven students, Haeberlen’s CIS 455/555 class has 95 students. Because the class is a larger lecture, Haeberlen asked students to disable the microphone and video features on Zoom to minimize distractions.

Haeberlen wrote that many students used the chat window to type questions that could then be addressed in lecture.

Political Science professor Nancy Hirschmann, who teaches PSCI 582 Gender, Power, and Feminist Theory, said her 11-person class also used the chat window on Zoom, which enhanced learning in a way she did not expect.

“Young people can multitask like crazy,” Hirschmann said. “Some students would be talking and then at the same time others were chatting [using the chat box window] while listening. It was really fabulous and, thus far, I think it can be a really nice complement.”

Hirschmann said that while her class is normally three-hours, she recorded a lecture portion of the class and sent it to students via Canvas so they could view it prior to the Zoom session. With the one-hour lecture pre-recorded, the class only met for two hours on Zoom.

“In some ways, that was an advantage, because by the third hour [of in-person class], people start getting tired and that didn't happen here," Hirschmann said. "People were engaging the whole time.” 

Hendrickson and Hirschmann added that they were also surprised but relieved that there were little to no technical difficulties for students as they attended their virtual classes.

English professor Avery Rome, who teaches ENGL 128 Magazine Journalism, added that being able to see students through the Zoom video function helped her see, to her delight, how engaged students were throughout the three-hour seminar. 

"Maybe [they were engaged] because they’ve been gone for two weeks and we’re just thrilled to hold on to something that felt familiar," Rome said.

Rome said she also coordinated with the class' scheduled guest speaker, The Washington Post National general features writer for Style Karen Heller, to speak to the class live on Zoom on Monday.

Professors previously raised concerns for students who would not be able to attend synchronous Zoom classes as students are now spread across multiple time-zones and have various internet connectivity situations.

Hendrickson said one student in Singapore and another in France attended his live Zoom class on Monday. The seminar began at 3 a.m. and 7 p.m. in Singapore and France local time, respectively. Rome added that she had students tune-in live from China and New Zealand. The seminar began at 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. in China and New Zealand local time, respectively.

“Every time I’m wrongly ready to stereotype Penn students as elitist, privileged, or too sheltered, I’m just brought up incredibly short by what a lucky guy I am to be involved with these students," Hendrickson said. "They teach me so much.”