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Professors have now taught online for three semesters. Credit: Stephanie Jungyeon Nam

After grappling with virtual learning for nearly a year, Penn professors reflect on how online classes have altered classroom dynamics and students' learning experiences through unexpected benefits and challenges amid the pandemic.

Instructors who taught small seminars, virtual labs, and large lectures alike reported surprising moments of connection, but also some bigger upsets unique to remote teaching, regardless of their classroom style.

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke to seven professors about what they found to be the major themes of remote learning.

Learning how to create community — and then nourishing it

For English Department Chair Paul Saint-Amour and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations professor Heather Sharkey, their students' class years were an influential factor in the classroom dynamics they were able to create. Saint-Amour and Sharkey, who both taught first-year seminars during the fall semester, said their students bonded over having never been to Penn's campus or having a “normal” college experience. 

Sharkey said that an important aspect of college classes is the fleeting encounters that allow students, who otherwise might never have met, to bond. One of the greatest challenges she faced was recreating this sense of community via Zoom.

“Those small encounters ended up becoming really meaningful, and people exchange ideas, and they become friends, and they start to feel like they're part of the University,”  Sharkey said about in-person classes. “So how do we replicate that, or make up for it, or build community in new ways?”

Besides requiring 100% participation, posting pre-semester icebreakers, and taking time each class for breaks, Sharkey organized social events outside class for first years in her "Mideast Thru Many Lenses" seminar, including organizing a Halloween party, where students played Among Us over Zoom. 

Similarly, one of Saint-Amour’s main goals in teaching his ENGL 302: "Climate Fiction" class was to counter the fatigue and burnout that his first-year students were feeling, as he said most were still in their childhood bedrooms during the fall semester. He used breakout rooms to encourage “freewheeling conversation,” and encouraged students to engage in immersive readings of the literature he assigned, hoping it could serve as a “mental oasis” from the hours of Zoom classes his students had to endure. 

“There was a certain kind of hilarity to the haplessness of the app itself, and the visual medium — [they] actually lend themselves to a certain kind of good feeling and collaborative spontaneity,” Saint-Amour said.

Saint-Amour also said that more serious challenges brought his first-year students closer together, describing how his students supported each other when one was going through a family or health-related crisis. He added that the students were “quite forthcoming” about the struggles they faced while living and learning during a pandemic.

“I think that the crisis can make people feel isolated — far from each other in certain respects. But there's an openness there, if you're lucky, and I think you can also, by way of the crisis, develop the sense of a found family,” Saint-Amour said.

Challenges of remote learning: missing connections and irreplaceable experiences

One of the biggest challenges of Zoom is bonding with students, professors said.

Anne Duchene, director of Microeconomic Principles and Economics senior lecturer, taught ECON 001: "Introduction to Microeconomics" completely asynchronously in the fall and is also doing so this spring. She said that, though her TAs have synchronous recitations, her only face-to-face interactions with her students occur during office hours, which only some choose to attend. 

Duchene explained that of the almost 300 students in her ECON 001 lectures, she got to know about 50 students very well and another 50 or so a little bit. She misses being able to joke with them and gauge their reactions in classes, as well as getting to know them through on-campus programs like Take Your Professor to Lunch.

“For me, it was very frustrating because I feel like I didn't get to know them the way I usually get to know them,” Duchene said.

Mercia Flannery, senior lecturer and director of the Portuguese Language Program, said that she aims to resolve some of the communication issues that arise in online classes by hosting more office hours with her students.

“A lot of communication may be lost because all we are seeing is each other's faces. There’s a lot more to language than the ability to put sentences together," she said. 

Other professors agreed, emphasizing that virtual learning ultimately fell short of the in-person versions of their classes.

Like Duchene, Biology lecturer Jessica Ardis found it harder to get to know her students and to interpret live feedback, even though her classes were synchronous. She explained that it’s much easier to see students' engagement levels and understanding of class material in an in-person classroom or lab setting.

“It was very easy to psych yourself out and think that it wasn't going well,” Ardis said. “It's hard to read the room.” 

Daniel Langleben, professor of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, said that there were experiences in his anatomy classes that could not be replicated remotely. He typically takes his students to an anatomy theater, as he believes it is a memorable and useful experience for them. Langleben added that for students who will never end up attending medical school, his class provides an understanding about neuroanatomy that they probably would not get elsewhere. 

“You can mitigate [the obstacles], but you cannot completely replace [them]. And so I would say that, all together, 100% distanced classes are probably weaker, [and] do not capture the entire impact of in-person seminars," Langleben said.

The benefits of remote learning: new platforms and unexpected growth

Duchene said that she found an unexpected upside in her ECON 001 class’ digital textbook platform, Top Hat, which allowed her students to discuss a variety of topics — from economics to video games — through its messaging feature. This allowed her to get to know the students in a unique way, she said, adding that she may stick with the platform even when classes are no longer remote.

Despite the challenges she faced, Ardis ultimately felt her virtual labs worked out better than she expected, citing instances of connecting with students who lingered after Zoom classes to chat with her. Langleben added that, while the virtual format reduces spontaneity, it positively increases organization. 

In her language seminars, Flannery strived to include fun ways to connect — including playing Portuguese songs, creating more visually appealing presentations, and trying to minimize lecturing to prioritize interactive activities. 

Flannery mentioned that aspects of Zoom — the ability to type comments in the chat as students speak, and the way the platform puts students "on the spot" — have allowed her to focus on each student individually in a way that she had not anticipated, and noted that the performance and language development of many of her students have improved in the virtual setting. 

“There's something about classes via Zoom. I don’t know if it’s the focus on everyone at the same time that allows everybody to speak often,” Flannery said. “I see growth.” 

Looking forward: lessons and takeaways from virtual learning

Some professors mentioned how the lines between home and the workplace have become blurred with virtual teaching. 

Cinema Studies lecturer Will Schmenner explained that online classes have enabled his students to meet his children virtually, adding a level of vulnerability that has allowed him to open up to his students about the challenges of remote life. 

“If you share with your students that it's hard for you, if you're able to make yourself vulnerable — as a professor in these moments — then there is a real potential for greater understanding and connection,” Schmenner said. 

Drawing from his experience teaching film classes, he said that additional insight into other aspects of his life allows him to unexpectedly connect with his students on a more personal level. 

“[Teaching from home] leads to moments where the stakes of our conversations and class touch on what it means to be a person, rather than what it means to be an intellectual,” Schmenner said. 

Saint-Amour and Langleben expressed cautious hopes that the forced conversion to virtual learning will encourage educators to provide more accessible virtual learning in the future, so that students dealing with family or health crises, or students with disabilities, will be able to learn remotely. 

“A lot of instructors have now developed a greater capacity for flexibility, the ability to innovate in respect to online teaching, and just a greater willingness to offer classes and teach in a manner that isn't just about being together. I think that the norms have shifted,” Saint-Amour said.