Globally, colleges have been using the online learning format for over a year now. This means students don’t need to leave their homes to receive their education. Using video conference tools like Zoom and learning management systems like Canvas, professors conduct classes remotely and interact with their students virtually. While online education is the best way to prevent the spread of disease, is it the optimal way to receive a college education?
I wanted to investigate this topic here in Oakland at the University of Pittsburgh. I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. George Bandik, Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Advising and Student Services here at Pitt.
Dr. Bandik is an award-winning professor from the chemistry department with 40 years of teaching experience. During his time at Pitt, he has been awarded the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1993, the Carnegie Science Center Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1998, and the Bellet Teaching Award in 2001. In other words, Dr. Bandik is an acclaimed and experienced educator, so I was fascinated to hear about his strategies for adapting to the online environment.
“This is uncharted territory for all of us,” he told me.
When Dr. Bandik first faced the reality of switching to virtual learning in March of 2020, his confidence dropped.
“I was petrified,” he said. “I will honestly tell you I was really scared because I am such a people person, and I get so much out of being in the classroom and being able to look at people’s faces and all that. I thought this is going to be a disaster. I mean, I really, really expected it not to go well.”
In the implementation of virtual learning, Dr. Bandik expressed that the biggest challenge he faced was not easily defined.
“It’s not easy to put a label on or put words to,” he said. “When a student is in class, and I’m teaching, I can literally look out and tell by just looking at students’ faces if they’re confused or not. I can kinda get a sense of whether a topic is a little too difficult or I didn’t explain it well.”
This face-to-face connection Dr. Bandik makes with his students proved to be more difficult in an online Zoom class.
Classroom culture has changed drastically in the era of virtual learning. Students have the option to mute themselves and not show their faces on camera. As a result, some professors teach to a sea of invisible, inaudible, non-participatory students. Dr. Bandik was determined to make his online classes as immersive and engaging as his in-person classes.
“When I had to go in and begin this term, I really spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do to make this work and to make it successful.”
His solution? Go back to basics; human connection, a rarity in the era of COVID-19.
“I don’t buy this idea that 250 people in a room are just a bunch of numbers. I think that doesn’t have to be,” he said. “That was always one of my goals from the time I started teaching here, I was going to get to know the people in that classroom, and that has followed through even having to go online.”
Although the circumstances had changed, Dr. Bandik was determined to get to know his students.
“I went to all of the Zoom classes about ten minutes early, and as soon as I logged in if there was somebody with their camera on, I started talking to that person immediately. Just things like, ‘How was your day?’ And you’d be amazed; I would say that in my Organic Chemistry I class last term, around 75% of the students had their cameras on.”
Seventy-five percent of a 250-person online lecture having their cameras on is quite the feat. Some of his students told him stories of virtual classmates introducing themselves to each other on campus because they recognized each other from his class.
“I think students also appreciated being able to see other people,” he told me.
One of the students from his fall 2020 Organic Chemistry I class was junior Shaina Gatton, a Pre-Veterinary Neuroscience major. I spoke to Gatton about her time in Dr. George Bandik’s virtual class and what his approach to online teaching meant to her.
“George’s Organic Chemistry class was my most challenging class last semester, but it turned into my favorite class very early on,” she said. “George understood how difficult life has been for students during the pandemic and that the online environment isn’t necessarily the easiest to facilitate learning.”
Organic Chemistry sounds daunting to most, but removing the in-person aspect was especially intimidating to Gatton.
“Organic Chemistry is already difficult enough, and I dreaded trying to take it on during this time, but if one person could teach you complex chemical reactions during a global pandemic, that person was George,” she said.
Dr. Bandik is the type of professor to forgo the formality of titles like “Doctor” or “Professor” with his students, yet another testament to his dedication to connecting with his students.
Gatton explained how Dr. Bandik’s online class stood out from others.
“Some of my classmates and I joined our Zoom meetings ten minutes early to sit around and chat before class started. It was the closest thing we all had to having an in-person class and socializing with classmates and our professor before the lecture.”
Gatton appreciated the sense of normalcy this provided and the opportunity to get to know her professor. She attributes these conversations to the classroom environment that Dr. Bandik fostered.
“In every other class, I just felt like a name on a screen, but in George’s class, so many of us had our cameras turned on and were willing to participate when he called on us. Even on bad days, we had the opportunity to turn our cameras off and observe, and George would take that as a sign that we did not want to be called on to answer questions that day,” she said.
Like most of her classmates, Gatton chose to keep her camera on during Dr. Bandik’s virtual lectures.
“Keeping my camera on during class helped me stay engaged because I knew I could get called on at any point, but it was never anxiety-inducing because George would allow you to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I need help with this one.’ ” she said. “Even if you were completely wrong, George encouraged us to stay engaged and learn the correct answer. During this pandemic—which is likely the most stressful time of all of our lives—being allowed to be wrong or to say ‘I don’t know’ was so relieving. It took away the pressure of always having to be right or not say anything at all. This was something I had rarely experienced in college before.”
From hearing Dr. Bandik’s approach to connecting with his students in the new virtual setting to hearing what it meant to one of his students, it is apparent he has overcome many of the challenges set forth by the online format.
“It was so much better than I ever thought it could have been,” Dr. Bandik told me about his experience teaching virtually.
There are even some perks of online classes that he plans on implementing once classes are held in person again.
“The best thing is that the classes are now recorded,” he said. “I like that so much that I’m trying to figure out how to continue to record my lectures.”
This is a significant change in Dr. Bandik’s teaching style. Before the pandemic, he actively chose to limit students’ online resources.
“I had never before used any type of online management tool…I really wanted students to come to class. I didn’t want them to have the luxury of having everything online in case they decided not to come. I made people come to class even to get handouts; nothing was posted online, but I do think that I will continue to use some kind of online learning management tool.”
While all professors had to adapt to virtual teaching, the challenges posed in a science class can be different from those in an English class. To get a perspective from a different department, I spoke with Beth Marcello.
Beth Marcello has been a part-time instructor in the English Department at Pitt for 18 years and has worked at PNC Bank for 15 years as the Director of Women’s Business Development. Using her real-world experience in the industry, Professor Marcello teaches students about professional writing. I had the pleasure of speaking with her about her experience adapting to and teaching in a virtual environment.
“As an instructor, it was a heavy lift to get ready,” she said.
Diving into an entire semester of online learning in the fall of 2020 was an unprecedented challenge, but Professor Marcello was up for the task. She told me that the English Department encouraged all of their professors to be kind to themselves and their students. They were encouraged to be mindful of Zoom fatigue: the exhaustion caused by sitting in long Zoom meetings all day. To combat this, Professor Marcello focused on adapting her courses to serve her students in the online format best.
This included eliminating one or two assignments from the syllabus that she would typically include in an in-person setting. She also focused on finding the best way to deliver the material in a meaningful and successful way in the new environment. She told me that she tried “chunking up the material to make it more digestible.”
Because the University of Pittsburgh has introduced the Flex@Pitt model, online classes have to be available to those attending synchronously and asynchronously. Professor Marcello focused on making sure that her classes could be just as informative to those attending the Zoom meeting synchronously and those watching the recording back asynchronously by “chunking [the material] up in a way that someone who chose not to come to class at all could still learn and feel like they were getting the same relevant experience.”
While Professor Marcello admits that planning for this historical semester was challenging, she was shocked by the result.
“When I got into the semester, I felt like I was pleasantly surprised at how well I thought it worked.”
She attributes part of her class’s functionality to being able to see and interact with her students.
“We were able to come together,” she said. “I was pleased that most students would turn on their camera, so we did have that visual connection.”
Another opportunity presented by the virtual format was the ability to incorporate more guest speakers into class. In the past, Professor Marcello typically invited guest speakers to her in-person courses, but the flexibility provided by online school made it possible for her to give her students different perspectives from more guest speakers.
“I think that my ability to provide more insight from guest speakers was the best thing,” she said. “I was able to interview them virtually and then share that either in class or as an interview you could watch and comment on.”
Learning management systems like Canvas have been a part of education for a while now, but they became integral to virtual learning at the onset of the pandemic. Professor Marcello shared that she too preferred students to hand in physical copies of their work before COVID-19, but has taken a liking to Canvas saying, with a chuckle, “Reading the assignments online and being able to make comments and edits, I found that I was able to do that effectively and I think it’s easier for the students than to print it out, hand it to me, and then struggle to read my handwriting.”
The discussion board was also a feature of the learning management system that was new to Professor Marcello; however, she felt that it supplemented the material well after using it.
“Instead of having longer written assignments, I was able to create discussion board posts that were short writing sprints,” she said. “I could assess and comment on people’s writing, but also assess whether or not the videos that you would watch outside of class were hitting their mark.”
But there were drawbacks to the virtual setting. Namely, workshops.
Typically, in an in-person class, Professor Marcello would put students into groups where they would have the opportunity to discuss their writing and assist their peers in the drafting process. These workshops are a vital part of the writing process, but it’s a bit more complicated over Zoom. Zoom has the capability to put students into breakout rooms, but once they enter the room, they are no longer visible or audible to the instructor.
“I don’t think that it was as effective online as it was in person,” Professor Marcello said about the workshopping. “The breakout room does always require someone to step up as a leader—someone is going to get the conversation going and make a suggestion for what is going to be our process for reviewing each other’s work and I think that’s just a little bit harder to do online.”
For Professor Marcello, a meaningful workshop is difficult to duplicate virtually.
Looking to the future, there are some aspects of virtual learning that Professor Marcello wants to incorporate into her in-person classes.
“As I think about going back to the classroom in the fall, what I’m hoping that we’ll strike is something maybe even a bit hybrid.”
She is interested in continuing her virtual interviews with guest speakers and even potentially hold virtual classes.
“I would still do those interviews, put them on Canvas, and have students listen or watch those in lieu of a class, or maybe we still incorporate a virtual class or two into a semester when we’re still in person,” she said.
Through speaking with both students and educators about the struggles and triumphs of online learning, we can see the hard work and dedication that goes into the pursuit of education. While these are unprecedented times, extraordinary commitment from educators and students alike has made the past year of higher education possible. Here at the University of Pittsburgh, we can look forward to the fall 2021 semester, which was recently announced to be in person.
As I begin to shift back into regular life, I will not forget educators like Dr. George Bandik and Beth Marcello, who worked tirelessly to provide their students with a meaningful online experience. Their willingness to adapt and grow from the past year exemplifies their passion for helping students like Shaina Gatton thrive in this strange online format.
By observing the challenges of online learning, the solutions to those challenges, and the takeaways as we inch closer to in-person classes again, we can begin to understand the profound effect the past year has had on the future of higher education.