I got that question a lot last semester. I'm sure most people expected me to say, “It’s hard. I don’t like it because I don’t get to see my students in person.” Or maybe they thought I'd be upbeat: “I love it! It gives everyone such flexibility!”
What they didn’t expect was a litany of the odd behaviors that my colleagues and I were witnessing:
“There was that time a student’s roommate decided to get dressed behind her while she logged into class. The roommate realized her mistake quickly, thank goodness.”
“I had to ask students to put a shirt on. I know they often come to class in person with fuzzy slippers, but I think a shirt is the minimum to ask for.”
“Several students were driving when they logged into class. I had to tell them to pull over or I would kick them off Zoom.”
“I was surprised by how many students picked up a job shift in the middle of our class time.”
“One of my students was riding in a van trying to take an online test. Yeah, that didn’t work out so well for his grade.”
“There was one student who logged into his 8 a.m. class from his bed and his girlfriend sneaked out of the bed.”
“A mom! A mom shared with the class that the student was busy cleaning and would be back shortly. A mom!”
I can’t count how many times this past semester I had students who were doing everything but paying attention and participating in class. There were some who remained wrapped up in a blanket and lying down during our class sessions. Apparently, many students got Snuggies® as high school graduation gifts!
Let me state clearly: Even if the students had attended in-person class, they would have been distracted by their phones or other things going on in a classroom. I can certainly understand how hard it is to concentrate when you are looking into a little camera and trying to listen and track what's going on.
I also understand the importance of being comfortable. I don’t wear elastic, roomy, pull-on pants and slide-on tennis shoes for how fashionable they are!
But it strikes me that, as we move forward into a new semester, we need to find a way to meet in the middle. What kinds of expectations should we have for taking classes online?
Driving or operating machinery. Will I really be surprised if a student tries to mow the lawn during class? After last semester, maybe not. I am no longer surprised (but still horrified) when a student logs into class while in the driver’s seat. I shudder to think of the students who have done these things with their cameras off and mics muted.
Participating in any other activity that takes exertion and attention. Okay, that covers a lot, but some things that come to mind include running in a 5K race and helping a friend move a mattress. This is a short list, but you get the picture. If it's something a student wouldn’t normally be doing while in a classroom with other students and a professor, then it's probably not good to participate in it while logged into an online class.
Logging in and then sawing logs. If a student wants to have a true “Bueller…Bueller…Bueller?” moment, then they should go back to bed (or just leave the room) after logging in. This usually happens when students don't use their cameras. It's the stuff of nightmares rather than sweet dreams as the snoring student may be counted absent, kicked off the online platform or, more importantly, miss valuable information.
Most Likely Not Advised
Scrolling through their phones. Students assure me they can pay attention to what someone is saying while engaged in this ubiquitous activity. It’s not true — even science doesn't support it — but they are committed to this idea. Students should keep distractions at a minimum and commit to focusing only on listening, taking notes and participating in the class for the duration of the class.
Using a public space. This includes having people hanging around listening to the lecture and discussion. If your student has a roommate or must share a space with others, it may be helpful to use earphones and consider what can be seen in the background. Additional people and activity, even if going on behind them, can be distracting as well and not just for the student. I've had to mute students who have had loud background noise that interfered with everyone’s learning.
Totally Cool and Acceptable
Finding a private, quiet space. Yes, please. I know we can’t always control the loud friend who barrels into a room, unaware that class is going on. Better yet, students should create a sign or somehow indicate that they need the area to be quiet.
Keeping the camera on. If they don’t already require it, most professors will be thrilled to have students they can see. Anytime a student had their camera on, I felt validated and appreciated (and made a mental note to give them a particularly glowing letter of recommendation).
Using a virtual background. To avoid showing too much of their personal space, some students have gotten creative with backgrounds. I've taught students who have been “on the beach” and others who live in a “Scottish castle complete with suit of armor.” It can be fun to create an alternate reality, and it can also help everyone else stay focused on learning.
Communicating promptly. Wifi goes out, electricity blinks, batteries die. These are all hazards of online learning. I expect that, should a student have a technical difficulty, they will communicate as soon as they can. A quick email to (“Hey! My internet went out during the last half of class. Will I be able to watch the recording to get what I missed?”) is greatly appreciated. It is polite and professional and the right thing to do.
To be fair, most students have done a great job learning online, and they have shown incredible resilience in the face of adversity. I applaud all of us who have made it this far — even if we've made it by wearing sweatpants for the past 10 months.
In conclusion, if you remember anything, please remember: “Don’t Zoom and drive!”
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Amy Baldwin, Ed.D. is the Director of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas and co-author of a number of books, including A High School Parent's Guide to College Success: 12 Essentials and The College Experience. Amy and her husband are parents of two college students.