Professors and students have navigated the nuances of remote learning since Boston University President Robert Brown’s March 17 announcement that classes would remain online through the end of the Spring semester. This has largely been through Zoom, a video conferencing service that universities and organizations across the globe have started using for schooling, work and general communication to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing and quarantining.
In addition to Zoom, professors have been communicating with students via emails and Blackboard announcements. Blackboard is also the main platform on which exams have continued.
Learning how to provide and receive remote education has proved challenging for all parties involved. Professors must find quiet places to hold live lectures, potentially record them for later viewing and deal with students’ abilities to employ or reject their microphone and camera features.
Students like Grace Helmke, a freshman in the College of Fine Arts, find themselves unable to continue work in certain courses, or forced to work in suboptimal conditions without the equipment or space necessary for some classes. Helmke is enrolled in a wind ensemble class, which no longer meets after the shift to virtual learning, and piano class that only started meeting mid-April.
“One of my professors said that our remote work for chamber music provided maybe a third of the value of normal chamber music,” Helmke said. “But it’s definitely better than to do nothing.”
Mary Gerbi, manager of School of Music Ensembles, wrote in an email that students in wind ensemble classes, like Helmke, will still be able to complete their requirements.
“It is not uncommon for a student to perform in only one concert with our instrumental ensembles,” Gerbi wrote. “So that was considered to be adequate in terms of course completion in most of their cases, [and] students who were not in that concert [have been provided] remote assignments.”
Alex Manning, a freshman in the Questrom School of Business who was taking a jazz class in CFA, said because his course required participation in an active band, there is no remote education replacement for it.
“I usually go there to have a fun time, but now I can’t have that,” Manning said.
CFA art classes, such as lithography, a studio course designed to teach students the art of printing with special equipment like the printing press, faced similar detractors, according to Karlena Fletcher, a junior in CFA.
Fletcher said that because the materials needed for lithography are provided by BU. As remote learning means reduced class time the instructor assigned readings on the history of the art form and drawing homework she could have “made in high school” rather than practicing lithography.
“One of the things that drew me to BU’s art program in the first place is the incredible facility,” Fletcher said. “No longer having access to those, especially for a course where the tools and machinery are required to learn about that art form feels like a complete waste of time.”
She also said that there was a financial loss that came with remote education, because her lab fees are essentially unused and the university decided there would be no refunds for tuition.
“I’m here to learn,” Fletcher said. “I don’t care about getting a credit on my transcript if I didn’t actually learn the skill that the credit claims.”
Students in the College of Communication have also faced challenges due to inaccessible equipment. Geoffrey Poister, an associate professor of television, said that while his students can no longer access video equipment, he’s optimistic about what this experience could teach them.
“This will be an exercise in resourcefulness and creativity — to be able to find a way to make a film under unusual circumstances — but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad education,” Poister said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from filmmaking it’s that you can never give up.”
Labs — meant to give students hands-on learning experience, also had to go digital — changing their entire structure. James Lawford Anderson, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences who teaches geology, said that he had to adapt his labs due to the lack of microscopes – instead opting to insert pictures of rocks.
“There’s a lot of resources out there and we can do this,” Anderson said. “I’m going to import field shots as we expand beyond the classroom and beyond the physical laboratory.”
Some students, like Jasmine Gordon, a senior in CAS enrolled in lab courses, feel like they are missing an opportunity to get more hands-on experience and exercise prior knowledge of machinery and content.
“My labs have been cut short,” Gordon said. “Skills that I would have acquired had we had class are no longer available to me and instead are being substituted for more work, which is even more frustrating given the circumstances.”
Physical education courses in departments including Aquatics, Dance and Nutrition that are taught at the Fitness and Recreation Center were canceled altogether.
Study abroad courses also faced disruption and were forced to shift to remote learning. Komal Kadel, a junior in Questrom, who was part of the London Internship program said two of her courses ended before the pandemic, but her internship was cut short.
She also said she must work directly with her company, who currently has no remote work that would allow her to continue the internship portion of study abroad. However, she is thankful she will still be able to earn the credits she had planned to obtain this semester.
“This is really hard, but I think we have to stay together,” Kadel said. “I’m really glad that BU is still offering the credits, because if not that would mean that I wouldn’t even be able to graduate in time.”
Moreover, all parties are dealing with variables out of the control of professors, such as potentially unstable internet connections or time zone variability. Some students unable to return home or already in Eastern Standard Time can tune into lectures and participate relatively normally, but others may have as big as a 12-hour time difference.
Cordelia Theseira, a junior in CAS, is currently in Singapore. She wrote in an email that her professors record her lectures so she doesn’t have to watch them live and she had a 24-hour window for an exam, but she still misses the class experience.
“Not being able to engage in discussions or not being able to ask questions as they come up [has been difficult], Theseira wrote. “There’s not really anything or anyone holding me accountable to classes and work except myself.”
Extra effort has gone into making remote learning accessible to students with disabilities, according to Lorraine Wolf, director of Disability and Access Services at BU.
“All of our students who already had accommodations can expect to receive the same accommodation as appropriate for an online environment,” Wolf said.
Wolf also said that she realizes there are additional challenges to online education, such as increased distractions and migraines related to screen-use, but she and her colleagues are ready to accommodate these new issues.
As a result of remote learning and the pandemic, there have also been miscommunications between the university and students and also professors and students. A petition was sent from COM students to COM Dean Mariette DiChristina regarding a professor’s emails mandating students continue reporting assignments, which students believed were encouraging in-person reporting that would put themselves at-risk amid the pandemic.
DiChristina later clarified that students were expected to conduct remote reporting.
Jean Morrison, university provost and chief academic officer, said administration understood students are struggling to adapt to their new system of education, and made the decision to allow students to accept their grade in a class, or designate courses as “Credit” and “No Credit” for this special Spring semester.
Morrison added that students can opt for “credit” in courses they received a D or higher, and “no credit” in the case of an“F” or for classes students prefer not to count in the graduation requirement. Any class marked credit/no credit will not factor into students’ GPA.
For Evan Teplensky, a freshman in CAS, this decision was a major win for students. Teplensky circulated a petition that hundreds of students signed to lobby for a pass/fail option during spring semester, and he saw the credit/no credit as recognition.
“I’m grateful,” Teplensky said. “BU likes to use the words “common ground” and [this decision] was what they saw as the common ground, and they really thought about student input.”
BU’s graduate schools remained relatively untouched by remote education, with the School of Medicine sending their students to early graduation April 10, so they could immediately enter residency and help pandemic efforts. The School of Law started online coursework, and saw much success with online moot courts, LAW’s version of mock trials, according to Jeremy Thompson, assistant dean of LAW.
“It’s not exactly the same as being in person,” Thompson said. “But [the director of moot courts] is finding [remote courts] effective and the students seem to be bought in and doing quite well within the context of the virtual environment.”
Summer Terms, as of April 17, will be held online, and BU is looking toward fall semester and beyond, keeping what it has learned about Zoom’s capabilities in mind. Morrison said, depending on how the pandemic progresses, BU may employ online technology with an on-campus fall semester 2020.
“For large lecture classes, we are exploring which of those we might do remote learning for the lecture portion, and students could stay in their dorms to do that portion,” Morrison said, “but then we would gather in person for discussion sections.”
In the event that the pandemic worsens or remains the same, BU will continue the fall semester online, Morrison said. However, “the focus right now is on coming back for the fall of 2020,” according to her.
Jane Avery, Shannon Damiano, Samantha Kizner, Nathan Lederman and Jahnavi Sodhi contributed to the reporting of this article.