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Shift to online learning at universities poses challenges for arts and sciences classes

"We’re trying to keep a semblance of order and sense of tradition, but then in other places, trying to be super inventive," one professor said.
Image: Lisa Wymore, a professor of dance, theater and performances studies at University of California, Berkeley leads warm-ups for an online course
Lisa Wymore, a professor of dance, theater and performances studies at University of California, Berkeley, leads warmups for an online course in Berkeley, California, on March 12, 2020.Nathan Frandino / Reuters

New York University senior Neeta Thadani was standing in her acting class on March 9 when she received an email that all her classes would be going remote for the next two weeks.

At first, Thadani, a drama major, wasn't concerned. It would be only two weeks, and one of those weeks was spring break. The student productions she had been working on for seven weeks wouldn't get canceled, and she would still be able to rehearse her acting scenes with her classmates when they returned.

Then, on March 12, the university announced it would conduct classes online until April 19. Four days later, Thadani got the email that classes would be remote for the rest of the semester.

"It's really just an emotional roller coaster of not knowing anything," Thadani, 21, said.

As colleges across the United States move to online instruction for the rest of the academic year to curb the spread of the coronavirus, students and professors have had to navigate a sudden shift in learning style. For arts and science classes, which are more conducive to in-person instruction, switching to online only can mean completely changing curriculum on short notice.

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Thadani's biggest concern is her acting class, where she believes that in-person contact and performance are essential to the learning experience.

"There's something about being in a room with people, acting, that is so personal and vulnerable," Thadani said. "You need to feel the room of people supporting you, and that's just nonexistent over Zoom."

For some students, losing access to in-person instruction also means losing crucial professional networking opportunities just before graduation. Sasha Chowdhury, who is studying film at NYU, said she had been looking forward to making her senior thesis film, which she could have submitted to festivals.

"That basically upstarts my career as a director, gets noticed by agents," Chowdhury, 22, said.

It's no longer mandatory for Chowdhury to make a film, but if she still opts to do, she won't be able to finish it until at least the summer or fall.

For students in science courses, online instruction means they can't participate in labs and receive hands-on training to better understand material. Haylee Greer, a senior studying health sciences at Hendrix College in Arkansas, is taking an immunology class with a lab where students conducted experiments regularly. She said the lab helped students understand the concepts they learn in the classroom.

"This was my favorite class, and I think this is something that I really want to focus more on in the future to study," Greer, 21, said. "And so I am concerned that I'm not going to be able to get certain information that would have been necessary to move forward and not get a good understanding of everything that's going on, especially since it's a really difficult class."

Though she has not received a formal notice on how classes will proceed, her immunology professor emailed the class to say they no longer have to complete a grant proposal assignment, and Greer is disappointed.

"I was looking forward to that, because that would have given me a good opportunity to get experience on how to write grant proposals if I wanted to do research in the future, because I'm planning on applying to medical school next year," Greer said.

With these huge changes to learning, students in practical arts training feel like they aren't receiving the education they paid for. At New York University, where spring tuition and fees for full-time Tisch School of the Arts students was $29,276, some no longer feel like the price tag is worth it, and that students should either be partially refunded or have their academic year extended by a month.

Students at schools like Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and Miami University in Ohio have started petitions to persuade their administrations to allow for pass/fail grading given the new circumstances.

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Professors who have to transition to teaching classes remotely have had to come up with new teaching strategies, sometimes having to entirely change the curriculum to meet this new set of challenges.

To make the transition easier for professors, NYU hosted webinars on remote learning tools during spring break. According to NYU spokesperson John Beckman, hundreds of faculty members have participated in these webinars. In addition, some of the university's IT division has been redeployed to help the instructional technology office better support faculty.

"While we look forward to the day when we can get back to in-person classes and the daily rhythms of campus, NYU is fully committed to the academic continuity of its students in the remote environment," Beckman said in an email.

Cyrus Beroukhim, an associate professor of string studies at New York University, says that his biggest class, with 88 students, is dividing into smaller groups because there is no way to stick with the original curriculum while teaching remotely. However, Beroukhim said that these challenges would help students learn more about what it's like to work on unique projects, such as organizing performance programs.

"In some ways, it's actually better because you can really focus clearly on specific things like technique when you're seeing somebody on screen," Beroukhim said. "It's been interesting to see how much my teaching style has changed using this format. We're very optimistic there is still going to be a tremendous amount of learning."

While Beroukhim has decided to completely alter his curriculum, Seán Curran, the director of NYU's dance studies program, is finding ways to try to keep close to his original plan. However, the difficulties of finding space to practice has become the No. 1 concern of performance arts professors, as well as students. Curran said that some of his faculty conducted trial runs during spring break, but without advance warning from the administration, the faculty has had to figure out the logistics themselves.

"We're trying to keep a semblance of order and sense of tradition, but then in other places, trying to be super inventive and rethink what is remote learning and how does it push us forward and kind of inspire new ways of doing," Curran said.

This is a particularly challenging transition, he said, because a lot of students haven't had online instruction before.

"It's going to be a shock to the systems I feel, in a way, to the dancers, who, you know, learn from each other," Curran said.

Science professors still want students to achieve their learning goals, even outside the science laboratory. Ethan Clotfelter, a professor of biology and environmental studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said in an email that even after having two weeks to prepare for online classes, his department is trying to anticipate new challenges.

So far, Clotfelter and his colleagues are rethinking how to run course discussions with students who are spread across a wide range of time zones and who might not have adequate internet access. One way he is altering his syllabus is by providing students with past classes' lab datasets along with videos of himself collecting the data to demonstrate protocol, rather than having this semester's students collect and analyze their own data.

"It's not perfect, but they will still get something out of it," Clotfelter said.