U.S. educators rely on technology amid pandemic, some see drawbacks

For Charles Whitaker, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, teaching in the era of COVID-19 has been an adjustment, but one the entire world has had to make.

“It’s tough,” Whitaker, dean of one of the top three U.S. journalism schools, told Xinhua.

But he added that “luckily, we live in a time when there’s an abundance of information available online.”

HAVE TO BE VERY CREATIVE, INDUSTRIOUS

“You just have to be very creative and industrious,” Whitaker said.

Indeed, educators both  in the United States and worldwide have had to deal with the challenges of teaching online, amid social distancing measures put in place to slow the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.

“Students are doing a lot of Zoom reporting,” Whitaker said, referring to one technology that allows students – and professionals in newsrooms nationwide – to conduct interviews online.

“They’re doing a lot of Skype reporting, they’re doing a lot of Facetime reporting … so we’re making it work,” said Whitaker.

The school is helped both by today’s widely available technology, as well as a young generation of reporters that is more tech savvy than students even a few years ago, he said.

One difficulty, however, has been filming documentaries, a process that usually requires lengthy periods of in-person contact.

“It’s not ideal. With documentary you want to be able to build a rapport with people and it’s hard to do that over Zoom,” Whitaker said of one online platform that’s seen a lot of use amid the pandemic, “but they worked around it.”

“What they worked on were the techniques of building a narrative for a documentary. It wasn’t ideal but it gave them the building blocks of how to develop a narrative documentary,” Whitaker said.

Vishal Gaur, professor of manufacturing management at Cornell University’s Johnson College of Business, told Xinhua he spent the spring semester teaching MBA students online, due to the pandemic.

“This semester I had to adapt to teaching online on short notice,” Gaur said. “It went much better than expected.”

“In the in-class teaching I could use the blackboard to write things down, but (with online teaching) everything had to be on a PowerPoint slide,” Gaur said. “So the discussion had to be planned properly, in much more detail.”

But one positive outcome was that students came very well prepared.

“In the Zoom classroom I felt that students were better prepared than they are in in-classroom teaching,” Gaur said.

ISOLATING AN ALREADY ISOLATED GENERATION

David, a high school teacher in the Washington, D.C. area who declined to give his full name, as he was not authorized to speak to the press, told Xinhua he taught online for a couple of months before the summer break.

While David was able to teach from home via Zoom and other online platforms, he said many of his students appeared to be just rolling out of bed for his noontime class.

While the lessons went smoothly, David expressed concern over the mental and physical health of his students, worrying that at-home learning could lead to isolation, rapid weight gain and depression for some students.

Some of his students, he said, appeared disheveled and sluggish on his screen – a result of too much sleep, too little social interaction and not enough structure in their schedule.

Researchers said the human brain is wired for person-to-person contact, and studies over the past decade found that increasing use of social media and the Internet can cause increased depression, social isolation and even drug use and suicide.

This is particularly the case for young people, and David frets over the long-term impact on students’ mental and physical health.

Marlena, a university-level English as a Second Language instructor who also declined to give her full name, said online learning does not work well in learning foreign languages.

Students tend not to learn languages well online, and fare better with person-to-person language training, she said.

SOCIAL BUTTERFLIES STILL FLY OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

Many university campuses plan to re-open their doors this fall, and are planning to implement various social distancing measures aimed at slowing the virus’ spread. But some educators question what will happen outside the classroom.

The American college experience, for most students, is about finding one’s place in society. One big part of this is not only constant socialization, but also dating and intimacy.

That’s something that educators cannot regulate outside the classroom, and could well lead to a spike in coronavirus cases on some university campuses, once they open their doors this fall. 

by Matthew Rusling