The COVID-19 pandemic has forced monumental and continually changing changes in the way we teach students. While the spring semester 2022 has gone by under the strain of virus variants, part of me is still dealing with the fall semester 2021.
It was a semester in which the private four-year college where I teach economics courses took on the challenge of turning the tide of the teaching modality imposed by COVID online on the person. It was a time of transition, with most students returning to residential life, while very few were not. In-person learning was no longer a modality deemed too risky but was practically a requirement, as in pre-COVID semesters. A rigorous approval process was in effect for students seeking remote learning, with many being flatly refused and forced to withdraw for the semester. Only a few have been approved for remote learning. The COVID era of housing students in their many varied situations ended in fall 2021.
As an instructor, part of my understanding of this radical approach is to prevent disgruntled parents from complaining that they are paying for room and board while their students are away from class and, in the worst case , to sue for tuition fees billed online. Classes. As we all know, this has been a thorn in the side of many residential colleges during the pandemic. In response, the college where I teach opened hybrid courses in the spring of 2021, welcoming both in-person and distance learning students depending on the student’s choice. Any student who could make it to campus would take in-person classes, while any student who couldn’t would be accommodated with remote learning.
The implicit assumption underlying these blended courses was that any student living on campus would fully participate in in-person learning. However, my own experience in the classroom is that students definitely don’t equate on-campus learning with in-person learning. Not all students in residence necessarily show up for their classes in person. When given the opportunity, many stay in their dorms and opt for virtual classes. Other teachers at the college where I teach have experienced the same phenomenon.
Fear of exposure to COVID could be one reason, but I think the main reason is simply being used to the convenience of online learning. Thus, a new breed of student was created – the residential distant student. Unsurprisingly, parents objected to high room and board charges for their students who do not attend in-person classes. So, for fall 2021, faculty have been advised that all students should take in-person classes and that hybrid classes will be a thing of the past.
The college where I teach only offers one stipend for online college teaching, and that’s for classes that register for more than 120 – the maximum number of students allowed in a physical space. . Only these courses would be divided into groups of less than 120 people; each group attends an in-person class every other day and joins the live stream every other day. This way, each student has the opportunity to attend classes in person part of the time. Nonetheless, we should expect students to attend, whether their turn is in person or via live stream.
This is where I find myself as an instructor of economics classes that enroll well over the 120 limit. Simple enough, I thought as I scheduled my classes for August 2021. I welcomed favorably a return to class after two full semesters of online instruction only. Once I figured out the hardware and software needed to do a live stream, it should work fine, I thought. I only tackled one thing, the attendance expectation – that all students are expected to attend class. How would this work in my large lectures with up to 300 students, even with small groups of less than 120?
It was not my practice to require attendance, as I was never inclined to micromanage my hundreds of students. It would take significant tech support resources to monitor and record attendance, with a lateness policy – resources I didn’t have. Also, my large lecture attendance drops dramatically after the first three weeks of the semester, as the class quickly splits into two groups: attendees and non-attendees, or basically, those who enjoy the traditional in-person experience. and those who don’t.
This is a trend I have observed for years. Other professors I know have gone through the same thing, so much so that some use two different grading paths: one for students who wish to attend class and another for those who wish to withdraw. In fact, based on my pre-COVID attendance count, by week eight of the semester, the majority of students usually stop attending. These students clearly show a preference for learning independently with a good textbook and Blackboard resources, while saving classroom time. Couple that with classes effectively modified by COVID to facilitate remote learning, and it’s very convenient for students to skip classes.
So I doubted that students would respond positively to college attendance expectations, but I thought students might have a new appreciation for in-person learning after the COVID experience. Maybe I would see more students in the classroom than ever before. This might be a semester like no other. I was open to the possibility that the downward trend in attendance could reverse as a result of the crisis we had all just experienced.
I decided that my simple strategy would be to state in the curriculum that attendance was expected and that no student would be supported in remote learning without official college approval. If student sentiment had indeed changed, this statement alone should be enough to draw students into the classroom and keep them there for the duration of the semester. I then started my semester of hybrid courses, curious to know how it would go.
Welcoming the new resident student remotely
Now that fall 2021 is behind me, I can report on my experience. The first day of class saw total attendance, in-person and live together, at 95% of total registrations. As I suspected, some students didn’t get the memo about split group assignments to alternate in-person and live; the number of students in the classroom that first day exceeded the maximum of 120 allowed. Whoops. One class far exceeded it, with 155 students present in the classroom. Fortunately, no COVID outbreak resulted.
What happened next during the first weeks of class was my main interest. Would students attend classes in accordance with the attendance expectation, or would they follow the usual pattern, with many choosing absenteeism? What I observed was that total attendance dropped steadily throughout the first half of the semester. Each of my class sessions saw a drop in first-day attendance from 95% to just 20% in the week leading up to Thanksgiving. The biggest marginal drop from class to class occurred in the fourth and fifth weeks of this 15-week semester. Of those attending the class, most joined via online broadcast rather than in person, even though the classroom had many socially distant seats.
The college wants students to be physically present in the classroom. However, I see students expressing a different preference for the courses I teach. Our attendance expectations seem to have diverged from the preferences of students enrolled in my busy classes. We shouldn’t assume that campus life implicitly breeds in-person learning. In my experience, students are latching on to COVID-style distance learning in the residential setting.
I am not the only instructor to have experienced this phenomenon, as my colleagues here and elsewhere have shared stories of empty classrooms and modified lesson plans to accommodate a few in-person students. Will four-year residential colleges officially welcome remote residential students and provide them with the online options they want, especially when it comes to high enrollment courses? Or will they push for a return to pre-COVID normality and expect attendance, even in large courses?
My opinion on the matter is pragmatic. Since I have developed such comprehensive resources for successfully completing an online course, I believe that students who wish to enroll as purely online students should be allowed to do so freely. At the same time, students who value the traditional in-person experience should have this opportunity. But I’m not enthusiastic about combining the two modalities in a hybrid course – it scatters my focus on students and demands an inefficient level of multitasking from me. I can give a very good course, either online Where in person, but not merged.
In addition, the teaching load must reflect the fact that this type of blended course counts as two courses for faculty members. I’ve never liked the “teach two courses, get paid for one” offer inherent in the hybrid style. My recommendation is that colleges separate their online classes from in-person classes, allow students to choose, and organize faculty workload accordingly. Ultimately, the quality of education will increase, pandemic or no pandemic.
My expectations for the current Spring 2022 semester are realistic – I do not expect the majority of my students to attend classes. However, this time, I will pause the live stream as soon as the total number of in-person, live attendees falls below or equal to 120, the maximum room occupancy allowed. This may attract more students to the class. And it will allow me to focus on the traditional teaching methods that I enjoy without juggling headphones and a webcam. This time, depending on where the pandemic goes from here, I hope my biggest challenge in class will be figuring out how to show students a smile behind my mask.