How the pandemic drove college students and professors into ‘Zoom University’

Laveta Brigham

Almost eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, Zoom has emerged as a staple of online learning among colleges across the country, with more than 700 colleges and universities now using the virtual learning platform. The San Jose-based company, which is Yahoo Finance’s Company of the Year, was in some ways […]

Almost eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, Zoom has emerged as a staple of online learning among colleges across the country, with more than 700 colleges and universities now using the virtual learning platform.

The San Jose-based company, which is Yahoo Finance’s Company of the Year, was in some ways prepared the unprecedented shift from on-campus to online learning.

“Universities and the higher education space were some of the earliest adopters of Zoom,” the company’s chief marketing officer Janine Pelosi told Yahoo Finance.

Pelosi added that in March, as COVID-19 cases started to surge, the company poured in more resources into educating customers about how to use Zoom, rather than on sales and marketing.

“This was about enabling our customers and users for Zoom,” she explained. “This was needed — this is critical infrastructure at this point.”

CAMBRIDGE, MA - APRIL 16: Chance Bonar, a PhD candidate at Harvard, teaches an online class from his dorm in Cambridge, MA on April 16, 2020. Bonar and other members of the Grad Workers Student Union are fighting for their first union contract and extra protections due to an increase in workload as teaching goes digital. (Photo by Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A PhD candidate at Harvard teaches an online class from his dorm in Cambridge, MA on April 16, 2020. (Photo by Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

How professors are using Zoom

Being familiar with the technology made the transition to wholly online learning easier for some professors, though it still brought its challenges.

“I was very familiar with Zoom coming into this, because in my program we have used Zoom … for years now, because we’re a hybrid program,” Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington told Yahoo Finance. “Thankfully, because of that prior experience, it wasn’t too radical of a transition,” said McClure, who teaches mostly graduate students at his university.

Part of the pivot to fully remote, however, involved mastery of the technology.

McClure said he’s been using tools on Zoom, like breakout rooms for smaller-group discussions and polls as quizzes to make the classes feel more energetic.

Some Zoom features also made it easier for non-English speakers to participate.

“I liked the idea that you automatically get a transcript of the class with a video when you record it,” Daniel Friedrich, associate professor of curriculum at Teachers College, Columbia University, told Yahoo Finance. “For students that are non-English speakers, or [learning it] as a second language, it’s very useful to have sort of a transcript up here automatically when they watch the recording.”

Jeff Cornell, a theater professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said learning how to teach his drama students online was a challenge at first, but they adapted.

“After a few little format and technical things were learned … [Zoom] was actually quite flexible,” he said. “Now, things that were lost were movement, right? Body, language … yet I could still make an entrance into the scene … I could be quite close to you. So there’s ways that we can even explore space in this media.”

Cornell, who mostly teaches undergraduates, also used breakout rooms to help students practice in smaller groups.

“If I’m assigning scenes, all my scene partners are in different rooms and they’re working privately, and then I can go and drop into all those little breakout rooms and see how they’re doing,” he explained. And the ability to record and play back their piece was exceptionally useful, he said.

Some teachers and students said virtual learning amid the pandemic also forged closer connections in some ways.

“I’ve seen a different mindset where faculty and students have been more flexible and accepting, because everyone knows that we’re all going through a variety of challenges,” Jenna Sheffield, assistant provost for curriculum innovation at the University of New Haven, told Yahoo Finance.

“There’s something about Zooming with your professor when they’ve got their kid climbing all over them or something along those lines, that sort of humanizes that.”

And the same situation happens with the students, she added. “It’s one thing for students to tell you, ‘Oh, I’m having wifi problems’, but it’s another thing when you’re experiencing it, because they’re cutting out on you.”

“It’s enabled a different kind of relationship and empathy between faculty and students,” Sheffield said. “And I hope that carries over” post-pandemic, she added.

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO - AUGUST 17:  Kyalynn Moore-Wilson, a freshman, sits at a desk in her dorm room as she participates in a Zoom meeting for an 'Introduction to Psychology' course as classes begin amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the first day of the fall 2020 semester at the University of New Mexico on August 17, 2020 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The course will meet in person four times during the fall semester with the remaining classes and coursework completed online. To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the university has moved to a hybrid instruction model that includes a mixture of in-person and remote classes. According to the school, about 70 percent of classes are being taught online.  (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)
A student sits at a desk in her dorm room at the University of New Mexico on August 17, 2020 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

‘Starting from scratch’

But for many students and faculty, the struggle to pivot was real.

Back home in Montgomery, Alabama, Spelman College student Bethany Griffin found it easy to pivot to online learning, but the fact that it’s been months since she stepped foot on campus has started to weigh on her.

“The worst part for me is because Spelman is very small and very intimate, so our class discussions are very engaging and we’re able to see someone you might have multiple classes with,” the 21-year-old political science major said.

Participating in class discussions was also challenging, because it didn’t feel as collaborative, she added. And one of her classes had so much work, since the semester had been cut short, that her focus “shifted from me actually being engaged in the class and trying to learn, to just trying to make sure that the assignments are done and I get a grade,” Griffin explained.

The transition had also been tough on faculty, Sheffield said. “We weren’t a university that had a whole lot of online instruction before, so some people were really starting from scratch.”

‘This year has been rough’

But it’s also important to note that though no fault of Zoom’s, this entire year of remote learning has been a setback for many.

“Honestly, this year has been rough,” 25-year-old grad school student Aamirr Bailey-Fenderson told Yahoo Finance. His university, Rutgers in Camden, New Jersey, had opted for virtual learning this fall to avoid bringing the students back and risking a COVID-19 outbreak.

But that totally “changed the end of my college experience,” Bailey-Fenderson said. He is currently finishing up his last year pursuing a dual Masters degree in criminal justice and public administration.

“As someone who learns by seeing it done in front of him, having virtual classes and asynchronous learning has been difficult to say the least,” he said. “Learning on Zoom has been terrible, it’s harder to pay attention while being home and not in class. Factors at home can affect how I am focused on class and homework, especially without having a work space.”

Griffin said she delayed her Spelman graduation by a semester so that she didn’t have to spend her final semester fully online.

“I was concerned about me wanting to go to law school, and the process of transitioning from virtual undergrad to a virtual law school kind of threw me off,” she explained.

Reading, PA - September 3: Tessa Beck, from Palmyra, NJ, an Occupational Therapy major and an RA, in her room at the DoubleTree. At the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel on Penn Street in Reading Thursday evening September 3, 2020 where Alvernia University is housing some of their students as part of its efforts to reduce the population in its on-campus residence halls as a precaution against COVID-19 / coronavirus. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
A student in her room at a DoubleTree Hilton Hotel. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

The issue of access

Internet access and technology issues have also been a challenge. Many students without stable wifi at home were left out. For instance, according to one report by Education Trust-West, the spring shift to online was “extremely disruptive” for college students of color and those from lower-income households: 13% of students of color, and 14% of students from lower-income households in California lacked internet access.

The pandemic has exacerbated other problems for students. Some are struggling with other layoffs, evictions, and mental health issues, Josh Martin, spokesperson for Quinsigamond Community College (QCC) in Massachusetts, told Yahoo Finance.

Schools like QCC have had to go above and beyond to just keep students engaged: Martin said that they had identified 570 students in danger of failing, and aggressively reached out to them over a two-week period to reduce that number to 130.

Persistence is a challenge amid this virtual environment, but “are still working with the remaining students to ensure that they receive the help they need to successfully finish their semesters,” he stressed.

‘Zoom fatigue is real’

And it’s not just students who are struggling to stay connected and motivated.

“Zoom fatigue is real,” Sheffield said. “There’s no time to decompress. Usually you might be walking 10 minutes from one meeting to the next and you can be preparing or thinking about what you’re going into, but now it’s you click out of one zoom meeting and you click into the next one.”

Aarthi Swaminathan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance, covering education. She can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @aarthiswami.

Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.

Read more:

Yahoo Finance 2020 Company of the Year: Zoom

How Zoom became ‘critical infrastructure’ for millions of kids learning online

How Zoom overcame security flaws that prompted an FBI warning and an FTC probe

Winter is coming, and we’re all going back to Zoom

A ‘happy crew’ and unlimited vacation: What it’s like working at Zoom

3 reasons Tesla isn’t our Company of the Year

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