Reporting in on the Virtual Learning Experience

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

I am taking a course this fall from J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.  Virtual, of course. The experience leaves a lot to be desired.

First of all, I need to stipulate that I have little ground on which to complain because I do not have to pay any tuition. The state has a program under which Virginia residents over 60 years old can take any course in a state-supported institution of higher education for free. If one has an income below a certain level, the course can be taken for credit; otherwise, no college credits are earned. The other restriction is that tuition-paying students get first crack at courses; the non-payers can enroll only if there is still room in the course on the first day. (I did have to pay for a textbook.)

The professor is obviously not used to teaching a virtual course. I must say, though, that she is doing the best she can. Having taught college courses on an adjunct basis in the past, I think it would be difficult to teach while sitting down and trying to monitor a couple of computer screens. Although she can “see” us, it is hard to establish any one-on-one relationship or contact.

From a student’s perspective, while it is pleasant to be able to sit on my sun porch during the class (or, in the case of one student, on her deck), I miss the camaraderie and feedback from an in-person class. Also, it is awkward trying participate or have a discussion; we are asked to use Zoom’s chat feature. Finally, this is a introductory geology class, which usually has a lab component. Obviously, we do not get to have the fun and learning experience of a lab.

There are a lot of technical problems. This is my first Zoom experience, so I do not know whether these problems are inherent with the platform or the result of something the community college is doing or not doing. On the first day of class, Zoom had problems nationwide and was down. So, no class that day. After that, the main problem has been sound quality. Again, this may the be fault of how the professor has her microphones set up. Sometimes, the sound is garbled; at other times, the words come out very slowly, as if a tape is being played at a slower speed. Then, there are long intervals when there is no sound at all. As for visual, fairly often, the picture of the professor freezes, as if I had hit pause, and then resumes. I assume this has something to do with the video feed being interrupted.

There is one advantage to virtual classes. The sessi0ns are recorded. Therefore, I was able to catch up on the ones I missed while I was at Sandbridge. (I know, I could have watched them from there, but, hey, it was a vacation!)

This is a difficult situation. Kids at all levels are getting shortchanged on their education. I understand, however, the concerns about the virus. There is no good answer. In a way, it is good for me that JSRCC is conducting classes virtually. If it had chosen to have in-school classes, I would not have enrolled in the class. No way am I going to sit in a classroom for two hours, twice a week, with  a group of 18-25 year-old young people.

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28 responses to “Reporting in on the Virtual Learning Experience

  1. Good post, Dick.
    All you cited are common problems with Zoom, for some of which there are remedies; others are inherent in the platform. Some of it you get used to ( I’ve been Zooming since April (How old are you, Dick??)), some you have to bring others along in their Zoom habits.

    What struck me most about your post is the last sentence. Why don’t you want to spend time in person with 18-25 yr olds? A friend of mine found it an opportunity to explain in polite terms why they were all being snowflakes with respect to Covid. She recounted that while growing up, or trying to, there was polio and measles, for which there was not yet a vaccine, and people went about their business anyway, taking ordinary precautions. Their mouths all dropped.

    • I really would stay away from attending a group session of any kind in an enclosed space. I mentioned 18-25 year olds because they seem to be the ones who are least likely to be taking precautions. I grew up when there were not vaccines for polio and measles. Neither one of those is as easily transmitted as COVID-19.

      • Measles is spread the exact same way as COVID-19 precursor and lives in the exact same sputum.

        It also lives up to 2 hours in the air where an infected person has coughed or sneezed.

        Would you care to reassess your statement?

        Polio can be spread through the very same manner but that is less common than transmission through fecal means.

  2. Dick, it is interesting to read about your experience in online learning. It sounds like the most glaring problems are technical, which can be remedied. I doubt that Zoom is the ideal platform for teaching online, although it may be the cheapest and easiest for the instructor to master. Likewise, it sounds like the instructor is a novice. Hopefully, the Zoom problems can be solved and your instructor will gain competence and confidence as time goes by. I hope you will report back in a month or two to let us know if the experience remains the same or has improved.

    I suspect that other problems will be more difficult to solve. One can’t just translate an in-person class into an online class. Each class needs to be constructed from the ground up for the online media. That requires expertise, time, and effort. It is unrealistic to expect underpaid instructors to have mastered all the necessary disciplines within a couple of months. It would be interesting to hear from someone who has taken an online class designed from the ground up for an online medium.

    • My grandkids have been homeschooled their whole lives. The oldest has taken several on-line courses over the years, for example, Latin for 4-5 years, and physics this year. You are right. These are courses that have been designed for online instruction and taught by teachers who have mastered the medium. My daughter (his mother) has been well satisfied with them. (By the way, they are not cheap.)

      • Mr. Hall-Sizemore – Regarding the technical difficulties of Zoom such as freezing and getting cut off, that may be a factor of Internet connectivity. Residential Internet service has been engineered for the typical residential user who primarily requires download bandwidth. Comcast for example provides 200 Mbps down but only 10 Mbps up on one of their plans.

        Zoom requires symmetrical bandwidth (2 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up) when users are sending video. When lots of residential customers in an area are using Zoom or other similar applications, the upstream bandwidth may be particularly congested.

        Residential Internet is an oversubscribed shared resource. With lots more people home, and using bandwidth in ways that were not typical previously, it’s not surprising there are issues.

        Zoom itself is being taxed as never before as well.

  3. Baconator with extra cheese

    What does the first couple of months of Zoom 1st grade look like?
    I get it may somewhat work as a stop gap for middle and high school, but the little ones without strong parents are really screwed. And that’s the best word I can come up with…. screwed.

  4. Jim is right. I have taken a number of online classes designed to teach technology. They generally put me in the position to take a certification test which usually included a computer lab. The certification tests were proctored and very hard. So, I had to actually learn the material. You don’t teach an online class by simply talking into a camera as if you were in a classroom. Many sections are pre-recorded so the teachers isn’t teaching live at all. This frees up time for the teacher to help students who have encountered problems learning the material. Breaks in instruction are common and students have to correctly answer questions to proceed. The teacher sees which students are cruising and which are struggling by watching the percentage of questions answered correctly by the students in the class. The pre-recorded material is far more graphical in nature with pictures and animated diagrams.

    Perhaps it would have been more productive for our State Secretary of Education to take some time away from pondering systemic racism in order to ponder systemic instruction. The 1918 Flu came in four waves with the second being, by far, the worst. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen with COVID-19 but you never know. We may need distance learning for some time to come.

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Meanwhile at Randolph Macon Academy in Front Royal the school is 3 weeks deep into in person instruction. So far so good. My daughter reports that classes are going better than she thought and it is much more fun than the virtual version. The mask and the excessive social distancing is difficult but other than that school is as close to normal as possible. Doodlebug scored a 100% on a 150 question geography test yesterday. Tell me which 7th grader in the Commonwealth of Virginia did that yesterday? Yes they had school on Labor Day. Loving it!

  6. Thank you Dick for yet another thoughtful rant-devoid post! Very refreshing and seriously good and much appreciated.

    Has anyone else here in their college days – as a freshman gong to a “class” of a hundred of more others in auditorium type venue and the “instructor” was a grad student with a thick accent?

    just wondering…

    • Yes. I know exactly what you are talking about. The TA in one of my freshman engineering classes was from Mississippi.

    • Grad student? Try Professor in Electrical Engineering intro courses form India.

      • Physics for me, only in the labs, and it blew up one myth — that they taught English in schools in India.

        • My DiffEq professor was an Indonesian immigrant to the Netherlands. He learned Dutch as a teenager in the Netherlands. He spoke Dutch with a heavy Indonesian accent.

          He learned English from Dutch high school teachers in the Netherlands. His accent when speaking English was as indecipherable as it was indescribable.

          • so much for the superiority of “in-person” learning, eh?

          • I had a Scot for Partial DiffEq. He claimed it was English. After class, at the Villa Roma bar or the Greenleaf, it kinda started to sound like English. Whale Isle Beef Hooked.

        • They were taught the Queens (which is different than ours) the issue is the accent and pronunciation.

          I still work with lots of individuals from India. They can communicate in English just fine, however their ability to speak without a thick accent doesn’t happen nor does their propensity to want to revert back to their native tongue.

          • Don’t know how familiar with the Middle Peninsula you are, but 30 years ago, you could drive out on the Guinea Neck, and like Tangier Island listen to something close to Middle English. A 400?year trip back in time for the gallon of gas it took to get there.

            And, yes, it was the accent, but it might as well have been the language. Think Cajun.

  7. Baconator with extra cheese

    As a science major at a very large school, yes…. every chemistry and math class….
    Had a chemistry TA in an upper level chemistry class who I am convinced could not speak english.

  8. “The state has a program under which Virginia residents over 60 years old can take any course in a state-supported institution of higher education for free. If one has an income below a certain level, the course can be taken for credit; otherwise, no college credits are earned.”

    Okay, that’s just backwards. The increased earning power of taking the course for one over 60 will never generate the tax revenue to pay for the course.

    Now, a tuition-free degree for a 22-year old will generate $1.5 million more in his lifetime. At 5%, that’s $75,000, twice the in-state tuition at UVa. Moreover, graduating with $35,000 less in debt means more consumption power thus driving the economy.

    Now, lemme read about your experience. I took one, count it, ONE, CCTV course in the 90s and wanted to shoot the professor, which would have a misdemeanor… destruction of a TV is not that big a deal.

  9. Anyone every heard of Babble or Rosetta Stone?

    Learn a language from software instead of in-person?

    GADZOOKS – oh the horror of not having an in-person teacher!

  10. “There is one advantage to virtual classes.” Two. They can’t pass notes.

    I taught a course in Operations Reseach, using eXcel’s Linear Programming toolkit, so for the first time in my career, every student had their laptops open on the desk.

    One lecture, I caught the telltale of “note passing”, specifically, a laugh/giggle on one side of the room, followed by a laugh moving to the other side and back and forth.

    I turned, looked for a second trying to catch the pass, and realized they were IM’ing. “Damn! Y’all are IM’ing.”

    One girl’s voice popped up, “Steve’s not! He’s looking at porn!”

    “It’s not porn,” Steve objected, “It’s the online Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.”

    “He’s right. That’s not porn. Let’s put the computers away.”

  11. That’s no fun Dick. If you can’t scratch the rocks to do hardness tests nor put acid on them how can you tell them apart? I remember when I took minerals at VT we got a box of either 200 or 250 rock and mineral samples to identify for the final. I got every one then. Probably couldn’t identify 10 now! I still find it funny my roommate who’s now a PhD in mining flubbed up the anthracite and bituminous coal samples.

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