Updated: Jun 12, 2020
Like many schools and universities throughout the world, Stanford has transitioned to online classes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Huge levels of uncertainty about the format of education remained until two weeks before the start of spring quarter, when the university administration announced switching to online instruction for the rest of the academic year, asking most students to leave the campus “until further notice”. Faculty and staff prepared tirelessly over an extended spring break to move course material to a digital platform, while trying to preserve the integrity and rigor of their courses. The university also adopted Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC) grading basis, and a mandatory no final exam policy for all classes.
Today, it continues to be an extremely stressful time for students who are trying to plan for the next academic year. Rumor (and twitter of some faculty members) has it: fall quarter will be online. A lot of people are preparing to take leaves of absence because of the prospects of attending "Zoom" University for longer than one quarter. Personally, I don't know if I would be able to graduate on time anymore since my major requires a hands-on senior project that would be impossible to complete in an online classroom. Many engineering, science, and art practice students share similar concerns.
While we can only make guesses about the future of our education, we can discuss the advantages and limitations of virtual instruction. Of course, every student's experience with learning remotely varies with their personal circumstances, the classes and the number of units (i.e., hours of work) they take, the subjects they study, as well as the learning tools and routine they are used to engage with.
I am currently staying on our half-abandoned campus: the tourists, Palo Alto families, as well as other international students are still very much hanging out on the lawns, or just biking/walking around campus, while most dorms and classroom buildings remain empty. Due to the change of grading to S/NC and the absence of any social responsibilities, I decided to take up the maximum allowed number of units for this quarter. Like many other students who underestimated the intensity of online education, I ended up with the most intellectually demanding quarter in my Stanford career. At the same time, I find it very satisfying to be able to fulfill the hardest classes and get a lot of requirements out of the way without the usual pressure of the grading system and GPA standards. This quarter has allowed me to step out of my academic comfort zone and take up classes I probably wouldn’t have considered without these unusual circumstances.
As a student in STEM, I adapted to Zoom education very fast since physical presence in a classroom environment is not an integral part of my personal learning experience. Most of the classes in my major at this point are lectures with extensive use of whiteboard (we love a lot of crazy math), which translated into the use of graphic tablets. However, faculty whose courses extend beyond lectures or seminar-style discussions were forced to cancel classes or otherwise make dramatic adjustments to their format. For example, some dance classes are offered in a more instructional rather than activity-based format: students need to upload recordings of their dances or perform them live over Zoom to receive feedback from the class through the online discussion. Some lab instructors are demonstrating techniques and procedures to students on Zoom or in pre-recorded tutorials.
One advantage of a virtual classroom is that all students are able to learn from materials at their own pace, instead of being confined to a specific class time. Zoom also allows us to take polls instantaneously, record lectures more easily, enter break out rooms and meet with various groups of classmates without moving anywhere. Additionally, students who might be uncomfortable about raising their voices can pose questions in the chat box, and respond to their classmates’ comments without vocally interrupting the professor.
However, the feeling of the personal connection that undergirds the ultimate learning experience is missing. The spatial and nonverbal cues of a regular classroom are inevitably lost. Our bedrooms became spaces for rest, socialization, and work all at once. Our laptop screens force us to enter the liminal space behind the glass barrier as we cycle through the days that don’t seem to differ from one another.
It has been a tough challenge to stay motivated, to attend online lectures, knowing that they are recorded, or to watch recordings of missed lectures. Nonetheless, the current crisis has forced our Stanford community to continuously adapt and to learn more about our differences and our various ways of learning. We learned to notice and appreciate smaller things in life; we learned to be tolerant and patient with each other; we learned to live without structure, routine, and social responsibilities. As the quarter moves toward the end, we are continuing to learn and attempt to foster wellness at the time when we can only hope for a better future.