COVID-19: A glimpse into the online learning experience in US & France

online learning experience

Before COVID-19 hit, PhD student Abbas Abbasov’s online learning experience was limited at best.

“Most professors don’t prefer teaching online because it takes away student interaction and spontaneity from classes,” shared the Azerbaijani student at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“Without that call and response with students, teaching online can become gimmicky.”

Speaking to Study International from New York, Abbas recalled how Columbia University sprang into action to respond to COVID-19 in early March. The university tapped into its long-established Columbia Video Network to train faculty members in conducting classes via Zoom.

Abbas Abbasov from Azerbaijan has been studying in the US since 2016. Source: Abbas Abbasov

Though the logistics and infrastructure were in place, Abbas found that lecturers were not well-equipped to move online. They were given a Zoom crash course and introduced to their online resources — but these are not the only ingredients of a successful online learning experience.

“Professors are not able to use all the interactive features that learning portals provide. Lectures are the main mode of teaching, which unfortunately isn’t the most engaging way to teach a class online,” Abbas related.

Over in France, Chilean native Javiera Quiroz-Fernandez from the UK reports a smoother online learning experience.

She studies the BSc Mathematics & Physics at École Polytechnique, which has always used the Moodle learning management system (LMS) to access lecture slides, course textbooks, exercise sheets, and grades.

“We are all pretty familiar with how to use it. Question forums, videos of the lectures and links to Zoom sessions are now also uploaded here, making it very easy to access the material of each course,” Javiera shared.

She added, “The teachers were very quick to upload all the necessary material and made the organisation of courses very clear by also adapting to personal circumstances such as time differences.”

Javiera Quiroz-Fernandez is a Chilean native from the UK studying in France. Source: Javiera Quiroz-Fernandez

Owning your online learning experience

What do these student experiences show?

For one, universities with a solid history of using educational technology like LMS are moving smoother to the fully-online format than their traditional counterparts — though the latter may have more established programmes or experienced faculty.

But for many international students, their COVID-19 challenges lie beyond online learning.

They are concerned about course continuity and how it affects student visas. They wonder if they will graduate in time to meet Optional Practical Training (OPT) application deadlines. They worry if student health insurance will sufficiently cover them, should they fall ill.

While these are legitimate concerns of some of his coursemates, Abbas counts himself lucky to be a university staff. As a part-time graduate assistant at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, he was among the first university staff members to help with the School’s COVID-19 response.

“Hearing about senior administrative decisions first-hand gives me a sense of safety and security on campus,” Abbas shared. Helpful, as he prepares for his dissertation proposal in September.

This sense of security has allowed him to curate a personal routine that best suits his online learning experience.

Active and independent study is a pre-requisite to a successful online learning experience. Source: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images North America/ AFP

Javiera and Abbas both find the online learning experience flexible — but this makes it a double-edged sword.

“Sitting in my room without my usual routine, my brain thinks it’s time to relax,” Abbas laughed, “so I’ve had to adjust to working and studying in my own space.”

“I can organise my time better, putting more hours in the courses that I need to revise more. But having more freedom can also be quite daunting as it poses the question: how do I organise myself efficiently?” Javiera opined.

She discovered her ideal method through trial and error: “Changing subjects and tasks have proven to be more gratifying for me, instead of trying to absorb all the content in one sitting.”

Since course materials are uploaded on Moodle a day or two before the lecture, Javiera goes through the lecture before attending the recap and Q&A sessions on Zoom. Her coursemates are expected to do the same.

Javiera believes the fast-paced nature of her programme drives students to actively and independently study each course.

In her words, “We are all very motivated to learn and the teachers have been understanding about reorganising courses based on student feedback. This has allowed the online learning experience to run smoothly.”

Time for universities to step up

Resources are proving to be lifelines to international students in this crisis when their options are limited by financial and geographical means. Accommodation, security, or refunds aside, they look to their university for guidance and advice.

“The school sends us weekly emails to update us on its measures as well as student, researcher, alumni and staff initiatives put in place to help combat the pandemic. We are also in close contact with our coaches, who regularly send us emails with workout ideas while providing encouragement and support,” Javiera said.

École Polytechnique offers a delayed payment scheme and scholarships for students facing financial difficulty. Columbia University also offers a stipend to aid international students. At both universities, students who have nowhere else to go can stay on campus.

If universities, teachers, and students execute the right measures at a timely pace, they can collectively create a seamless online learning experience so courses can go on uninterrupted.

This way, even novel online learning experiences can prove fruitful for students. For example, Javiera’s class recently had its first laboratory session online.

“We were supposed to study Fourier transforms in optics, which was replaced to apply Fourier analysis of images using a software called ImageJ. The teachers were very clear on how to download the system and use it, in order to perform our experiments and to write the report on the session,” she shared.

It’s not enough for universities to set up an LMS. When administrators and teachers go the extra mile in offering guidance and support, students gain the confidence to navigate the online learning maze.

The reward from this is the ultimate payoff in student outcomes: the ability to thrive in any environment, at any point in time.

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