Being a student during the zoomesters

It’s been almost a year since the one-week lock-down because of covid started, and I’m still at home. I finished that semester through zoom, had a remote internship with Facebook, started and finished other zoomester, and currently interning remotely in Oracle.

As a Software engineer, even if I miss working in the office (and traveling, the food, and all the cool stuff in the office… excuse me, I’ll go to cry to the corner), programming is an activity that can be done basically anywhere.

But, school is something that has fundamentally changed in all its aspects. In fact, education is a really well-established system that hasn’t changed for a long time. There is a place where people congregate, and a person in an authority position passes his knowledge to the other people. The curricula from courses have changed and evolved as required by the era and society’s social circumstances, but the idea of how it’s done hasn’t changed.

Education through time from my perspective

I was reading about this subject and found this article on how basically Roman education is this concept of a professor and students, a place for learning (sometimes a private tutor, but most of the times some kind of school).

I remembered a long time ago (I was in elementary or middle school), I remember that some teachers started talking about a revolution in education, thanks to this idea of everyone having a better way of learning, the Vark Model. Since then, many professors have talked about this, but the problem is that no professor modified their course to help each type of student. They only talk about the benefits of students identifying their learning styles and applying them in our learning, but if the course content is not adapted to the learning style, there isn’t much we can do about it.

If you’re interested in VARK, but don’t want to read about it, here is a video!

There have been some attempts to upgrade the education methods. MOOCs started to appear as an alternative to formal education and a way of self-learn new stuff around 2010. Still, there was no incentive for the general population to be part of these courses or simply to learn on the internet (In fact, I have signed up to a lot but completed just a few).

But, as I said at the beginning of this post, the education system was forced to change. As Covid-19 started to spread throughout the world, education was forced to move to remote models. I remember the day classes were suspended in my school; a professor just decided to give his class online just as a test. That same day we received the news that classes were suspended for a week, and we were possibly returning online after that.

And look at us students, we have been almost a year online, and possibly we will continue online the rest of this year (I have resigned to have online graduation this December). And even after that, I’m pretty sure education will not be the same ever again.

Online classes and how they change things

Online classes became the disruption the system may or may not have needed, but the world needed them in the middle of this pandemic.

Social Interaction

The first radical change everyone noticed is that we are not in school anymore, we just need a smart device and internet connection, and that’s it, we can take (and give) classes from anywhere. But even that this means “school from bed,” this also means we have lost this natural collaborative environment. School is not just a place to go listen to someone and return home. It’s a social environment where we interact with professors and students in meaningful (and sometimes not so meaningful) conversations that will help us learn and grow (sometimes just decide which pokemon go team is better).

This lack of natural social interaction demands a lot more from all parts involved, from students to being assertive during classes, setting study sessions with classmates and friends using Zoom, discord, or whatever we have handy. This has also demanded professors to be really assertive during classes asking if everyone is okay and trying to guess if it’s really okay from the silent look of the students’ zoom name (because no one has the camera on).

No face people

This lack of social interaction I mentioned early is also caused by the problem of people not turning on their cameras. Here is an image of one of my classes; only 7 people had their cameras on, one was the professor, and one person had an image, the rest of the people (I think we are like 25 or something like that) had their cameras off.

One of my zoom classes (I’m the one not censored!)

Having cameras on doesn’t really give any benefit to students, but to professors is completely different. We have transitioned from a normal classroom environment. The professor is used to see their students’ faces and use the information provided to change the class’s flow if needed. Now because of the cameras off, the professor cannot really judge if everything is ok, if everyone is understanding, or if everyone is clueless, but we are saying that everything is okay when it’s not.

During one class last semester, one of my teachers told us how this was really frustrating for him and that he read that studies were being conducted on how this was causing mental problems to professors.

Personally, I see this “camera off” as a problem, and because of it, I try to have my camera on in my classes, just because it is something beneficial to my professors. But, I understand that there are tons of reasons to not have it on:

  • The discomfort of exposing my personal environment
  • Bad internet connection
  • Not wanting to show one’s person, because I don’t feel like it, emotionally or even the discomfort of exposing not the personal environment but myself in my environment.
  • For non-college students (lower, middle, and high-school), bullying problems are a common problem, so that can cause them not to want to turn on the camera.
  • The camera can be a distraction.
  • It doesn’t even make sense sometimes because professors hide the camera images to show their presentations.

These are only some of the reasons why not turn on the camera. I turn it off when my mom enters my room and wants something or when I need to do something in my house, so that’s a signal for my professors that I’m not available. But besides this, I don’t turn on my camera in one specific class at 7am, and I usually stay in bed, so I’m not comfortable sharing that personal space. For that class, in particular, I try to be at my desk at least by 7:30, but sometimes I just can’t, and when that happens, no one else besides the professor has their camera on.

For my fellow students, if you are reading this, if you can and are comfortable with it, try to turn on your camera, at least as a favor to your professor; they will really be thankful for that small gesture!

Laboratory sessions

I’m a computer science student in my final year, I don’t really have laboratory classes, and even if some of my classes are called “labs,” they only need a computer. Even for lower year students in Computer Science, not having labs doesn’t really affect them. A computer is usually more than enough to work (even for networking, thanks to simulators, the only thing we missed is the fact of connecting the cables).

But for other majors, this is a big problem, I have talked about this with a friend that is studying Architecture, and she has told me that the theory remains the same, but now they don’t practice with creating models as they did in person. Some professors are trying alternatives; for example, in this same type of majors, some have tried to use Minecraft to replace the used models (article in Spanish about this), but in the end, it’s completely different.

I can’t imagine how doctors are doing their lab assignments and how they are practicing. I know that when possible, labs are going to be open again, and there will be a prioritization on people practicing their abilities and finally learning in person instead of simulating stuff that is really hard to simulate using computers right now (maybe in the future with the evolution of VR and AR these labs will be possible remotely, but not right now).

Self-learning

One of the main changes that bring study from home is that students need to start doing some self-learning, and professors are trying to push us to do so by having asynchronous classes. But this has been a real challenge to some people who are not used to that, people that are used to learning just by listening to the professor and taking notes.

I think this is the fundamental change that online learning has brought, but it is something that everyone needs to address in their own way, and we need to understand that it is difficult to change something that worked for us for so many years. Teachers need to understand that for students is difficult to learn by ourselves, that because we are afraid we don’t ask questions and we don’t understand; it is our responsibility to ask questions, but please professors, understand that this is really difficult in this non-social environment, in this “camera off” classes, and in this asynchronous classes where you are expecting for the student to understand (and do stuff that possibly impacts the final grade) when we are not used to self-learn.

Guess how many icons in my taskbar are gaming-related?

I would like to call this game: “Guess how many icons in my task bar are gaming related?”

6 Icons in total are gaming-related. And that’s just 6 of the possible millions of distractions I can find on the internet.

Being at home, used to be my safe space where I could relax and forget about everything, now it’s also work and school-related space. And that doesn’t mean that I should just erase from existence all my non-productive stuff, but the problem is that those are a source of distraction during non leisure time.

I think that this is a test of responsibility and how strong we are on focusing, but sometimes is really difficult (even more difficult when the lecture is really boring). We need to learn how to focus and not get distracted by everything, and there are tons of tools that can help with this, like the Pomodoro technique, clean up our space, and set some kind of rules, maybe two different users on the computer, one for school with no game-related stuff and other that I will log in after school, mimicking in someway the dynamic from in person.

It’s difficult, but is a matter of getting used to, learn about ourselves and our habits

Zoom is different than in person

I know that change is difficult, and for some people, as we get older is even more difficult. I’ve seen this for lots of professors trying to have their classes the same as in-person but fundamentally is not the same, and because it is not possible, and it is counterintuitive.

One example of this is professors trying to use the breakout rooms to mimic forming teams in the class. Still, in every breakout room I’ve been, it is cameras off; in three minutes, we complete the work, and after that, everyone stays muted until the professor dissolves the rooms.

Please stop trying to mimic in-person ideas. Most of them will not work or will not do any benefit. Internet is a great tool for collaboration. There is a lot of stuff that students could be doing to learn during class using it. Shout out to my professor Ken Bauer who is doing videos to help professors with their online teaching.

Inequality and problems

The study from home paradigm, even if somehow effective, it is also a new way to observe inequality and injustice problems through society. This problem became even worse, as covid caused more unemployment.

No access to technology

Everyone is at home, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has the same access to technologies or even the internet. A lot of people (of all ages) had to technically drop out from school (at least in Mexico) because of tons of reasons:

  • They live in remote places where there is no real access to the internet
  • No money to buy the required computer or smartphone to connect to classes
  • No electricity
  • They have to share the computer with all the family so there are priorities on who gets to connect to classes

Schools are trying to be flexible with this by planning on passing them and giving regularization courses. But this will not be enough, cause of the loss of employment of families now kids have to help their parents work to survive and may not even return to school when it’s possible.

In Mexico, the government started a program of public education through radio and open television, so students don’t need new technology like the internet or computers.

The schedule for classes in TV from the government in Mexico

Even if it’s somehow a good idea, it has some problems like that parents need to supervise the children tune in at their hour and do the work and what happens if they need to leave because of work. Or what happens if the student has a question or doubt, and because we are talking of marginalized zones, there is a possibility their parents can’t help them because they didn’t have access to school when they were young, so now the kid will not understand the rest of the course.

In a school in Peru (Yavirac), a professor started a social program called “NUR” to get used computing devices and renew them using the same used parts of other devices to give them to students who don’t have computers to access their classes. If by any chance you’re reading this, you’re from there, and you can please consider donating!

We are trying our best as a society, but these are only a few examples of the social problems of studying from home, and these are real situations that we have social issues that we need to address, and we shouldn’t wait.

I’m at home, so I must deal with home trouble

Everyone is at home; there has been psychological damage from being at home at all times, we are tired of not going out. But these are just some of the problems. There are people in situations of abuse by their family, and school was their safe space; now, there is no way for them to get away.

Also, I’ve responsabilities and now that I’m home I must do them and help with everything I can. I know that older brothers now that they are at home have the responsability of taking care of their brothers and that makes it difficult to be connected to classes. Also the responsabilities grow, because before you weren’t home it was justified that you didn’t do some stuff, but now you must do everything you can in home because you’re there even if you are as busy as before when classes were in person.

For anyone in these kinds of situations, please talk with your professors, your advisors, your friends, and even with your school psychology, don’t wait and look for help. Everyone will understand!

The tuition-fee problem

I’m not using the labs, I’m not consuming any of the material from the school, I can’t even access the sports fields, so why should I pay a complete fee?

That’s the question that everyone was asking when all this started and is a question that I’m still asking myself. I understand that moving to a remote model implies new things like zoom membership and providing all the professors with what they need. But that’s the problem. They didn’t provide me the student anything. They are not supporting the families with economic problems. They charge the same for a new learning-model no one is used to and currently is difficult to learn.

I know there is a problem there. Universities are not considering the social problems implied with online learning and expect the students not to feel like they don’t care.

Universities need to be more transparent with their finances. If I, as a student, saw that the fee I’m paying is just enough for the university to cover the costs, then I would understand. Still, Universities prefer to stay silent and ignore this problem, so I think they are just collecting money they don’t really need.

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