Students, professors adapt to online learning


Screenshot courtesy of Kaycee Orwig

Pitt experienced a “major outage” on My Pitt that affected access to the site on the first day of classes, and Zoom suffered a partial outage that affected many U.S. users on Monday.

By Elise Roessner, Staff Writer

Pitt’s fall semester kicked off last week, but the Cathedral of Learning was empty as students largely connected in Zoom meetings instead of classrooms. The Zoom meetings had their own set of glitches though — literally.

For Melanie Good, a lecturer in the physics department, the first week of classes went about as well as she expected. Good, who teaches Introduction to Physics I and II, said one unexpected problem during the first week was the strain put on her laptop while using Zoom to conduct synchronous lectures. Both of Good’s classes have about 200 students in them.

“Large enrollment classes demand a lot from my computer, so the battery drains at an alarming rate, and I have to constantly keep it plugged in,” Good said. “But that’s a minor thing and it’s only for a couple hours a day.”

The University began its first week of classes virtually last Wednesday with instructors and students using several different platforms to conduct and attend classes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pitt experienced a “major outage” on My Pitt that affected access to the site on the first day of classes, and Zoom suffered a partial outage that affected many U.S. users on Monday. Both were resolved within a few hours.

In-person classes have not been cleared to start until at least Sep. 14, but faculty are not required to teach courses in person. Pitt is implementing the new Flex@Pitt teaching model, which allows students to experience classes “in person, remotely, synchronously or asynchronously.”

Some students are noticing positives in classes held over Zoom, though. Lauren Keller, a junior psychology major, said her classes being held synchronously over Zoom helps in structuring her day and making her feel more connected to her classmates.

“My professors are all posting the lecture recordings just in case anyone can’t make it to the real-time lecture, which is also really nice,” Keller said.

Keller said even though Zoom meetings are helpful in feeling somewhat connected, she misses seeing her professors and fellow students in person. She added that she is looking forward to the University allowing some classes to move into physical classrooms.

I’m actually really excited about my Morality and Medicine class because it’ll be in-person and in the Carnegie Music Hall,” Keller said.

Amy Colin, an associate professor who teaches Germany Today and Reading Literary Texts, said she had trouble conducting her classes with some of the limitations inherent in Zoom.

She said switching back and forth between YouTube and PowerPoint, while watching her students on Zoom, was frustrating. Colin also said it was difficult to concentrate with several things condensed into one screen.

Zoom needs to further develop and improve, because there are certain things you cannot do that slow you down when teaching an online course,” Colin said. “They could make it easier to access videos from PowerPoint presentations while also using Zoom.”

Zoom isn’t the only technology new to Pitt this year. This is the first year Canvas is being used University wide — the learning management system replaced Blackboard, following a limited release last year.

Good said the biggest issues she encountered during the first few days of class centered on technology glitches with Canvas.

I had some issues with Canvas resetting a bunch of settings in some of the courses, and at first I couldn’t get my recitation page published,” Good said. “Eventually I got a hold of support personnel, and in the end it all worked out.”

Other professors had a different experience with Canvas, though. Colin also said learning to use Canvas has made grading easier for her, as answers are all condensed into specific assignment response folders rather than individually submitted over email or in person.

“In Canvas, things are no longer lost because the email doesn’t work or goes to the wrong folder, so I see this system as very good,” Colin said. “I spent a lot of time preparing for the transition, but I think it’s worth it.”

Keller also said she found using Canvas at the beginning of the fall semester to be less complicated than Blackboard, especially after having the spring semester to adjust to the new platform.

I actually had a class using Canvas last semester, so I was already familiar with it coming into this year,” Keller said. “I honestly like Canvas so much more than Blackboard, it’s easier to use.”

Despite technology problems and the loss of in-person classroom experiences, both Good and Colin said the start of remote learning went much more smoothly than the shift to online classes in the spring.

Good said she was able to take time over the summer to focus on solving some of the problems she encountered at the end of the spring semester. To troubleshoot, she said she made a frequently-asked-questions page to cut down on the number of emails she receives.

“It’s not like students can just drop by my office and ask me a question. We’re all new to so much of this that I found it to be really helpful,” Good said. “That’s one of the things my experience in the spring helped me to create.”

Colin said she spent the summer watching videos on how to use the different features of Zoom, Panopto — a service that allows users to record lectures and classes — and Canvas, because she had no experience with any of the platforms prior to the shift to remote learning.

“It’s a learning process for the teacher as well as for the students as we adapt to the situation and get better,” Colin said. “The spring was really hard, but things are improving.”

Another problem Good said she encountered in the spring was students cheating on online exams. Good said she decided to divide up her final exam into short quizzes students will take over the course of the semester to hopefully reduce the amount of cheating that happens in online tests.

“With short quizzes there’s less temptation for the students to Google the answer. It’s not as high pressure for them, but it also still allows me to see what they know,” Good said. “They just have to focus on one thing at a time and I can still assess them remotely.”

For Colin, teaching classes online also comes with some unexpected benefits. She said seeing the names of students under their images on Zoom makes it easier for her to teach classes with students she has never met before.

“Zoom has some advantages being in a classroom cannot offer that actually make it easier for the teacher to learn names and communicate,” Colin said. “Of course, we all miss the more personal experience of being in the classroom, but this period will eventually come to an end.”