It’s 9 in the morning. It might as well be 5 AM. Your second or third phone alarm goes off, you stir just a little bit, and then you suddenly bolt upright. There’s no time for breakfast, or a shower, or any kind of morning routine because you are already late for class.
The New Abnormal
If this were a normal day during a normal year of college, you would already be screwed. Best case scenario: you live in an on-campus dorm that’s only a quick walk (or in this case run) from the building where you’re supposed to be in class right now. You throw on some random clothes that are lying on the floor, give Usain Bolt a run for his money by breaking the sound barrier, and slip into class undetected by the professor who is more focused on trying to get the lecture slides up than watching the attendance.
But let’s be honest for a second. Here’s the more likely scenario: you live in an apartment that’s at least a lengthy walk/bus ride/scooter scoot from any kind of academic building, you can barely get out of bed without coffee, and the professor has already chewed you out for being late multiple times before. At this point, the only action you can take is to turn off the alarm, go back under the blankets, and wonder if you can put “Consistently Sleeps Through a 8:30 AM Alarm” on your resume.
The Zoom Giveth, The Zoom Taketh Away
The good news is that this isn’t any normal year of college. This is the socially distanced and COVID-ridden modern age where most, or all, of our classes are online. We are the first generation graduates of the University of Zoom. This means that sleeping through an alarm or two is no longer a death sentence. Just open up your laptop, be sure that the camera is off so no one has to see that you don’t wake up looking fresh, and tune into the lecture already in progress.
After the first few weeks of online classes, some strange new normals have come to the fore. Some good, some not so good. Adapting to an online learning environment has been interesting to say the least, but some unexpected realities have popped up as we all adjust to paying ludicrous amounts of tuition to attend what basically amounts to a glorified version of ITT Tech.
Zoom Anonymity is a Gift (and Sometimes a Curse)
As previously mentioned, one of the greatest positives to come out of having all-online classes is that certain vanities that we once had to worry about are no longer factors. We all reach the point during the semester where we give up trying to look good, but the first few weeks of in person classes are still a time of waking up early, making sure you have a good outfit, and putting on your face on the off chance that someone cute sits next to you. As the summer fades into the windy autumn season jeans turn to sweats and hair begins to go up on an almost daily basis, but those first few weeks of classes are still about making an impression.
Zoom has now made “looking good for class” a novel concept. First off, unless you have a 4K camera and impeccable makeup skills, looking good on a Zoom call is impossible. Stock webcams in most of our laptops don’t really do us any favors, and the chances that our apartment’s main room/bedrooms have the proper lighting are slim to none (if you DO have a 4K camera and perfect lighting in your remarkably clean bedroom, people might assume something else about you…). But thankfully this has been embraced by all the class participants and now the pressure is off. It’s weirdly lawless in most Zoom meetings: wanna wear sweats and a lacrosse pinnie? Go for it. If you really can’t stand how you look, just turn the camera off. This also means you wake up at the exact same moment that class starts without having to be embarrassed about having literally just crawled out of bed.
While we can all agree that having a little less focus on the visual presentation is a good thing, it’s not always this way. If you wind up being in a class or meeting with a small number of participants, the likelihood that you’re going to have to turn on the camera at some point increases dramatically. Even if you get to stay in your anonymous state, it becomes increasingly difficult to pay proper attention to whatever might be going on during the lesson, which brings us to…
Learning Online is Far From Optimal for Anyone
Remember the good old days when the older professors would never know how to get the computer to work? It gave us a few minutes to check our phones, finish the homework we ignored last night, or just to relax in the middle of a day filled with academics. Those precious moments are gone now: if a professor can’t get the tech to work for online classes, there is no class.
When they do get it set up, what’s there to look forward to? Most of the time it’s a slightly more interactive version of a Khan academy YouTube video. Zoom is not a professor’s optimal way to teach because there’s no real way to interact with their students that don’t amount to shouting into the Zoom void. Sites like Nearpod are attempting to add additional interactive elements to online classes, but there is still a major gap between logging on and actually understanding what’s being taught.
Paying Attention Is Almost Impossible (And It’s Not Your Fault)
The problems also extend to our own habits: waking up a few minutes before class starts; being able to step away from the lecture to have some lunch, check the scores, or do anything else; these aren’t practices that are conducive to learning. Convenience has turned out to be the enemy of true education. In one of my classes we’re learning about the concept of continuous partial attention, which basically means that we are consistently dividing our attention between multiple stimuli in an attempt to always stay up on whatever activity is going on.
How many times have you been in a Zoom class with your camera off and your microphone on mute while either a) watching TV, b) going on your phone, c) going to other sites on your computer, d) talking to your friends, e) cooking the lunch that your class has so rudely interrupted? The truth is we’ve all done it, and there’s something to be said for physically being confined to a classroom for a class: it forces you to focus on the present tasks that are in front of you in a way that Zoom doesn’t.
Fighting the Future
Zoom classes are a new reality for everyone, and no one has the answers of how to optimize the experience. Chances are that either you love the freedom and casualness of having all-online classes or you’re frustrated beyond belief with all the shortcomings that come with it. Probably a bit of both. It’s great to pay half attention in class, but you also have to reconcile with paying an exorbitant price (monetarily, physically, and mentally) to attend ametuer TED talks from professors who can never tell when they’re on mute or not.
For as long as COVID is still around, there’s nothing to do but to log on for our classes. Maybe the form will advance rapidly as we all continue to use it frequently, adding new features for a better user experience that places an increased emphasis on interaction and attention. For now, we might just have to enjoy the fact that we don’t have to panic about being late for class, even if that panicked sprint through campus now seems like a wistfully nostalgic thing of the past.