Going the distance

Students navigate the switch to online learning amid coronavirus crisis.

More stories from Andrew Lechwar


JACKSONVILLE, Fla.— As our country continues its struggle with the novel coronavirus, social distancing and quarantine living has become the new normal.

This creates challenges as an abrupt switch is needed from traditional in-person class to online education.

Jacksonville University made the switch on March 16 to online classes initially until April 3 and then later extended through the first summer term ending on June 20. This brought about the difficulties of transition for not only the students but their professors as well.

Professors who have taught online classes before this semester were more prepared because of their familiarity with online tools.

“Teaching online previously was a huge help,” said Kevin  I was very familiar with the functions of blackboard. I knew how to organize content so the students would have clear expectations and how to access it,” said Kevin Mierzwinski, instructor of mathematics at Jacksonville University, in an email.

While the transition was smoother for some it still required a great deal of effort and software.

What was previously accomplished by whiteboards and class lectures must now be accomplished with group video chat rooms like Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, and Microsoft Teams.

“I am using Blackboard Collaborate and Zoom for live lecture, virtual office hours, and student presentations,” said Breanna Korsman, instructor of biology at Jacksonville University, in an email. “The platforms are great for these circumstances — you can see one another and share documents.”

With these resources teachers can continue holding class meetings with some additional benefits and some problems.

The most obvious benefit is not having to physically go to class. Waking up early enough to shower, get dressed and head to class has become an inconvenience rendered a thing of the past.

Another benefit is that these resources do their best to replicate a classroom meeting.

“I think to the best of the technology it approximates a meeting I would have in my classes,” said Courtney Barclay, professor of communications at Jacksonville University.

While the class meeting has effectively made the transition, there are inherent benefits to face-to-face teaching that online education simply can’t replicate.

Labs are an important part of learning for many classes because of the hands-on nature of instruction. This is the reason they are especially difficult to transition online.

“I have created weekly labs that make use of photographs of lab materials and have provided sample data from experiments that would have been done in a lab,” said Korsman. “It is more difficult for most students to learn information on their own this way. Photos and videos can be difficult to interpret.”

With the benefits and pitfalls of education online, students now more than ever are required to take the initiative to be engaged in their classes.

According to an article by Scientific American, online classes require much more motivation and attention to succeed. Students are rising to the occasion however and working to mitigate any lost learning potential.

“I am beyond impressed with the way my students have risen to the challenge,” said Mierzwinski. “I have had greater than 95 percent participation in the new online environment. I think we have outstanding and committed students.”

As everyone tries to make the best of a tough situation, they must remember this is a switch from in-person education to online education, not a planned online class.

Barclay likened it to crisis communication because these classes are unintentionally online. An online class is simply designed differently with asynchronous learning material that can be consumed on the student’s own time.

“I don’t want this situation to give online learning a bad reputation,” Barclay said. “I think this semester some students in some classes across the country are going to have less than ideal experiences with this move to online instruction. But online learning, in general, can be very effective when done right. What we have done here is respond to a crisis situation and I think we’re doing that very well.”