Like most institutions in American society, academia has been badly shaken by Covid-19. Many universities in the Northeast abruptly closed as the pandemic accelerated. Students were sent home, which in some cases involved returning to the other side of the globe. Faculty and staff at many institutions were offered emergency training workshops on everything from supporting student mental health to how to use video-conferencing platforms.
Even before the pandemic, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education was undergoing an overhaul. The modern university experience is being transformed, with the traditional lecture, where an instructor talks at students in a large hall, being replaced by students actively engaging with the course content, and each other, during lectures.
Under the pressure of the pandemic, an urgent transition to online learning caused anxiety in students and instructors alike. Teachers tried to help students stay engaged and connected. Students worried whether they could learn as well online as face-to-face and whether their grades would suffer. At many universities, students pushed for pass/fail grading schemes, voicing concerns about feeling overwhelmed with the new online workload; some, living in distant time zones, felt separated from their institution and the rest of the class.
As one day blurred into another under the lockdown, students had trouble keeping track of the new schedule of test and assignment dates. They missed their interactions with peers, their clubs and sports activities, and the opportunity to build relationships with their professors. In addition, some students were feeling stress about their own and family members' health. Their home environments, often in spaces shared with younger siblings or other family members, were not always suitable for effective studying. Many had no personal study space at home.
Live web-conferencing meetings and prerecorded lectures became the new norm for instructors and students. Prerecorded lectures, especially, were helpful to many students who appreciated being able to watch on their own time, when their homes were quieter, and they could replay difficult parts of lessons. A smaller number looked forward to the live Zoom classes, in which they could converse with professors and other students.
Remote university instruction has serious limitations, however. More than a few students had difficulty making it to live classes, and many said that they found talking to peers in breakout rooms on Zoom extremely awkward. Others enjoyed the lack of visibility while online and felt more emboldened to communicate and ask questions.
While instructors created opportunities to meet with students one-on-one online, students found it challenging in some ways to communicate with their peers. Motivation dropped significantly for some, along with the degree of interaction with both students and instructors. Often, students kept their cameras off, preferring not to reveal their home lives (or their appearance) to classmates, while others suffered from "Zoom exhaustion" and found the video presence overstimulating. Certain students excelled in the online format and were grateful for their instructors' efforts to connect with them.
Though many instructors felt rescued by online learning, others commented on the lack of emotional connection associated with the technology. Jokes that would have gotten a laugh in a live classroom setting landed with a thud. Much of the fun and satisfaction of teaching was lost for these instructors. Their sentiments resembled those of a palliative-medicine physician, who felt similarly about shifting to telemedicine: "Compared with the face-to-face interactions, the virtual interactions seem barren, devoid of the richness the personal contact brings."
Instructors and students have tried to make the most of their predicament. Students' assessments of online courses were, overall, not better or worse—just different. Instructors reformatted their online exams to be open-book, which enabled them to ask more challenging questions and reach a deeper level of learning. They could also use online settings to monitor their students' progress and study habits more readily. They could see when each student downloaded recorded lectures—and thus, who was cramming and who was well prepared for tests and assignments.
Some classes are easier to shift online than others. Lab courses are particularly challenging in this regard. The modern-day "lab" can mean many things, depending on the course. For example, a biology lab for humanities majors might be oriented around helping students gain or improve their ability to be scientifically literate. It can consist largely of observing and gaining an understanding of the scientific method. For a microbiology major, however, the lab objectives are very different. Such students are expected to acquire essential skills—for example, microscope use, culturing and experimenting on microorganisms (or larger organisms), applying sterile techniques, and so forth. A chemistry major must be able to carry out complicated, sequential syntheses, often using hazardous materials or procedures, and sophisticated equipment. These skills, requiring hands-on practice and repetition in a laboratory environment, are scarcely possible to learn online.
How, then, can an online course create the lab experience for students? During the emergency transition, instructors had to improvise. Some, for example, handed out data collected by students from previous semesters to work with. Some experimental results, such as bacterial colonies on a Petri dish, could be photographed and sent to students for analysis. By the end of the semester, the students had covered the same course material, without having touched a single microscope slide or test tube. To compensate, instructors and teaching assistants provided as many opportunities as they could for help and extra discussion.
While this experience remained far from optimal—there was no space for students to appreciate the complexity of laboratory work or learn from errors—many students eventually became comfortable with the new arrangement and took the initiative to connect with their instructors. Some students even found these online discussions to be less daunting than face-to-face meetings and completed the semester with deeper relationships with their instructors.
It's easier for large classes in the biological sciences, which already had active learning components—in which the student interacts with the learning process, as opposed to passively taking in the information—incorporated into their curriculum, to respond to the challenge of online teaching. For example, during a Zoom lecture, students could participate in polls or discuss concepts with their fellow students. Even recorded asynchronous lectures included ways for students to answer questions and receive immediate feedback concerning their answers. When classes engaged in active learning, online classes could also be engaging, and perhaps these connections were more important than pre-pandemic.
The transition to online classes brought about by Covid-19 forced universities to provide alternative learning methods to support students, often in less than ideal circumstances and with uneven quality. Further improvement will require a stronger, more resilient education system. We are still largely in terra incognita, but we can use the experience from programs around the country to improve universities' response to this ongoing adversity. If they continue to improve their responses, universities could become a working model of adaptation to a post-Covid-19 world. That would be a valuable legacy.
Kathleen Hefferon, Ph.D., teaches microbiology at Cornell University. Justin R. St. Juliana is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute; he was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.