The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled universities and colleges to expand their online instruction offerings at an unprecedented rate. The shift, however, did not impact all instructors equally. On the one hand, most faculty members had to transform their in-person seminars into online classes within weeks quickly. In-person courses that were meticulously crafted through years, if not decades, of experience and trials, were suddenly upended with the hopes of completing the semester with some degree of normalcy. For many instructors, this was the first time that they had to teach using an online learning platform. Understandably, this transition created many unique and unforeseen challenges for these instructors and their students.
My experience at the start of the COVID-19 crisis was relatively different than most instructors. I was already teaching fully online when the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring. I did not have to adapt my material to an online platform. Further, I had years of experience teaching online for IUPUI and Purdue University, going back to 2012. I specifically began instructing an Introduction to American Politics seminar online at IUPUI in Fall 2018, giving me multiple semesters of experience of how to conduct this seminar virtually. In this regard, I was much more fortunate than most other instructors.
Yet, the pandemic caused several unexpected and troubling challenges for my online seminars. Indeed, these obstacles created a semester that was by far the most difficult in my teaching career. The most concerning matter was the impact the pandemic had on my students’ mental wellbeing. While most students were not directly forthcoming with that was troubling them, I could tell that enthusiasm for my seminars declined in a previously unexperienced way. For example, I typically received several students’ questions about material from outside of the class throughout the semester. Those questions largely ceased once the pandemic hit. Indeed, students rarely asked for assistance, even after sending regular reminders that I was there to assist them. I had to be mindful that my class was likely not their top priority while their lives were being drastically changed around them. The best I felt I could do was to make myself available for the students who reached out.
The stress directly caused by the pandemic was coupled with mostly eliminating in-person socialization with their classmates. Undoubtedly, students lost a significant degree of interaction with their peers when in-person seminars went online. Thus, COVID-19 further placed greater pressure on my courses to encourage quality dialogue about American politics. Typically, I regularly update my seminar to reflect the most recent news cycle trends. This way, students can directly apply our textbook and peer-reviewed material to current affairs. Understandably, the news was laser-focused on the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the United States and Europe. Congress’ agenda was primarily limited to our national pandemic response, save for a few Senate confirmation votes and bills. It was nearly impossible to find high profile news articles that provided my students with a well-deserved escape from COVID-19. Instead, I had to rely on stories from prior semesters. While these articles were old, they were necessary to ensure students did not only hear about COVID-19.
My courses were not immune to significant scheduling changes, even though they were already online. Technically speaking, the COVID-19 pandemic should have caused little problems with our calendar. Indeed, I tried keeping as much as I could unchanged to provide my students with some level of stability and normalcy. I had to be increasingly flexible with our deadlines as the semester continued. Stories about shifting work schedules, housing concerns, and family health matters became far more commonplace as the pandemic worsened. Ultimately, I felt that my first objective was to help students learn, not just hold them to relatively arbitrary due dates.
In some cases, however, assignments were rescheduled not because of any internal matters, but from domino effects from other seminars. As in-person seminars shifted online, their assignments and exams increasingly conflicted with my own. An instructor never likes to hear that a student wants more time on assignments to complete work for another class. Oftentimes, this can sound like a student does not care about the class you are teaching. During the pandemic, however, this is not the right or fair mentally to take. Students typically do not ask for extensions lightly. To ease their burden, I needed to understand that these changes out of their control, and the most sensible course of action was to provide an extension.
It is obviously difficult to say what the next semester holds for our students amid the pandemic. There is no guarantee that a vaccine or antiviral will help us return to normal life soon. Our most optimistic projections tell us that the Summer of 2021 will be the earliest that we can return to the status quo. Until then, instructors need to be flexible and remember that we are here to provide knowledge and critical thinking skills to our students. We must make the mental and physical health of our students a priority. Further, adhering to rigid schedules in times like these will oftentimes cause more damage to learning than giving a student the benefit of the doubt. Student success might be measured this semester in a slightly different way than we are used to. These are not typical times, and they should not be treated as such inside or outside of the classroom.
Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
Department of Political Science
Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy