‘Virtually impossible’ or ‘raring to go’? Students and faculty have mixed feelings about going online

This article is the first of the Chronicle’s series “Difficult to Transfer” in which we explore how departments are transitioning arts-based courses online due to the coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic.

Shane Tolentino

Jabari Middleton-Damu is learning how to use Photoshop in his course “Fashion Design Principles,” but he does not have access to a computer at home. He was told by the college weeks ago he would be mailed a computer but has yet to receive it just days before classes are set to start.

Middleton-Damu’s lack of access to a laptop—and the transition of other hard-to-transfer classes online as a result of the coronavirus—has left him concerned that he will fall behind his classmates, making the course “virtually impossible.”

“I genuinely don’t know what to do,” said Middleton-Damu, a freshman fashion design major. “Some teachers have no idea even themselves how to really transfer their course material.”

Middleton-Damu said he does not want to direct blame at anyone because nobody could have predicted the situation. But other students share his frustration.

Jade Moreno, a senior acting major, said her “Solo Performance I” class is “all about the live performance experience.”

“Before every class we say, ‘What happens in this room does not leave this room,’” Moreno said. “But now it is putting all this vulnerable stuff on tape.”

Moreno also does not blame instructors, but said the situation feels “very hopeless.”

Carin Silkaitis, the Allen and Lynn Turner Chair of the Theatre Department, said the department sent out a survey to students asking if they have quiet places with enough room to perform at home.

Silkaitis said while there is a benefit to having a live audience for performances, students can also benefit from online work because actors need to learn how to submit self-tapes for auditions.

“So much of our world as an actor has gone digital,” Silkaitis said.

She said online courses can recreate the classroom experience, and faculty can still provide feedback to students.

Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David hopes students remain optimistic, as she said faculty have.

“Faculty members in some places were so excited about this, and confident about this, they were frustrated there was a three-week pause,” David said in an interview with the Chronicle. “They were like, ‘We can do this tomorrow.’ … Some faculty members were raring to go right away.”

Some teachers have no idea even themselves how to really transfer their course material.

— Jabari Middleton-Damu

After President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim announced in a March 12 college-wide email that all courses would be transitioned online for the remainder of the semester, instructors had three weeks to “make adjustments to classes not so easily moved online” before courses resumed beginning Monday, April 6.

By March 23, Kim announced that courses were on-track to resume remotely.

“Regardless of how a course is delivered, faculty are working to ensure that it will help you to master key learning outcomes, providing the necessary foundation for you to move forward in your studies or your practice. In other words, your course will be complete,” Kim said in the March 23 email. “Where hands-on project work is not possible remotely, after you complete your formal course requirements remotely in the spring, we will provide opportunities for students to come together for additional hands-on skills development once the community can reassemble.”

David said she does not anticipate any required coursework will be extended into the summer months and reiterated that the college is working to make sure everyone graduates on time.

“We want the coursework to be done,” David said. “That is really important for us. But we recognize people are in different circumstances and situations. We want to be a little bit flexible if at the end of the day a little bit more time might be needed to get papers in or get something of that nature.”

The transition to remote learning was led by the chairs and faculty with the provost’s office working to ensure professors had the infrastructure in place to teach classes, such as access to Wi-Fi or other necessary software, David said.

She hopes students—and graduating seniors—can regain access to on-campus spaces after the semester ends. But she said the college has to wait for the situation to normalize.

Lambrini Lukidis, associate vice president of Strategic Communications and External Relations, said the college originally planned to give students access to on-campus spaces by not closing the college. But after the coronavirus, or COVID-19, continued to spread and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a “stay-at-home” mandate, the college closed campus.

For many classes, hands-on learning in studios and with equipment is typically vital to course completion.

Let’s face it, it’s going to be a different course.

— Diana Vallera

Diana Vallera, president of Columbia’s part-time-faculty union and an adjunct faculty member in the Photography Department, teaches “Principles of Lighting I and II”—courses she said may be difficult to move online as the class uses lighting studios and hands-on instruction.

“Let’s face it, it’s going to be a different course,” Vallera said. “But it is going to be delivered in the best way possible in response to this crisis.”

In speaking with her students, Vallera has not heard anything “alarming,” but has concerns for how international students will be affected.

As a remedy, Vallera said she will use livestreams, instructional videos and hold one-on-one sessions through Zoom to connect with students. The department is also trying to provide equipment for students, Vallera said, but they have multiple plans in place in case that does not happen.

The transition to remote learning is requiring adjustments and accommodations on a course-by-course basis.

Silkaitis said the Theatre Department is giving students in the course “Intro to Scenic Construction” access to auto computer-aided design systems—computer technology that will allow students to create and adjust set designs—and a series of training videos to teach them how to use the tools while gaining experience designing sets.

Although Vallera said the college is working to address all aspects of the online transition, she said students who feel like they will not learn as efficiently online—especially given the thousands of dollars they pay for classes—have a valid concern.

Still, Vallera offered students words of encouragement.

“Our faculty are some of the most creative and committed people I have seen,” she said. “In the beginning, all of us were very nervous and extremely uncertain, but I feel our students should not worry. We’ll help them, we’ll assist them and we’ll be ready—we’ll get through this together.”


Correction 04/14/2020 at 11:28 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Jabari Middleton-Damu’s name. It has now been corrected. The Chronicle regrets this error.