With an uncertain future, the grade for online courses is incomplete

By Mari Devereaux, Managing Editor

Jennifer Chavez

Between four-hour zoom sessions, a poor WiFi connection at home and a lack of camera and sound equipment, freshman filmmaking major Kaitlyn Venturina said her classes are not nearly as engaging or effective as they were on campus.

“It’s hard to focus when I have to stare at a screen, and I have so [many] distractions around, especially around my family and being in an environment where I usually have this time to relax,” Venturina said.

Venturina is not the only student who struggles with online learning according to academic research.

A 2017 study by Susanna Loeb and Eric Bettinger for the Brookings Institution found that students’ course grades were reduced by an average of 0.44 points when they took an online class instead of its in-person counterpart. Students taking online classes at DeVry University, where the study took place, were also less likely to remain enrolled in those courses by nearly 9%.

Di Xu, an associate professor at the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine, said students are usually subject to a decrease in academic performance when taking online courses.

“Students who are already falling behind tend to struggle more in online instruction,” Xu said. “Without additional support, online instruction is likely to exacerbate existing performance gaps among groups of students.”

Xu conducted a 2016 study where she analyzed the effectiveness and limitations of online instruction, finding that students need to be highly motivated, technologically-savvy and possess strong study and time management skills—which includes interpersonal interaction in remote learning formats and access to resources.

Registrar Keri Walters said based on data from the past two academic years, there is no distinguishable difference between the grades students receive in face-to-face and online classes at Columbia.

In a Wednesday, April 29 email to the Chronicle, Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David said the lack of difference in online and in-person class grades is largely due to faculty development programming the college launched last year that helps professors design “web” courses that meet national best practices for learning.

However, David said the current “remote instruction” is not the same as online classes and is meant to be carried out as similar to in-person learning as possible.

Although enrollment for online courses has increased nationally in recent years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there is still uncertainty surrounding the quality of education students can receive with the sudden transition online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This is a concern for some instructors at Columbia as they prepare for the possibility of courses continuing to be held virtually in the summer and fall, as many other higher education institutions such as Brown and Harvard University are also considering.

Sean Johnson Andrews, Faculty Senate president and an associate professor in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department, said many faculty members have undergone a “crash course” in online instruction following the campus closure, which included class preparation and acquiring necessary resources.

“The bigger concern at Columbia is that during this remote learning, there’s a lot of activities [students] can’t take part in,” Johnson Andrews said. “Those issues are much more significant in terms of the learning outcomes of those courses. It’s harder to replicate that kind of experience in an online environment.”

While online classes are necessary during the coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic, Xu said preventative measures—such as keeping students engaged by providing timely responses to questions, regular announcements and moderation on discussions and forum postings—should be taken to ensure instructors’ and students’ needs are met so students do not fall behind in learning objectives. Columbia faculty have been advised to implement these practices into their remote classes.

Similar to many other institutions, Columbia has updated and expanded pass/fail and satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading options for undergraduate and graduate students in consideration of the academic stress the pandemic and sudden online instruction has caused.

Sophomore creative writing major William Cox said although he is sympathetic to the situation, the absence of close interaction with professors and other students has caused Columbia to “lose what makes it enticing.”

“I don’t want to discourage the genuine effort on the part of some of the faculty, but at the same time I, personally, don’t feel like there’s an adequate job being done here,” Cox said. “I don’t think there’s a single student that would say [Zoom classes] … are adequate replacements for in-person classes.”

Duncan MacKenzie, chair of the Art and Art History Department and interim chair of the Design Department, said the situation is not what anyone anticipated or envisioned, but he is impressed by how enthusiastic faculty have been while working through challenges with online classes.

“All things considered, things are going amazingly,” MacKenzie said. “This is not an experiment I would wish to repeat or an experience that everybody’s enjoying, but it is us doing everything we can to make sure our students stay on track and continue learning.”

Walters said the Academic Technology team at Columbia has been working closely with faculty to assist with instructional design, the use of remote learning tools like Zoom and making sure students have the equipment they need.

“The college has taken great care to support students in the transition to online learning, from providing outreach to extending administrative deadlines to providing internet access and technical equipment,” she said.

Taisjae McMillan, a freshman television executive producing and entrepreneurship major, said she is paying approximately $15,000 for courses this semester while receiving “absolutely no” instruction over Canvas or Zoom. Due to the lack of tuition reimbursement she is receiving, McMillan said she may not return to Columbia next semester.

Tuition for the Spring 2020 semester is $13,305. Including fees for a typical freshman the total tuition bill comes to approximately $14,328, according to Columbia’s website.

“I’m not blaming the teachers,” McMillan said. “I’m blaming the institution for not accommodating us for how much our curriculum has been compromised.”

Johnson Andrews said the college will focus on gathering resources for professors and developing its online capacities for the future during the faculty development workshop at the end of May.

“In an ideal world, this is not the way we would want learning to happen,” Johnson Andrews said. “It would be better if we had more training. …The more feedback we can get from students about how this is working, the better we can be. “