Tell The History Of Now
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Students, educators reflect on the historic spring semester

Graduating and first-year students consider how the spring 2020 semester changed and how the future of education will improve

Students and faculty recall facing the challenges of online learning and missing the sense of community that defines the University experience.
Students and faculty recall facing the challenges of online learning and missing the sense of community that defines the University experience.

After an unprecedented spring 2020 semester marked by a transition to virtual instruction, students and professors alike are looking back and considering how future education will change.

‘I am overwhelmingly grateful’ — Graduates discuss lost time 

For graduating fourth-year College student Lillie Lyon, the transition was difficult because she suddenly had to manage her studies in a different medium after years of studying in familiar places on Grounds. While she found it harder to focus learning online, she felt the transition was successful given the challenging situation.

“It’s certainly odd to finish up this way, but I find comfort in the strength of the U.Va. community and its creativity in finding ways to connect at a distance,” Lyon said.

Graduating fourth-year College student Ben Borenstein also noted that while he managed to still get a quality education, the new format could not replicate the moments that the in-person University experience offers — like running into friends on the way to class or walking out of Clemons Library during Final Exams.

“It makes you appreciate the subtleties of the U.Va. experience,” Borenstein said. “It is impossible to replace organic interaction in a virtual setting.”

Part of the new reality of the transition was leaving Charlottesville. As an out-of-state student from Louisiana — which has been hit hard by COVID-19 — returning home was not an option for graduating fourth-year College student Mary Beth Barksdale. One of her biggest obstacles was finding a place to stay. Barksdale ended up relocating to Durham, N.C. with her boyfriend, which meant her transition from the familiar college experience involved adjusting to a new learning format and a new living environment as well. 

But moving away from Grounds brings with it another challenge — leaving the University and its opportunities behind. While Barksdale understands that the change was necessary for public health precautions, she still feels that precious time from her last semester was lost.

“I can’t help but feel that something has been stolen from us,” Barksdale said. “These last months on Grounds that we so looked forward to, when much of the work was behind us, when plans for the future would be settled, when we could solidify the friendships we hoped to make last, all were gone very suddenly.”

Despite completing her undergraduate studies, Barksdale misses the University atmosphere that would properly celebrate graduating students’ accomplishments. 

As graduating students aren’t able to physically walk the Lawn, a virtual degree conferral ceremony will be streamed online May 16 in a ceremony that will include degree conferrals and performances. Additionally, the option for an in-person celebration on the Lawn is tentatively rescheduled to take place in either October 2020 or May 2021 depending on whether the state of public health permits such large gatherings. 

“What’s left is a sort of hole where there should have been celebration and excitement,” Barksdale said.

Like Barksdale, Lyon also misses the chance to enjoy her final weeks at the University. However, students are still grateful for the time spent on Grounds.

“When I think about U.Va. — the past three and a half years and the time we’re missing there now — I am overwhelmingly grateful for the education and opportunities I’ve received, the people I’ve met and the memories I’ve made,” Lyon said.

For Borenstein, this ending to his undergraduate career made him appreciate the unique community of the University, something he will cherish long into the future.

“U.Va. is not just academic coursework, it is a cohesive experience made amazing by so many awesome people … and I don’t think anyone will take that for granted going forward,” Borenstein said.

‘It’s unfortunate … but it was needed’ — First-year students reflect on unusual finish for the beginning of their University studies

During the spring 2020 semester, rising second-year College student Joshua Faggert took a chemistry class and believes that his greatest challenge during the switch was completing lab simulations. He feels there is a distinct difference between sitting in a lab on Grounds while completing problem sets compared to the simulations he does at home.

“It's just not really easy to replace that in-person learning and experience, the hands on experience, with our current technology,” Faggert said. “[The lab simulations] just kind of moving your mouse around and clicking on things whereas in the lab you’re using tactile skills and you’re hands-on.”

Rising second-year College student Jeremy Odrich also found the transition to be challenging, saying it was hard to stay up to date with assignments and lectures.

“It’s difficult to adjust to having class online,” Odrich said. “Some were live. It can be a little awkward when you do that. It holds you accountable since you have to be on time. But when lectures were pre-recorded, I’d take longer to digest the information than at school because you’re more prone to distraction.”

Faggert noted that not being able to talk with a professor or classmates in-person made it harder to stay on top of tasks and information. He proposed that a possible solution — should online learning continue — would be for professors to centralize information by using Collab more frequently to track assignments and resources for students day-to-day, rather than having instructors deliver all information in-person.

Despite the difficulties, Faggert believes the University followed the proper course of action and thinks he was still able to receive a satisfactory education.

“I would say it's unfortunate that we have to switch to online, but it was needed,” Faggert said. “And although it is more difficult in some aspects to learn and do the same things that you do at the University online, it's not the end of the world and there is still value you can get out of it if you focus and try your best to continue learning.”

Odrich agreed with Faggert and acknowledged that the University was faced with a hard task that played out in a short amount of time. 

“It’s very easy as students to be critical of classes, but it’s also difficult for professors to teach online,” Odrich said. “But we are all in the same boat to a certain degree … They did their best to make the transition as smooth as possible.”

‘One of the most extraordinary things I’ve seen’ — Educators react to overhaul of the traditional classroom 

College Dean Ian Baucom said he was impressed by the flexibility of his over-900-person faculty to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic’s obstacles. Baucom emphasized that given the extraordinary circumstances, the College rose to the occasion.

“The transition to virtual instruction was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve seen in my higher education career,” Baucom wrote in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. “The commitment our faculty made to get up to speed on new technologies and new, online modes of interacting with students was remarkable.” 

Like Baucom, Engineering Dean Craig Benson was impressed with his school’s response. He is grateful for educators’ dedication and drive to teach students, no matter the circumstance.

“I have just been struck by the way people responded to this,” Benson said. “There was not one grousing, not one complaint. People said, ‘You know, our students are important to us. This is a public health crisis. I'm going to step up and deliver.’”

Despite the College’s best efforts, Baucom also recognizes the limitations that come with learning online. To him, one aspect of a University education that cannot be replicated online is the fostered sense of community.

“By this I’m talking about the informal interactions that occur in the moments outside of classes; the unanticipated, impromptu conversations that take off during the course; an instructor’s ability to facilitate informal study groups and more,” Baucom said. “We know how important this is to the U.Va. experience, and we are thinking carefully about how to replicate that online.”

Physics Prof. Lou Bloomfield was challenged with how to recreate the experience of live demonstrations and discussions to an online platform. He combatted this issue by posting YouTube videos and hosting voluntary Zoom discussion sessions during regularly-scheduled class meetings.

“Those who came to the discussion sessions got to think through and respond to many questions about the material,” Bloomfield wrote to The Cavalier Daily. “Those who stayed with me seemed to find it a relatively seamless transition and even reasonably fun.” 

The change also required ensuring that all students had access to receive their virtual instruction despite obstacles like lack of internet access. University efforts have included providing hotspots and laptops for students who would otherwise be unable to get online. 

For Benson, making sure all students received the same educational experience after the transition was crucial and, to him, they were successful in connecting students to necessary tools. This meant considering student needs from instruction and developing the curriculum, to providing WiFi hotspots for students to have access to their education.

“Whatever it might be — we made that available,” Benson said. “I didn't want resources … getting in the way of [an education].”

If virtual instruction continues, Baucom will consider all options to ensure all students have an equal opportunity.

“This is such an important question, and I can’t emphasize enough how vital it is to get this right,” Baucom said. “We have been addressing these issues on an ongoing basis, and now that we’ve all experienced the array of issues, we’re committed to helping faculty design and teach courses which are ever-more inclusive.”

Paige Waterhouse contributed to this article.

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