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As colleges go online, a mixed experience for students

Joao Pereira, a first-semester UMass Boston student, is juggling online classes and a newborn daughter. The transition, he said, has been a challenge.
Joao Pereira, a first-semester UMass Boston student, is juggling online classes and a newborn daughter. The transition, he said, has been a challenge.Matthew J. Lee

A month ago they were in lecture halls and laboratories, huddled in groups solving physics problems, debating criminal justice laws, building toys for their product design class, and testing turntables for their music courses.

Now, students from Massachusetts colleges and universities are scattered around the world, far from their classmates, professors, and the campus resources that supported their learning. Instead they are taking classes online, dealing with computer glitches and time zone differences, watching professors give recorded lectures in empty classrooms or from their living rooms.

“It’s thrown everything off,” said Rachel Woodiwiss, 19, a junior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is from Long Island. “It feels like we’re getting half of the education we’re supposed to.”

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Since universities shuttered their campuses in mid-March to help slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus, they have scrambled to put classes online. That has involved training legions of professors on how to use online meeting and teaching tools and trying to retool classes that required hands-on learning. Occasionally, it has also included additional instructions on how to apply security settings to ensure that online classes aren’t disrupted by hackers who are “Zoombombing” sessions.

It has been a herculean task with mixed results.

At Roxbury Community College, where 80 percent of students qualify for federal Pell grants, a marker for poverty, students were loaned laptops, tablets, and Internet hot spots if they needed them to continue remote learning. Few students have withdrawn from classes, according to RCC.

At Wellesley College, technology experts spent the past two weeks training about 300 instructors on the online tools and helping them to adapt their coursework for remote learning, said Andy Shennan, the college’s provost.

The college launched online classes last week, with some experienced professors as nervous as they were their first year in front of a classroom, Shennan said.

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So far, the vast majority of professors and students report that they are satisfied with the experience. But Shennan said college officials are aware that they’ll have to constantly monitor the situation and make sure students don’t drop off and that they keep coming to the Zoom video-conferences.

“I’m hesitant to say how this will play out,” Shennan said. “We don’t altogether know the impact of this on our students’ educational experience.”

Campuses have long offered some level of online coursework but rarely to the level required by this pandemic. And professors have varying degrees of experience using remote teaching tools and understanding what strategies work best online versus in person.

Berklee College of Music’s traditional online program had about 220 fully virtual courses that students could choose from, but in the past few weeks the school has tried to migrate its entire spring semester courseload — 2,000 classes — online, said Carin Nuernberg, the college’s vice president of academic strategy.

“It’s a whirlwind,” Nuernberg said. "The scale is just so massive."

For a performing arts school, the transition has been particularly challenging since students and professors rely on studio equipment and often play in ensembles. In some cases professors have turned to computer programs to replace recording consoles. And they have redirected their classroom focus to students’ improving their individual playing techniques rather than group performances, she said.

In some ways, students are learning important skills, such as how to produce music in a remote context, she said.

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But some students and their families say the online experience isn’t what they’ve paid for and have started a petition requesting that Berklee refund a portion of their tuition.

Kellena Taylor, whose daughter returned to their home in Australia amid the coronavirus pandemic, said the time difference has made it nearly impossible for her child to participate in Zoom classes. For her drum lab, her daughter has been instructed to use a table as a stand-in for the instrument, and the instruction is delivered via a lagging video link. Meanwhile she is supposed to be learning the skills to be a DJ without touching a turntable, Taylor said.

“It doesn’t seem right,” Taylor said. “They are clearly not able to deliver classes properly.”

Nuernberg said she has heard about the refund requests, but Berklee’s professors are adapting their lessons and trying to ensure that students are able to learn this semester.

“It might not be the same, but there are powerful outcomes that are coming out of it,” Nuernberg said.

Still, even students a few miles from their campus say that the abrupt transition to remote learning has been tougher than they expected.

Marley Hillman, a junior at Tufts University who remained in Somerville, has struggled to recapture the energy of in-person classes during video-conference sessions. Classmates are often silent, and it can be easy to turn off the camera, lower the volume, and tune people out, Hillman said.

“I find it’s difficult to keep up the same level of work — both in quality and quantity — now,” Hillman said.

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Many colleges have offered students pass/fail grades this semester to relieve some of the pressure of learning in such a different style.

The move to online classes has been uneven because much of it has been thrown together at the last minute, said Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, which operates one of the largest online programs in the country.

“We’re having a national experiment on online [learning], and nobody who advocates for online education would design it this way,” LeBlanc said. “For the schools that have never done it, now overnight they are being thrown into the deep end of the pool.”

LeBlanc said schools and students will muddle through the next few weeks with a patchwork of solutions, but he worries that institutions may not be prepared if students can’t return to campus in the fall and have to continue remote learning. Undergraduate students need support systems, including advising and tutoring, to ensure they stay on track, but it’s unclear whether most universities are prepared to offer those services online as robustly as they do on campus, he said.

“If you think how easy it is to get derailed, they’re in a volatile environment right now and it’s getting piled on,” LeBlanc said.

Joao Pereira, 26, of Dorchester, said the transition has been challenging. Pereira was just starting to adjust to the rigors of his first semester at UMass Boston after transferring from community college. Now he’s learning online with his 2-month-old daughter in the background and also juggling a new job.

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Pereira started working in dining services at a local hospital two weeks ago after his gig as an Uber driver dried up due to COVID-19. Pereira said he has been trying to get scholarships and grants from UMass Boston so that he can continue earning his degree in criminal justice, but the process is more frustrating because he is communicating via e-mail and phone calls instead of dropping by an office and speaking to advisers in person.

“It’s stressful,” he said. “It’s a different reality.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.