What a difference a month makes. In early March, students at Illinois were attending class in places like Lincoln Hall and Natural History Building, visiting faculty during office hours, and bumping into each other on the Main Quad.
Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the suspension of on-campus activities, students have traded classrooms for Zoom lectures and online discussion boards while sitting in their apartments or childhood homes. The pandemic has forced professors and students to complete the spring semester remotely as they follow guidelines for social distancing.
Despite the gap, students are finding ways to maintain learning, even while being dismayed that they won’t be finishing out the spring semester on campus.
“I definitely miss being able to be present in a classroom, I feel like it is much more difficult to build relationships with my professors and classmates over an online learning format,” said Elena Cannova, senior in psychology. “The little things like stopping by office hours, asking a miscellaneous question after class, or running into a friend while walking to class are all lost with the online format.”
Cannova said all four of her classes are using Zoom lectures—that is, lectures between students and their instructors conducted via the online video conferencing app created by San Jose, California-based Zoom Video Communications. She has not faced any issues with the program herself other than when someone else is trying to speak and his or her internet is interrupted.
For Arnoldo Ayala, senior in political science and Spanish, the unexpected shift to online learning has gone relatively smoothly—but it’s been challenging. He is currently enrolled in six classes. Four of them use Zoom, while the other two are strictly online and don’t require live meetings.
“My home wifi is not the best, and oftentimes my Zoom lectures lag or simply close because I do not have strong enough internet,” he said. “Other than that, (since) all campus events are canceled, a lot of my other responsibilities are not super overbearing, meaning I have more time to study.”
He anticipates more adjustments ahead as finals arrive in May.
“I am the type of person who likes to attend office hours and get one-on-one time with a professor or TA in order to understand what I am struggling with,” Ayala said. “Similarly, I function well when I study with a group and we all help each other out. Now that I cannot study with a group in person, it might make it more difficult for me to study independently.”
He added, however: "I am incredibly grateful for all of my instructors accommodating and understanding how difficult this might be for some students, especially with learning from home.”
Megan Resurreccion, senior in creative writing, said it’s been difficult for her to stay home as well.
“During a normal academic term, I typically avoid working at home and always try to study at cafes or libraries, but this is unfortunately not possible at the moment,” she said. “Everyone has their own preferred study space.”
Additionally, this is Resurreccion’s last semester as an undergraduate on campus. In addition to the switch to online coursework, she has also been dismayed by the cancellation of the May commencement ceremony, although there are contingency plans in place to honor graduates at a later date.
“It's unfortunate that this is how I'll be ending my undergraduate career, but I still look forward to my future at graduate school,” she said.
One thing that has helped Resurreccion deal with the changes this semester is her physical location. Because she is still living on campus, she said she does not find her environment all that distracting, and she’s learned that successful studying boils down to just staying focused. Having taken online classes before, she understands the importance of her surroundings and her self-control.
“However, I miss the in-person lectures because I felt I could still focus better in an academic lecture hall as opposed to a living room,” she said.
Issy Marquez, junior in English and political science, is staying on campus during the pandemic. Same as Resurreccion, Marquez said that her physical location has helped her stay focused.
“Personally, I know other people don’t have this privilege, (and) being at U of I has helped,” she said, while sitting in the spot where she normally does homework. “I think the physical motivation has helped. I’m like ‘OK, keep going and in four months I’ll be (back) in that building (on campus).’”
Marquez is enrolled in six classes. Only one of them is not using Zoom for lectures; it is instead using online discussion boards on Illinois Compass 2G, a learning management system. One of her Zoom classes is a film seminar which she said has been difficult to navigate because sharing films online and stopping for discussion is harder through Zoom.
“I have a really humanities-driven track, and what we thrive on is that human interaction,” Marquez said. “And we pride ourselves—in LAS, but especially in the humanities—in having 10 or 12 people in a room and bouncing off each other’s energy. I’m not gonna lie, I’ve missed a lot of that connection through the Zoom.”
She is grateful that she was able to get to know a lot of her classmates before spring break so they can keep in contact and make the online meetings a little less awkward. However, like many other students, Marquez wishes this didn’t happen at all.
“You take (your classmates) for granted, whether your class is 500 people or 15,” she said. “You thrive off of people’s energy, you thrive off your professor’s motivation, you thrive off of your partners.”
Katrina Rbeiz, junior in psychology and global studies, said that for the most part, her online courses have been running smoothly. Zoom has been efficient, and some of her classes don’t use Zoom, relying instead on recorded lectures. However, part of her 17-credit hour course-load this semester was dedicated to research, which has since been cancelled.
“I hope that this will not have a negative impact on our education, but I know that it has impacted my research, and other people's research across the university-regardless of discipline,” she said. “U of I is a fantastic research institution, so I hope that we will be able to get back into it easily once it is safe to return to campus.”
She added that it’s a challenge to stay home all day, but she predicts that someday we’ll look back and see it as a necessary effort to protect those who are vulnerable from contracting the virus.
“It is so important for us all to realize the larger picture,” she said. “While we may not be as comfortable as we were before the outbreak, we owe it to the well-being of others to stay inside and practice social distancing.”