It’s been a year since Western Washington University announced the rest of winter quarter 2020 would be remote.
Never would anyone at Western expect that the university would continue mostly remote learning for each quarter that has followed. The transition to virtual learning, teaching and working has been challenging, gratifying and downright exhausting.
So, a year into this new normal, what do Western students, faculty and staff have to say about being away from campus for so long?
The Western Front talked to assistant Professor Akanksha Bedi in the College of Business and Economics who studied how online learning can be improved; Robert Clark, manager of video services in ATUS; and fourth-year English major Grace Yatsko, who’s attending Woodring College of Education in the fall.
WF: How has the past year of being remote been?
AB: “With respect to my personal experience, it definitely was an interesting experience, simply because when you are learning something new there is that learning curve … It requires, for us as educators, shifting to a new pedagogical paradigm, where essentially, you know, there are certain things that I would do naturally in my classes, but now I had to successfully transfer them to my online class experience … Initially, there were a few hurdles. I was fortunate because I was already teaching an online class, a fully asynchronous class, even before the pandemic hit.”
RC: “When the school was forced to go into lockdown and go 100% online, my role was taking Zoom, which had been used in part for teaching and in part for administrative purposes, and bring that up to full speed so that we can use it in conjunction with every other form of online capability … The interface of Zoom, the way that you access it is very user friendly, it's very understandable to non-tech natives … worldwide, people were overwhelmed with having to go online and so they didn't want to deal with a difficult barrier to entry … I think the entire world discovered Zoom all at once, we were certainly not alone.”
GY: “All of the news started coming out in March that we might be closing and I can just remember sitting in class thinking like, OK, this is kind of a weird spot to be in …and then by Friday they told us that we were going to be doing online classes for a bit and … it was kind of this feeling of dread … I personally like asynchronous classes and just kind of being on my own self-paced kind of classes, that works best for me so I wasn't really struggling too much with it, but the senioritis has definitely kicked in this quarter and now I'm really, really getting hit hard with how challenging it is.”
WF: What about this past year has been hard?
AB: “I think the hardest part has been my asynchronous class and developing that one-to-one connection with the students … How do you connect with your students in an asynchronous environment? Because they never see you. You don't have those one-to-one lectures. You don't have that kind of personal connection. You do have office hours. You do invite students to come and speak with you or email you or arrange for a Zoom office hour. But 90%, or [the] majority of the students do not take advantage of that. So, my number one challenge here has been: how do you make that connection with your audience when you are teaching an asynchronous class?
RC: “Nobody had ever expected us to be 100% online, it was one of those scenarios that none of us had ever expected, ever. The faculty were all over the map, I mean the students were too, they didn't want it, they wanted face to face, well we couldn't give you face to face and so this was the next best thing. Inevitably, there were a lot of people, and again students and faculty both, that were upset that this was having to be done ... At the same time, there was no other alternative and so part of our role was giving people an option of knowing that it wasn't just them, it certainly wasn't just Bellingham or Western, it was worldwide.”
GY: “So, quite a few things. I'm from Hawaii originally and not seeing my family for a really long time has been extremely hard. My sister lives in Cleveland right now, my parents are still in Hawaii and they've wanted to visit me for the past year [and] haven't been able to at all. My mom's a photographer, she wanted to take my graduation pictures and hasn't been able to come up at all. I've had all these big milestones: getting promoted at work, getting a raise at another job, being offered a different position, graduating a quarter early, getting published with a few things … and it's just the same roommates that I have around or it's just the same coworkers that I see every day at work from six-feet apart that are sharing these big moments with me. I think as a student that's particularly rough.”
WF: What are you hopeful for?
AB: “I am actually looking forward to going back to the classroom, because like I said, I mean, seeing face to face, nothing can beat that.”
RC: “My hope is that people understand that Western, we're sort of given an opportunity now to think of how this new world is going to be after everybody comes back from COVID[-19] and things are more back to normal: what is the new normal? And identifying that is a discussion that I'd love to have … some of those conversations are already starting to occur. To be honest, it's going to be very exciting because we'll have access to tools, people will be familiar with using them and have used them already … and then it could make it a lot easier for education to be flexible.”
GY: "I think with that particular degree [for graduate school] that I'm going into, it's all about community, all about social justice, all about how can we make better people going into the world out of these kids and how can we educate them to the best of our abilities and that's hard to do when you're in an online classroom. So ideally, I'd like to be face to face … I want to be able to have those conversations in person, you know, to put on shoes and actually get some wear and tear out of them walking to campus again, getting coffee from Zoe’s, a bagel, feeling the environment of being in the world again. I think that's so crucial for people of all ages.”
Western will continue remote instruction for spring and summer quarter, but an email earlier this month from President Sabah Randhawa stated the university may return to in-person this fall. A lot can happen in these next few months, but whatever does, Western will face it, one way or another.
Lauren Gallup (she/her) is the spring 2021 managing editor of The Front. She is a fourth-year news/editorial journalism major, whose writing has been featured in Klipsun, 425 and South Sound magazines. Her reporting seeks to answer, provoke and increase understanding. You can find her retweeting great journalism @thelaurengallup or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.