The first week of online learning at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) has ended and it has been met with mixed reactions from students and professors. UNH President James W. Dean Jr. announced on March 18 that all in-person classes would be canceled for the rest of the semester due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The university has continued to send emails to students and faculty with updates about any changes being made to the school.
Most professors and faculty have positive reactions to how online learning is going.
“It is a major adjustment, but I think it is working well – for me and the students,” associate professor of history Jason Sokol said. “We are all happy to see each other and to be studying history together. The class meetings have given us all a slight sense of normalcy and routine during a very challenging time.”
“Most of our professors are already experienced teaching online, so none of this was frightening or alarming to them,” said Siobhan Senier, the coordinator of UNH’s women’s studies program. She added that Zoom sessions have been working well in smaller, upper-level courses. On top of this, other professors are utilizing other tools outside of Zoom. “Other professors are using a combination of asynchronous methods, including discussion boards and email conversations. Prof. [Joelle] Ryan has set up a Facebook group for their disability justice class, where students are sharing and commenting on disability justice in light of COVID-19, and that’s been really effective.”
With other, more hands-on classes, professors and faculty have had to get more creative. Jennifer Moses, the chair of UNH’s art and art history department, teaches a three-hour painting course and has had to figure out how to teach her students without being able to walk around the classroom and help them as they work. Different strategies that she has tried out this week include a discussion group for students to upload their work, a Box invitation to see each other’s work and Zoom meetings. Although Moses has never taught an online course before, she finds it to be an “enjoyable challenge” that has given her new ideas when it comes to teaching.
“The biggest challenge is figuring out how to get this all organized and trying to figure out how best these students can work on their own without me spelling things out,” Moses said. “So far it seems like everyone is really excited, actually, to be working on their own.”
Moses also said that making this transition is easier with 2-D work, and teachers who usually work and teach with 3-D mediums, like sculpture, ceramics or woodworking, have had to think outside the box for their students to get the best experience out of online learning. Moses explained that the 3-D faculty have started studying an artist and then make work out of household items in relation to the artist they are studying, a sculpture professor has started using 3-D modeling and in-home installations, and the ceramics faculty is having students construct projects out of paper.
The student showcase that usually serves as a student’s final project has also been canceled and Moses and her faculty have been working to see if they can do the showcase online along with videos about the artist’s process and experiences. Moses said that she knows how disappointed her students are that they have to miss this big event, and has been trying to point out all the positives an online exhibition could bring such as a bigger audience and practice for applying to exhibitions outside of UNH.
UNH’s Department of Agriculture, Nutrition, and Food Systems (ANFS) has run into similar problems with classes that usually involve hands-on experiences. Andrew Conroy teaches the Cooperative Real Education in Agriculture Management (CREAM), along with “Careers in Animal Sciences,” “Dairy Cattle Selection,” and the “Daily Cattle Disease Seminar.” While his Careers in Animal Sciences class has moved online almost seamlessly, Conroy is disappointed that students in his other class won’t be able to get the hands-on experience with cattle that they expected.
In his Dairy Cattle Selection class, specifically, the students work towards the “Little Royal,” which has been a UNH event for 67 years.
“When students start out with a cow, it doesn’t know how to walk, it doesn’t know how to lead,” Conroy said, “and they take the whole semester as a project to clip and lead.” He added that students prep the cows on their own time and at the Little Royal they show their cow to a professional judge. Unlike the student exhibition within the art department, the Little Royal isn’t able to be held online or at a later date.
Other teachers in the ANFS department, like Jesse Stabile Morrell and Vanessa Grunkemeyer, who have fewer hands-on classes than Conroy, said they are trying to give students more agency by asking their opinions and worries on how classes should be run.
“I’ve been trying to enroll my students in trying to troubleshoot their final presentations,” Grunkemeyer said. Questions she and her students discuss include “How can we, as a group, come up with something that meets the spirit or objectives of our course?,” “How do we do group presentation meaningful on Zoom?,” “How do we make sure that all members of the group are held to the same standard?,” and “Who do we invite to see these presentations?” Grunkemeyer added that she’s “really been leaning on group problem solving, making sure students have a voice in any adaptations I need to make.”
Along with the support that teachers feel they are giving their students, the professors in the ANFS, women’s studies, arts and history departments have felt supported by both other faculty members and the UNH information technology (IT) department.
“Campus IT folks have been amazing, offering mentoring and communication multiple times a day,” Senier said. “Department chairs have offered individual and team support. The provost and deans have daily tried to reassure us that this is a work in progress, that we all have students’ well-being and success uppermost in our minds, and that we will get through this.”
“My wife, Nina Morrison, who teaches in the Department of Theatre and Dance… has given me advice on online teaching,” Sokol said. “Without her, this would be truly impossible. Dee-Ann Dumas of the COLA Geeks has also provided extremely valuable advice.”
“In our College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, the dean’s office, the department chair, everyone is super busy but they are really responsive and have demonstrated care,” Morrell said. “I’ve been reminded of how many great people I work with.”
Not all students share the same opinions as their professors, however. Sustainable agriculture major Kyle Blume, a veteran, said that he feels like students aren’t being asked about their own education and sometimes when teachers do ask how students are doing, the undergraduates don’t advocate for themselves, resulting in teachers thinking that their students are fine.
“Students are expected to adapt to whatever the professors want to do,” Blume said, adding that he knows there are conversations happening at the upper level of UNH faculty in regards to this new student situation, but feels that students are not being heard during these discussions. He also expressed concern that other undergraduate students are not doing well due to their study habits possibly changing, inability to make it to Zoom class meetings if they have to take care of a family member, or simply just can’t focus during an online class.
This sentiment was echoed by sophomore political science and justice studies dual major Gabby Corricelli and junior linguistics and women’s studies dual major Emmalyn Casteris.
Casteris said that the first week of online learning has been more difficult than expected.
“I thought online classes would just be the same as regular coursework but with no lectures, but I’m not learning anything,” Casteris said.
“I am not a fan of online classes,” Corricelli said, “and wish UNH would be more understanding about how difficult it is for a student to transition to them.”
“The biggest thing I would want is some understanding from professors on work that was already late or something,” junior anthropology and philosophy double major Becky Holland said. “Because of this change I have to reshape my entire life, and I lost my whole academic support systems and routines, so I’d want them to be more understanding than they would have been before. I’m working on all my overdue stuff, but also on all my current work, and then adding on the stress of this whole situation and the domestic tasks I’m taking on? It can be a lot, and I know that profs are doing their best but I’d want them to know that my personal best isn’t going to be the same as it was.”
On top of students dealing with their own personal troubles during this time, others have found that some teachers are having a hard time with a new online format.
“My biology teacher was supposed to post work for us Wednesday and didn’t and we are currently supposed to be taking a quiz as we speak but also never posted that. Our TA can’t even get in contact with him,” senior sustainable agriculture major Tim Fischer said on Friday.
“Communication with my professors has been really difficult so figuring out what I have for work and when it’s due is really difficult,” Casteris said.
“The only problem I’m facing with lectures via Zoom is the professors change sheets too fast so I don’t have the time to write everything down,” junior mechanical engineering major Oscany DeJesus said. “So far the professors have suggested going back and rewatching the video if we missed something which is incredibly annoying because students shouldn’t have to take extra time out of the day to keep up with what he does in lecture.”
Some students have expressed mixed emotions between being disappointed that the year is already over and understanding why this move to online classes needed to happen during this pandemic.
“It’s honestly nice to be able to just stay in in the morning and watch a lecture on my laptop. As far as actually learning the content though, I feel like being in person with a professor… is much more effective at imparting knowledge to me,” said senior mechanical engineering major Derick Boisvert. “On top of that, as an engineering major, all of my labs have been canceled which definitely sucks. Furthermore, it’s been tedious trying to download software that I originally used to just access at the computer cluster in Kingsbury. All in all, there will be an adjustment period, but I think we’re all handling it as well as possible!”
Senior animal science major Marina Santos agreed that students are trying to handle this situation as best as they can. On top of that, she said that she understands why the university had to make this decision, as bringing students back from spring break could pose a high risk of spreading COVID-19.
Santos has also observed, however, that some of her fellow students are losing motivation.
“It’s like, ‘what’s the point of taking classes?’” she asked, referring to the mindset of other students. “Everyone’s angry, everyone’s disappointed… I don’t feel like a real college student anymore.”
“Everyone I’ve talked to has mentioned they are struggling with motivation to do school work,” junior English major Nathalie Cumming said. “I think a lot of people who already deal with depression or procrastination are having a hard time finding a reason to complete schoolwork right now because we’re all so anxious and bored.”
Santos said that it was helpful for her to see other students trying to help each other in the UNH class groups on Facebook, such as offering beds or rooms if people can’t go home. “I want to tell other wildcats that you’re not alone, because I wish someone said that to me when this was happening,” Santos said, “I know it feels like a personal attack, but everyone is going through this together.”
Unlike the faculty, who have had other professors and IT departments to lean on, Santos said she’s disappointed that there hasn’t been more of an effort to bring students together, although she noted that most of her professors always start their class with a “how are you doing today,” making her feel less “abandoned.”
Senior journalism major Nicole Cotton said that her professors “have been amazing and completely understanding of their students’ needs and have adjusted the syllabus.” Cotton added that “this is a learning curve for everyone and although I’m obviously sad knowing I won’t ever sit in a classroom at UNH as an undergrad again, I’m glad that we all have each other’s backs.”
“Overall I would say I’m pleasantly surprised with the state of classes at UNH since the shutdown,” junior history and economics dual major Daniel Frehner said. “There’s of course no comparison to meeting in person, learning face-to-face just inherently requires paying more attention, but classes seem to be functioning decently overall.”
Many students, including Casteris, DeJesus, Blume and Corricelli say that they wish the semester was pass/fail to take some of the pressure off and make this an easier transition.