Online classes pose challenges for BC students and faculty

As you are no doubt aware, the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has forced the college to hold classes online. This move is necessary and critical to not just the health of faculty, staff, and students, but also the health of our wider community.

That said, online classes will pose a significant challenge for the BC community. According to the 2018 American Community Survey, about 1 in 25 Washingtonians have no internet access at home, and many more may not have appropriate or effective technology. Some students may not have a computer at home or lack a webcam/microphone for participating in online meetings. The financial stresses of COVID-19 will only escalate the problem. Usually, students have access to computers, internet access, and other technology resources on campus, which have now become inaccessible due to the stay-at-home order.

Luckily, according to Academic Success Center President Jonathan Molinaro, students in tough situations when it comes to technology do have recourse. If students don’t have a computer, a camera, or a microphone, “We have funds at the college [for that].” The best way to access those resources, he says, is through the Bellevue College Benefits Hub. “You can ask for what you need. I need a laptop. I need, you know, a tablet. I need this. And then the college would try to find those resources.”

Even for those of us properly equipped, technology can still pose a challenge. The FBI has issued an official warning about the online video conferencing program Zoom, which is in widespread use at the college. The app used to contain significant security vulnerabilities that allowed hackers to access your camera and microphone even while the app was not running. To make matters worse, the app used to contain additional vulnerabilities that would let them steal your windows login credentials and gain access to your entire computer if you clicked on malicious links posted in the app’s chat. The developers have since patched those critical vulnerabilities. However, the app still contains security weaknesses that allow attackers to hijack meetings and record them or display content to the viewers. In a practice known as “Zoombombing,” numerous conferences across the country have been interrupted with pornography, racial slurs, and threats. If some classes at the college continue to use Zoom, as it currently appears they will, the warning encourages meeting hosts to make sure the event is password-protected and to have antivirus software installed in case the app has other vulnerabilities we do not yet know about.

Technology isn’t the only problem, however. Thanks to the sudden switch, many instructors, through no fault of their own, have not had the time to be adequately trained. “There is a huge learning curve,” says Molinaro. An extra week of spring break was given to prepare. Still, for many instructors, that was far from enough, and several classes around the campus started even later.

Even when run by experienced instructors, the remote nature of these classes can have a significant detrimental effect on grade and learning outcomes. According to a 2017 paper published in the American Economic Review, students in online courses at the community college level are 12% less likely to earn an “A” in online coursework. The study further states that “[students] in online education, and in particular underprepared and disadvantaged students, underperform and on average, experience poor outcomes. Gaps in educational attainment across socioeconomic groups are even larger online than in traditional coursework.”

A review by the Brookings Institution also found that grades in online classes are worse across the board—averaging 0.44 points less on a 4-point scale (a C, rather than a B-, for equivalent classes if taken online). Unfortunately, students also appear to learn less from these online classes. In essence, their GPA in classes of the same subject for the next term is also 0.42 points worse on a 4-point scale.

Taking online courses requires an additional degree of self-motivation and time-management compared to in-person classes, says Molinaro. “You’re on your own a lot of ways you’re not checked in with as much. You don’t have that daily consistency and schedule… So if somebody needs more of that consistency of going somewhere and needs that one-on-one personal face-to-face connection, you’re not going to get that as much online.”

The fact that we switched online so abruptly and universally didn’t help either he adds. “A lot of these students did not choose to have their classes online. They chose to have them in person. And so I think some of the reasons why students will struggle is because they’re being forced to choose to take a course in a mode that they didn’t necessarily prepare for or that doesn’t necessarily cater to their strengths.”

If you find yourself struggling in the online environment, Molinaro suggests to “pay attention to how your instructors are engaging you online. Are they doing online meetings? Office hours? Do they want you to email them? Make sure that that line between the student and the teacher is still there. That’s key.” Other instructors have suggested setting frequent reminders to check in to Canvas or to help yourself keep up by setting aside specific chunks of time to work on each class. Beyond that, “all of our tutoring [at the Academic Success Center] is online, and we’ve got tutoring appointments. We got drop-in, we’ve got the lab. Take advantage of that,” says Molinaro.

Despite the challenges, we can and will persevere. Many teachers already have experience teaching some or all of their classes online. Ms. Fernandez, who teaches Spanish at the college, made assurances that even though language can be difficult to learn while isolated, “We have been teaching Spanish online for almost 12 years. Our textbooks have a lot of online resources, and Canvas is a pretty friendly teaching platform… just study a little bit every day and don’t let the homework accumulate.”

“I’d much rather be at school, but overall the situation is pretty good,” says Running Start student Grayson Denton.  “All of the professors have been pretty accommodating.” Acting President Kristen Jones was similarly optimistic, writing in her email to the campus community announcing the switch to remote learning that “These are unprecedented times, and as we adapt to change, I want to recognize that this isn’t easy for any of us, personally and professionally. I know that working together we will get through this.”