‘Asked to stretch and grow’: UC Berkeley faculty struggles, learns to teach online

Sakura Cannestra/Staff

Related Posts

While some campus professors are adapting more effortlessly to online teaching, others are struggling due to the nature of their class structure and discipline.

In light of classes moving online due to the COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, pandemic, professors have been working tirelessly to adapt their classes. Many professors have also been rethinking the accessibility of their classes, as they cannot assume students have the necessary technology and the capacity to engage with an online platform.

“What I think this crisis has exposed are ways that we aren’t prepared for this type of disaster or this type of insecurity around, not only our safety and health, but then also how we structure education and pedagogy,” said campus assistant professor of geography and global metropolitan studies Brandi Summers.

Having technology “mediate” class conversations and interactions creates an “uncomfortable space” where students do not feel comfortable speaking up in class, Summers said.

Summers originally planned to cancel her lectures and assign readings and response papers. After receiving feedback from her students, she decided to continue lecturing while also providing a space for students to reflect on reading content.

The switch to Zoom has produced paramount challenges to dance, acting and design classes, which rely heavily on “hands-on experiential learning,” according to campus professor and chair of theater, dance and performance studies Lisa Wymore.

Students are not absorbing material in the same way, Wymore said in an email. She added that while the virtual switch has created a space more conducive to listening without interruption and sharing ideas, it has deprived performing arts-oriented classes of their fundamental reliance on “feelings, body-based knowledge and collaborative communication structures.”

“We are being asked to stretch and grow, to find and utilize new resources, and to expand the potential of performance and theater,” Wymore said in an email. “This experience will change us, for the better, as long as we can integrate the virtual with the material again – and we can return to our studios, labs, and making spaces.”

Campus Graduate School of Education assistant professor Tesha Sengupta-Irving, who teaches a five-person graduate seminar, and campus professor Robert Reich, who teaches the more than 600-person “Wealth and Poverty” class, both expressed that it is challenging to gauge class comprehension due to the loss of nonverbal cues.

There is no “easy translation” for physical activities such as using posters and pens to articulate themes and ideas, according to Sengupta-Irving. She added that online platforms do not allow her to comparably acknowledge or step in when a student is “speaking or struggling with an idea.”

Although Reich believes that students are serious about their coursework and absorbing the material, it is hard for him to gauge “what and how” his students are learning because he cannot see their faces, Reich said in an email.

“Being online, no matter the size, takes a different kind of energy and engagement,” Sengupta-Irving said in an email.

French language classes have also had to adjust and are being taught via Zoom every day, according to French professor and director of the Berkeley Language Center Richard Kern.

While French classes still have quizzes, classes are being recorded and “interactive speaking practice” groups have been implemented, Kern said in an email.

English professor Georgina Kleege, who is blind, highlighted an array of accessibility issues with Zoom that affects campus students and instructors. She added that she feels fortunate to be involved in an international community of blind academics that have shared tips and guidance on operating Zoom.

“Zoom, like all technologies, was designed with a certain kind of person in mind,” Kleege said in an email. “The ideal user is someone who can see, hear, speak, and type, someone who has a stable and robust internet connection, someone who believes that multi-tasking is both desirable and achievable.”

To increase the lucidity of her class content, she not only records and posts her Zoom lectures with more precise captions generated by Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, captioners but also creates an MP3 audio recording so students can choose to listen to lectures by scrolling through PowerPoint slides instead, Kleege said in an email.

She added that many registered DSP students have “non-apparent psychiatric disabilities” and may find themselves overwhelmed with and “disabled by” the technology.

“The institution is doing the best it can in terms of its reaction,” Summers said. “Hopefully, this will help the University of California system — as the largest employer in the state of California — to come with more proactive solutions that aren’t necessarily dependent on companies or on platforms like Zoom.”

Contact Skylar Schoemig at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sschoemig_dc.