English professor Jessie Herrada-Nance gives a lecture to her class through Zoom. Evan Kotsonis/PSU Vanguard

Virtual campus

PSU students and faculty on adjusting to remote learning

“Zoom is relatively new for me, so figuring that out was hard at first,” said Justin Hocking, a professor in the creative writing department at Portland State. “The first day of the memoir course, I accidentally left one student in the waiting room for about 15 minutes, which was horribly embarrassing. It’s also pretty strange to deliver a lecture without the normal physical cues from students—it can feel a bit more isolating and anxiety-provoking than I expected.”


COVID-19 has impacted daily lifestyles all over the world, and for PSU students, faculty and staff, there is no exception. On March 18, PSU announced it was moving all spring term classes online, and this decision has reshaped the approach to education from professors and students alike.


Students adjust to a new learning environment


For Quin Hanson, a jazz performance major, online learning has fundamentally altered his approach to school. 


“It hasn’t affected me in terms of degree progress, but my lifestyle has definitely taken a shift,” Hanson stated. “It’s much easier for me to have a built-in physical structure and a class to show up to. Online school, while giving a lot of the same physical content, seems to be so much less motivating and somehow proves to be a greater challenge to work ethic.”


“In music school, the in-person connection is the basis for your schooling,” Hanson stated. “Showing up to create and perform with other peers and faculty is valued as the top priority and focus. Right now, we just don’t have that. My biggest challenge is staying motivated.”


Caitlyn Sparkman, a graphic design student, said the shift to remote learning has heavily impacted the graphic design department.


 “Spring term is usually the busiest event season for the design program, with portfolio shows, design week open houses and guest lectures,” Sparkman said. “We’re now having to turn on a dime and create solutions to simulate these online. Everyone is tired and stressed, but I’m thankful the design department faculty and students are some of the most positive and supportive people I know.” 


Sparkman also expressed concerns over holding the department’s end of the year portfolio show, an event where many professional connections are made.


“The most significant adjustment for me comes in my capstone class,” said Raed Chalati, a business finance major. “Normally, the class would split into groups that would work with a business owner. Since everything is online now, meeting with our client and understanding what he or she wants has become a lot more difficult. Each client seems to be stressed out and is showing signs of leaving our group, which would be challenging.”


Some students have easily adapted to remote learning, seeing some real benefits for their academic lives.


 “I personally like the online class platform, as it’s convenient and I already like working from home for my job,” said Prithvi Chauhan, a business administration major. “The only real difference is that my roommates are home all the time with me, which can be entertaining, but also overwhelming.”


 “During this pandemic, my approach to school has completely shifted,” said Nic Caipa, a business finance major. “I was initially scheduled to take three lecture-based courses and one online course. As the situation evolved, I knew I had to re-adjust my plan for the term. Due to circumstances caused by the virus, I decided to take a lighter workload. But even with that, I was struggling to apply myself. This struggle, paired with a lack of income from losing my job, forced my decision to drop my classes altogether this term.” 


Zach Retzl, a graphic design major and musician in the local music scene, has seen his lifestyle shift in various ways. 


“My biggest challenge has been the significant drop in musical activity,” Retzl said. “Before quarantine started, I was regularly performing and practicing with a multitude of projects. Now, I find myself with an abundance of extra time, which is also related to no longer regularly commuting around our wonderful city. Before this I was living my school life deadline to deadline, but now I find myself chipping away at the work at a more manageable pace.” 


Faculty reactions to remote classes


Faculty from a variety of departments have experienced different sets of challenges. “This quarter I am teaching my first graduate-level book publishing for writers course, which we’ve had to adapt quite a bit,” said Hocking. “The original curriculum involved several field trips, to the Independent Publishing Resource Center and elsewhere, which obviously had to be cancelled. We also planned to do quite a bit of hands-on book making, but we’re shifting our focus more toward digital book design.” 


In the physical education department, teachers have found it increasingly difficult to properly conduct workouts. PSU yoga instructor Amy Duncan has made creative adjustments assisting her students virtually. 

“I am teaching the same program—the lyengar method of yoga—but adjusting each week to the needs of the students,” Duncan stated. “At PSU, the school provided the students with mats, [blankets], blocks and straps. In their home, students do not necessarily have these items so I have asked them to improvise.”


“Without in-person, face-to-face interactions, it has been hard to read the room and to see how students are feeling about the material,” said Tom Fisher, an English professor at PSU. “The real challenge is cultivating and maintaining meaningful relationships. Online discussions undermine opportunities for students to form real working relationships with each other when they’re not able to interact in person.”


Fisher has sought to adjust his curriculum to address the current socio-political moment. 


“I’ve decided to teach Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year,” Fisher said. “It’s a personal account of the great plague of London in 1665. That was a plague that disproportionately affected and hurt poor people. I’m asking my students to think not about the biological contours of pandemics, but to think about the political consequences of them. I want everyone to think about how these situations make visible the inequity of our systems and institutions.”


Hopes, fears and uncertainties


While the current remote academic environment appears hard to navigate, some see it as an opportunity for positive change. 


Chauhan believes online classes offer an opportunity for the university to refine online school resources and programs. “I just hope PSU adjusts tuition rates to reflect this shift to online classes,” Chauhan said.


“If this thing continues into fall term, PSU will have a lot of adjusting to do,” Caipa said. “I hope they’ll be able to use this time to reevaluate and improve how they conduct online courses.”


Chalati thinks the current remote learning setup could refine a virtual infrastructure for the university to use when the university is forced to close due to inclement weather.


“Online learning reduces barriers for some students—those living with certain disabilities, for example, who might prefer distance learning,” Hocking said. “Of course, it creates barriers for others, like those without internet access or homes. My hope is that the university and students will continue to innovate and adapt in unexpected ways.”


For Sparkman, the topic of accessibility has also weighed heavily on her mind.


 “My hope for the future of PSU learning is that things will be much more engaging and hands on for in-person classes,” Sparkman said. “This pandemic has exposed a lot of accessibility issues, and the university should work harder to accommodate students in the future. If social distancing continues through the next academic year, it would be nice to see lowered tuition rates that reflect the university not being able to provide 100% of the learning experience expected of it.”


Others are fearful of the long-term impacts of the current remote learning setup. 


“My fear is that this will accelerate a permanent push to online education,” Fisher said. “As a result, it could expedite the adjunctification of faculty because it is easier to have adjuncts teach online. But the optimist in me says that this current situation will solidify an argument for the positive outcomes of face-to-face learning.” 


Hanson is worried that online learning may cause academic standards to drift lower as the school moves further away from an in-person learning environment.


The uncertainty of the current moment has led to a great deal of speculation on just how long remote learning may continue. As a result, in many cases students and faculty are expecting the worst but hoping for the best.


“I think that [PSU] Interim President Steve Percy got this one right—remote learning should continue through summer term,” Duncan said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to enjoy summer here in Oregon. Then, we pray there is no recurrence of the coronavirus in the fall.”


“Thinking positively, we could be easing back into regular life by the fall,” Sparkman said. “Realistically, it will probably be far longer with the government’s low testing rates, lack of [personal protective equipment] for medical staff and those ignoring social distancing guidelines. The uncertainty of it all is giving me more anxiety than anything right now.”


“There is a real uncertainty to all of this, which can be frightening, but at least we’re all in it together,” Retzl said. “If this was happening solely in a distant country, then we’d have seen Americans spread awareness on social media for probably a week or two, at which point everyone would forget about it. But it’s happening here, for an unknown amount of time, and the effect it’s having on the world cannot be ignored.”


With virtual learning comes virtual graduation

Outside of the classroom, social distancing guidelines have altered on-campus gatherings and social events, affecting student groups in a variety of ways. On March 26, the university announced it was moving spring graduation online. This decision has incited an intense debate about online ceremonies.


Some students believe a virtual graduation is acceptable. 

“I will not be here after spring 2020 and wouldn’t be interested in coming back for a postponed ceremony,” Chauhan said. “However, I wouldn’t be opposed to having an optional ceremony at a later date.” 


“I know it means a lot to many, but personally the idea of finishing school and then coming back at some point down the road to walk seems more depressing to me than doing a virtual commencement,” Retzl said. “I’m down for whatever, but I don’t need to attend a crowded ceremonial act to successfully celebrate graduation.”


Duncan believes the decision should be deferred to students. 


“Graduating seniors should vote for what they want,” Duncan stated. “They have worked hard all of these years and if they want a ceremony, even delayed, they should have it.” 


“PSU should postpone the ceremony,” Caipa said. “While some students might find a virtual graduation is an adequate way to celebrate one’s journey of getting a degree, I disagree. These seniors graduating have dedicated countless hours to their programs and have paid tens of thousands of dollars to the university in order to get that degree. Further, the university needs to remember these ceremonies aren’t just for the graduates. They’re also for the family and friends of those graduates.”


“I would give anything for graduation to be postponed,” Sparkman said. “I woke up to that email announcing an online commencement and immediately started a petition which now has over 2,000 signatures to postpone. I don’t care if it’s a year from now, I want to walk. So many PSU students, like myself, are the first in their families to earn a degree. My career and education are some of the most cherished things in my life. Portland State has the resources to do something for the class of 2020 instead of sweeping us out with a Powerpoint.”