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In person, from people: thoughts on the return to in-person learning

The verdant grounds and broad walkways of Miami are no longer desolate when the clock reads 11:40 a.m. or 1:15 p.m. However, the ever-present issue of COVID-19 and the fact that some students opted to stay remote for the semester have led to some interesting changes in how professors are conducting classes this fall.  

Karen Meyers is a professor teaching business law and an introductory business course this semester. She decided to teach her business law class using a hybrid model of one day in person and one day on Zoom each week. Because the university has given all professors the choice of allowing in-person learning or continuing online, she had to make a decision.

“I chose to be able to offer the class in-person because I love the classroom,” she said. 

“Second of all, there were some students that had approached me and wanted to take it in person if they could. They felt a desire to continue in-person learning, so it felt like an appropriate thing to try.”

Her classroom consists of rows of masked and socially-distanced students with a twist: Both in-person and online students are required to engage in a Zoom call and offer up answers or discussion through the chat. Meyers elaborated on the reasoning behind this method of in-person learning.

“My students felt like they could be more interactive with me on the Socratic method — for instance, a student hung out after class, and he asked more questions,” Meyers said.  “The advantage of going back means that you are somewhere within the Oxford community, and because we have restrictive rules, you still have more opportunities to see classmates, even if it’s at a distance.”

Gaile Pohlhaus is an associate professor in philosophy at Miami. She ended up going in the opposite direction of in-person learning and retaining an online curriculum. This development was largely done in response to her students voicing their thoughts on returning in-person.

“To be honest, I was really torn,” Pohlhaus said. “I really enjoy teaching in-person, but at least in two of my classes, students were actually concerned enough that they approached me and asked me if I would consider staying online. I just didn't want to add a whole new layer of anxiety to the lives of those students.”

Her classroom consists of a computer screen lit up by the faces of students and filled with the sound of spirited debate and discussion about various philosophical concepts. She pointed out that while it isn’t ideal, online learning does have its advantages.

“There are some things that the technology affords me that would not be possible in the classroom,” she said. “For example, on Zoom, I literally can type people’s names into groups, and boom — you're in a group.”

Both professors emphasized that safety is their number one priority.  

“Miami has done everything possible that I can think of to empower faculty to deliver quality education,” Meyers said. “There were spray bottles with appropriate cleansing, there were paper towels, and we were given instructions to clean off the mic before using it. The students all showed up with their masks in place, they all kept social distancing and the students were wonderful in their compliance with regulations.”

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While professors have had to make decisions based on their own concerns and the input from their students, some students have gone ahead with in-person learning and have entered a classroom of masked faces, chairs marked off for social distancing and a computer that houses the rest of the class.

Bailey Cook is a junior media and culture and creative writing double major. She is taking a hybrid film production class this semester. 

She described the benefits of in-person learning in her class, specifically when students in the class were able to set up a lighting scene.

“Zoom is all about talking and seeing examples,” Cook said. “This time, we actually got to do it ourselves which is exciting.” 

While she sees the benefits of conducting in-person class in situations where tasks need to be done in person, Cook also explained that she had almost no problem with her other classes being online.

“All of the classes I’m taking are fairly simple to do online because they’re very heavily discussion based,” she said.

Zachary Ellia is a first-year geology major. He described the scene that lay before him when he walked into his introductory seminar for geology and environmental science at Shideler Hall.  

“There were only 10 to 12 students but double the amount of seats at least,” he said. “Everyone was separated by a desk or two, everyone had masks and you could tell that the desks were wiped when you got there.”

Both students said they felt safe while attending their respective classes.  

In-person learning is undoubtedly very different than it was last fall. Gone are the days of sitting next to other students, being able to hear everyone in the classroom clearly and being indoors without some sort of facial covering. 

However, the return to in-person learning has helped give students a better educational experience for certain classes while still maintaining a high quality of safety within the classroom. 

Ultimately, it is up to Miami’s professors to resume or halt in-person learning for their classes. Each professor is approaching the decision seriously and juggling many factors that include both the safety of their students and the quality of the educational experience offered to them both on and off campus.