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Higher ed students talk about online-only classes amid pandemic

Brandon Paykamian • Mar 28, 2020 at 8:00 AM

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has touched almost every facet of life, including how college students continue their studies. 

Since East Tennessee State University and Northeast State Community College recently switched all classes to an online-only format for the rest of the semester and closed public events, students are continuing their coursework remotely. 

For Nathan Wurmser, a 34-year-old art student at Northeast State who plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in graphic design at ETSU next semester, the transition away from the studio required “some adjusting.” 

“I have to email and wait for a reply to see if I'm helping or hurting my projects, or if I have the right tone of orange,” Wurmser said. “The courses I’m talking about are color theory and art foundations — a studio class.”

Connor McClelland, 21, is double majoring in history and political science at ETSU. While most of his classes are less hands-on than many, like art classes and clinical courses, he said the transition and the stress of the pandemic itself have made continuing his coursework more difficult.

McClelland said remote online schooling is often more flexible, despite some tech challenges. 

“My experience so far is that it can be hard to stay engaged at the same level, due to a mixture of the format and the stresses of the crisis. That being said, it has some upsides too, mostly in regard to flexibility, as well as the opportunity to more intensively do research, which seems to be the best new feature,” he said a week into the change. “Some teachers have transitioned pretty seamlessly, and I expected they would. However, two of my older teachers are struggling more, with one not even doing anything at all so far.

“Depending on your major, this experience can be much harder. Music, science, nursing — just to name a few. I’m fortunate to focus primarily on history, which comes down to reading, research and writing — something instructors don’t need to be as involved in,” he said. “I’d say this experience in some ways prepares me for graduate-level work, but nonetheless, I’d be back to in-person classes in a heartbeat if I could wish this pandemic away.”

John Sterrett, a 20-year-old nutrition major, said it’s been tough to “stay engaged,” but the change has allowed him to immerse himself more in some of his interests.  Still, Sterrett said he’d like things to go back to normal on campus. 

“Though I've been able to dive deeply into some of my own personal projects and do a lot of research and writing that I wouldn't have otherwise been able to do, I would definitely prefer to be back in in-person classes,” he said. 

One of the biggest issues for Sterrett has been “the lack of structure and the number of distractions present” working from home. He said he usually prefers to “create separate purposes for spaces,” but finds it harder to work without being disturbed since he left campus. 

“Where I could normally wake up and go to classes, meetings, work or the gym at specific times, I now don't have this,” he said. “That being said, I'm trying to use this opportunity to enjoy spending time with family because I'll be graduating in May and moving halfway across the country.”

Sterret, however, said Zoom, the video conferencing program used at ETSU, has allowed him to stay in touch with his professors and work at his own pace. He said he’s found some courses to be more efficient through Zoom. 

“The structure with those Zoom classes has not so much been to lecture but to talk about requirements and have discussions about the material,” he said. “I wish normal classes were like this because it has saved me time to simply read through the material on my own instead of showing up to class for professors to read Powerpoints to me line by line.” 

Higher education officials are still uncertain about how long online-only courses will continue at the end of the spring semester in May. 

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