Like most colleges across the nation, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pomona College shifted to online-only instruction and remained that way for two semesters. As a liberal arts college, Pomona’s raison d’etre is in the high quality of undergraduate in-person teaching, something that distance learning imperiled. To maintain the thriving student-professor interaction that characterized on-campus learning, the Pomona College ITS department worked tirelessly in the summer of 2020 to transition from emergency remote teaching and learning to effective online education. Now that the College is eyeing a return to campus in the fall, we wanted to determine essential takeaways from a year of online learning. We spoke to three students about their experiences with online learning and what they hope will continue as they return to the classroom.
The first highlight from our interviews was relatively low-tech: recorded lectures. Gordon Elnagar ’24 found this to be the most useful teaching tool to come out of the pandemic. Quote here. “Being able to review the lectures after the fact allowed the information to filter through a second time,” which helped Gordon develop a deeper understanding of the material. In addition, Zoom fatigue meant that sometimes attention spans ran low, and it allowed him to find things that he might have otherwise missed during the lecture. As we make the transition back to on-campus life, Gordon hopes that professors will continue to film and record their lectures, even if classes are not offered online.
The second takeaway, surprisingly, is also low tech—the easy accessibilities of professors. Andy Xu ’24, who moonlights as the ASPC First-Year Class President, mentioned that his favorite thing about online learning was the ease of contacting faculty. Whether through Slack, Discord, or registration apps like Calendly, he noted that he had a variety of ways to communicate with professors on things like a homework question he didn’t understand or a cool news article that he wanted to share. Going forward, Andy hopes that professors maintain use of these platforms while on campus; they are relatively easy to continue and do not detract from the face-to-face experience.
Last but not least, our final highlight is from Declan Coleman ’24, who echoed Andy’s sentiments about professors being very accessible, and added that communication media helped facilitate class discussions outside of class with students and professors both participating. Additionally, he appreciated how well the professors handpicked the appropriate platforms for hosting their courses. Seminar or lecture-based classes, he said, benefited heavily from the use of Sakai—a centralized resource, whereas STEM or assignment-heavy classes benefited from platforms like Gradescope. Having easy access to these materials online, even when it’s not necessary, is a boon to productivity, he said, and allows one to do substantial amounts of work from anywhere.
Throughout my interviews, I was surprised. I thought that people would be raving about one obscure piece of software or the other—how useful it was, how beneficial it was, etc. But notably, none of the people I interviewed (a pretty representative slice of the first-year population—humanities, social sciences, and STEM interests, respectively) pointed to any one piece of tech. Rather, the most impactful tweaks were the smallest ones—good use of Slack, Zoom, or other platforms. This shows that we don’t need to fix what isn’t broken in the transition to in-person learning. We simply need to continue offering appropriate tools and pedagogical strategies needed to succeed.