Hamline News

The Virtual Classroom


On the list of events with the power to fundamentally disrupt higher education as we know it, “global pandemic” wasn’t on most people’s radars as 2020 began. And yet, that was the reality that professors, students, staff and community members faced in mid-March, when COVID-19 forced Hamline to shift learning online, from business classes to cello lessons. 

Faculty took on the Herculean task of bringing as much of Hamline’s on-campus environment as possible into students’ homes — virtually. Looking back on the semester, several faculty remarked on a feeling of loss in not being able to see their students face-to-face. Yet in the midst of the challenges, many faculty members also found something: a new appreciation for the human connection of the classroom, a new opportunity to contextualize course material and a renewed sense of the liberal arts’ responsiveness to change.

Challenges and Opportunities

The advent of virtual classes brought both challenges and opportunities for students and faculty. Technology enabled classes to remain connected, but some courses just aren’t meant to be online. Music ensembles, for example, couldn’t rehearse together, so instructors turned to assigning more individual practice and video performances to watch. Individual lessons went on in the form of video calls, which Dr. Yali You, music department chair, said earned positive feedback from students.

“You can still see how a student is doing in terms of posture, intonation and rhythm,” said You. “Overall, it’s very impressive, and we’ve dealt with this challenge head-on.”
Even before Hamline officially announced plans to shift classes online, the music department and others were already anticipating the shift and developing their own plans. For the music department, that meant supplying students with the instruments they’d need before leaving campus. For others, the process was a collaboration with students to define what kind of experience they wanted for the rest of the semester.
Some classes, like Jim Scheibel’s civic engagement course, opted to continue meeting virtually at their regularly scheduled times, maintaining some sense of structure amidst widespread uncertainty.

“It was good to see how much the students still wanted this to be a learning experience, to continue what they’d started at the beginning of the semester. I really applaud that,” said Scheibel, professor of practice and former mayor of St. Paul.

Scheibel also took advantage of the online format to invite guests who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to organize a campus visit, including the author of one of the course texts. And when it came to online discussions, Hamline’s small class sizes were an advantage: The class had 14 students, making video-based discussions easier.

Teaching in a Time of Crisis 

Beyond educational duties, the need to support students emotionally isn’t new to faculty. But the pandemic brought this concept to the forefront of teaching: Suddenly, students and instructors got a window into the other’s personal lives through a video screen. For some, the transition to online learning highlighted the fact that students are often also caretakers, essential workers and providers, and they have other roles that can interfere with learning when classroom and home occupy the same space. Combine that with unreliable internet and a lack of quiet study spaces in many homes, and coursework becomes far more difficult than it would be for a student studying in the library or a dorm.

“It gave me an appreciation for the lives of our students that I want to carry forward in my spirit as a teacher,” said Stacie Bosley, associate professor in the School of Business. “It really helped me understand their perspective so much better.”
It was these busy students who David Davies ’91, professor of anthropology, saw taking initiative in his classes in a new way.

For some, the virtual classroom offered opportunities to speak up and contribute to discussions that were a challenge in a physical classroom. Students already accustomed to juggling classes, multiple jobs and other responsibilities stepped in to help out peers struggling to adjust to the new class setting. That prompted Davies to reconsider how he might encourage similar behavior in future in-person classes.

“I have been so impressed with the way that the unexpected has compelled some to act. Students I barely knew have demonstrated tremendous resilience and have held things together for classmates who were caught off guard by such a state-shift,” Davies wrote in a blog post reflecting on the experience.

Without the ability to catch up with students in person, faculty held virtual office hours and reached out to individual students to check in on course material and offer both academic and personal support.

“People’s mental health was a tough thing to teach through. How do I stay conscious? How can I be supportive during a time of crisis? I tried to send a personal email to every student, to at least open the door to hearing what people are feeling,” said Scheibel.

Anthropology in the Real World

For Davies, this wasn’t his first time teaching online courses. But while the technical side of things presented few issues, it was certainly the first time he’d taught in the midst of a pandemic.

In Davies’ visual anthropology class, students had planned to collaborate with neighbors in the Hamline-Midway area to film short documentaries about their daily lives and relationship to the larger community. When it was no longer feasible for students to film in people’s homes, the class decided to adapt.

Students interviewed neighbors using smartphones, Zoom or other video methods, and worked with interviewees to gather extra video. By the end of the semester, students had finished a 45-minute collaborative documentary exploring the daily lives of ordinary people in a lockdown.

“The thing that was fascinating is that everyone else was doing this in the work world,” said Davies. “We decided as a class to solve that problem, and it became a way to actualize and operationalize our education.”

Student Experience

Alex Aguirre ’20 had a memorable senior year at Hamline, but not in the way he expected. The disruption began in January as he boarded a “nerve-racking” flight home to the United States from a study abroad trip in Cambodia.

At the time, he didn’t expect the virus to affect him back in Minnesota. A few short months later, Aguirre found himself finishing his Hamline education from a small apartment. It was a difficult transition, even for a former commuter student. He missed out on the hands-on lab work required for his human evolution course, which made do with videos and online learning modules. He and his peers also struggled with the lack of structure as some classes stopped meeting at regular times.

It was classes that continued to gather virtually, like Davies’ visual anthropology class, that brought a balance of accountability between classmates and professors to the semester.

“Synchronous classes provided a sense of structure and time throughout the semester because for me, and from what I heard from other students as well, the transition to online classes has caused a feeling of losing track of time. This way I think it can also be helpful for professors to better manage the workload that’s distributed to their students by adjusting and making changes to their syllabi as they normally would in person,” said Aguirre, who majored in anthropology.

Students like Aguirre also had to navigate the extra workload brought on by online classes, along with previous responsibilities like extracurriculars. As president of FUSION, Hamline’s multiracial and transracial adoptee student association, Aguirre had to learn to manage a club’s budget and activities without on-campus meetings.

“I’ve definitely learned how to use specific tools online, whether it be hosting online meetings or working through online meetings, and also working throughout the digital workspace with other people, which I could see myself potentially using in the future,” said Aguirre.

In a time when students needed each other more than ever, the sudden loss of community was especially striking to Emily Smith ’21, a communications major and nonprofit management minor. Along with the other range of changes brought on by the pandemic, Smith and her classmates had to cope with the loss of so much of their campus lives, like in-person piano lessons, face-to-face class discussions and impromptu games in Anderson Center — in other words, the things students sign up for as part of the undergraduate experience.

As a resident assistant, Smith considers herself fortunate to have been able to stay on campus around some friends.

“The mental health aspect of this was a challenge,” said Smith. “I did my part, but it was definitely challenging to learn under this environment.”

She missed the immediacy of seeing students nod in agreement or verbally respond when she spoke up in a class discussion, and she missed the sense of structure that a set class schedule brings. She’s grateful, she said, for professors who showed understanding and compassion throughout by granting extended deadlines or simply being available to listen, if needed.

“The Hamline community rallied together to be like, ‘We’re here for you. We’re ready to support you,’” said Smith. “Overall, I would not sign up for this, but I think we did a good job with what we were given.”

‘Good Things Happen in a Bad Situation’ 

In some ways, the semester’s forced transition to an online environment highlighted the benefits of virtual learning that can be applied even after in-person instruction resumes. Conferences that would have previously required a plane ticket became accessible to broader audiences who couldn’t have participated otherwise, for example.

“How do we think about how we’ve adapted, and how do we maintain better access to opportunities and information in a world where we realize we can do some of these things remotely?” asked Bosley.

Despite successes in online learning, many professors likely agree with how Davies summed it up: “I really want to see my students in class.”

He gave his senior anthropology students the choice of a virtual graduation celebration or an in-person gathering with appropriate social distancing. Every single one said they’d rather stand 6 feet apart, with masks, than see one another over a screen. It’s this sense of connection that drove faculty’s response to the pandemic. After all, said Davies, small liberal arts universities like Hamline attract learners who value that close connection between professor and student.

“Our students stay at Hamline because they know their faculty and staff care about them. Faculty put the classes online in two weeks. They did that because they cared, and from that care, you get innovation. From that care, these good things happen in a bad situation.”

From the Faculty

“I tried to help students stay engaged by keeping our group dynamic intellectually vibrant — this was a group effort, because this was a great group of students who brought a lot to our discussions. …Every single semester has helped me to learn and grow as a teacher, has changed how I conduct future classes, so this one shouldn’t be any different on that score! Being entirely online for so much of the semester has given me some things to think about in terms of making sure that every student feels connected to the group and the material. I look forward to next semester!” – Susie Steinbach, professor of history

“I have a fundamental belief that meaning must be self-generated — no one can give it to me or make someone else feel it. That said, we can create conditions where it is more likely students will experience a sense of meaning. I did this by repeatedly reminding students of the class learning objectives and showing how each reading or video we reviewed, and each assignment I had them complete, was directly tied to a learning objective that would help them be better managers one day. Some students told me this worked well for them — so they experienced meaning from the class.” – Peggy Andrews, senior lecturer in management

“As the project [on COVID-19’s impact on local social media] went on, it was fascinating to watch how students were willing to learn the original learning outcomes of the course (how to scrape web pages, for example) because of the meaning the project held for them.” –Andy Rundquist, professor of physics, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts

Written by Anne Kopas