What is college like in a COVID-19 world? Hamsters, pajamas, uncertainty … and hope

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — John Hoopes began teaching his first online courses in a most unique way.

With a pet introduction.

Hoopes, a University of Kansas professor for 30 years, started one of his Tuesday sessions by showing off “Sugar” — his purebred Samoyed — while leading a video conference call from his Lawrence basement. Remotely from their bedrooms, kitchens or living rooms, his nearly 20 students followed suit, showing their dogs, cats … and even hamsters.

“The funniest thing,” Hoopes said.

Welcome to the new world of college in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gone are the large lecture halls at universities across the country. Gone are the face-to-face interactions with teachers and peers.

Here instead are video calls, online exams and makeshift work spaces. Most universities have shut down their campuses, replicating in-person class through creative means online.

The college life has been altered in numerous and obvious ways — graduations on hold, spring break trips canceled, dorm life revoked — but one aspect of it marches on.

The education.

‘A much different environment’

The surrounding streets are quiet, hardly even a sign of life, but Nick Sola has returned to his off-campus housing at KU. While many of his peers moved back home after KU shifted its coursework online, a driving force prompted him to choose otherwise.


It’s a defining characteristic of college life, an important tool learned only by practice and one Sola didn’t want to neglect in his sophomore year. So as college professors across the country are getting a peek into the living rooms and hometowns of their students with online video networks, Sola is working out of the same location he did in college: Lawrence.

“It’s a more distracting work environment (at home) in some ways,” said Sola, who is from Olathe. “I wanted to be able to concentrate on my classes.”

Well, the new form of them anyway. Because try as he might, there is nothing normal about his classes anymore.

Some of them operate through networks like Zoom, an online video communication platform, with the teacher providing a real-time lecture to dozens of students through webcams. In others, teachers have prerecorded lectures, allowing students to access them when it best fits their schedule, then take a quiz or write a response paper to ensure they watched.

It’s a work in progress — and how well it works depends on whom you ask.

Brandon Clark, a Washburn sophomore, said the system can’t replace the face-to-face connection with teachers, or even with his peers. It can also be prone to glitches. He points out not everyone has the equipment at home — computers, tablets and the like — to turn virtual education into reality.

Plus, he returns to the point Sola made: independence. Clark moved back home to Olathe, and it’s made for a unique, if not undesirable, study domain.

“Kids are going to become anxious trying to do student work at home when their parents are going to be working from home and their siblings are at home,” Clark said. “When you have everyone in the house at the same time for 30 days, it’s going to be a much different environment. It just is. It’s not as easy to get stuff done.”

It’s a big change.

One of many.

While Clark moved out of his apartment in Topeka, he’s still forced to pay the lease. Moving in a moment’s notice has been a chore. His bed, dresser and other furniture stayed behind.

Sola had wanted to apply for a job, but the pandemic has made finding one difficult. Maybe he will try Amazon, he said.

But through all of the obstacles of a new college life, he and Sola are most concerned with the classwork. They questioned whether they should pay full price for the altered experience of listening to lectures online.

Even more contrasting? The courses that aren’t built around lectures.

Olivia Love is a convergence journalism major at Missouri. Her primary classes require work at KBIA, the NPR affiliate in Columbia, and the Missourian, a local newspaper affiliated with the school’s journalism program.

“The Mizzou method (of being hands-on) is so important to me,” Love said. “I love being in the newsroom. That’s where the main part of my education comes from — on-the-ground reporting. It’s hard to adjust without the face-to-face interaction.”

But she must. KBIA is holding its newsroom meetings virtually. It’s conducting interviews through Zoom. She’s downloaded programs on her computer to continue producing work for the Missourian.

The concept of the courses were all-encompassing. Multi-layered. They’ve shifted with the news. Love sees the lesson in it all. Perhaps there is no better preparation for the world she hopes to enter upon graduation.

She was about to go on-air at KBIA when Missouri announced plans to move classes online. She incorporated the news into her next segment. And even if remotely, she continues to report on the world’s biggest story.

The time in the newsrooms is no more. The educational component, however, remains.

“Our priority right now is journalism,” she said. “We’re going to tell stories. We’re going to do our journalistic duties. They’ve said, ‘Your job is to be a journalist.’ I think that’s great and what we should be doing.”

‘Strange’ new reality … but with some promise?

Ani Kokobobo, associate professor and chair of KU’s department of Slavic languages and literatures, made sure to do her hair before leading her first online class Tuesday.

She still led the discussion from her bedroom. And in her pajamas.

“It was completely strange,” Kokobobo said with a laugh.

But also, she said, a bit cathartic as well.

Kokobobo chose to record lectures for her introduction to Russian culture class, believing it was best to allow students to access that core material at their own convenience.

She did, though, set up a one-hour Zoom video session Tuesday so the group could come together to discuss the week’s topics.

About 13 of her 19 students showed. A few others had problems accessing the call because of technical glitches.

“Honestly, it was really good to see them. I was just happy to see their faces, to hear that they had read and they were engaged, and that they were all OK,” Kokobobo said. “Because, I mean, we don’t know right now. We don’t know where people are, or what their situations are.”

Kokobobo says there are obstacles with this new online class shift, sure. Watching a movie in class she could pull off her Amazon Prime account is no longer an option. She’s experienced some brief Internet outages at home, and says there’s a bit more prep work involved now — with that coming during a time she’s also homeschooling her kindergarten-aged son in the mornings.

She’s not complaining, though, while reiterating it’s the right decision for professors and students to remain away from campus given the risks.

“I’m in my 30s. I’m a millennial. … It has not been a real huge challenge to the extent that I’ve never taught online before,” Kokobobo said. “It was new, but it’s OK. If anything, trying to figure that out is another normal thing that I could be trying to do in my professional life.”

Hoopes, the KU professor of anthropology, wasn’t initially sure what online attendance would be like, given recent circumstances. He’d sent out numerous emails about his classes last week, while receiving just two responses back.

Yet, on Tuesday, he reported about 35 of his 40 students showed up to his two separate Zoom video calls — a better turnout, he said, than he typically gets the day after KU men’s basketball games.

Hoopes also sees some positives with the new experience. In Zoom, students can directly chat with the professor or other students, which he believes leads to greater interaction.

The ability to teach class remotely also could open up the world to professors as well. Hoopes, an archaeologist, says he could envision himself in Costa Rica or Panama or Colombia — conducting more research in his field — while still having the ability to teach his KU class from those locations.

“The potential for that is just amazing,” Hoopes said.

For now, though, Hoopes says he’s just looking forward to his next meeting with students.

He said he experienced a profound phenomenon Tuesday. From the moment he started class to the time it ended, he didn’t think about coronavirus once.

And even though college life has changed in many ways recently, Hoopes has found some comfort in the fact that education has marched on.

“It literally shut out everything except concentrating on teaching. And then as soon as it was done, it was like, ‘Oh man, I’m back in this nightmare again,’” Hoopes said. “But teaching and interacting with students … it transported me away.”


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