Nearly one year since Cornell’s transition to remote learning in March 2020, students have once again braved the upstate winter by donning their coats and masks for the first day of a mostly virtual semester.
Though the number of in-person classes has slightly increased this spring, Zoom seminars are still the most common course modality this semester.
But, some students have already noticed that they are more active and engaged in their virtual classes after coming back from the seven-week-long winter break.
“I could already tell that people were more engaged and willing to participate on Zoom. I think people are maybe more used to it and not as shy to speak out on camera,” said Hannah Beitler ’21.
Beitler said at one point in her class there were 15 hands up, which was a rare occurrence. “I think students are just more familiar with virtual learning now,” she said.
After the first day of class, some professors were both ecstatic and surprised that they did not have to deliver their introductory seminars to an array of faceless names.
“There’s a lot of hope,” said Prof. Sharon Sassler, policy analysis and management. “This time, I saw that a lot of cameras were on, and I saw a lot of faces. So there are 112 people in my class and it looked like there were 70-something cameras on.”
Unlike during the fall semester, snowfall and winter temperatures have created additional challenges for students who enjoy studying or socializing outside on campus as respite from their primarily virtual schedule.
Beitler said she tries to go to campus most days, to sit outside or study in Goldwin Smith to create a sense of schedule. However, snowy paths and “no winter maintenance” signs made Monday’s walk more difficult.
“I can see myself staying home a lot more and having to really force myself to go out,” Beitler said.
Still, students and professors find virtual Cornell far less than ideal, and are concerned that a loss of community in the classroom will lead to students to disengage from course material.
“There was a lack of a community in [my past classes] because, obviously, most of the time people don’t turn on their cameras, and you don’t really know who’s in your class,” said Skye Levy ’21. “I’m sure everyone has those awkward Zoom moments where their professor asks ‘Hey, so what do you think?’ and no one answers — it’s just dead silence.”
Professors like Sassler have also had to make adjustments to the way they teach their classes, sacrificing lecture material with small TA-led group sessions meant to spur student discussion.
“I’m lecturing less, which means that I’m cutting content, which I don’t like,” Sassler said. “I’ve been told that it’s really hard to sit through all of these Zoom classes, so what I’m doing is trying to pare down what’s covered and hope that students read the textbook, and we have regular breakout rooms with TAs in them.”
Still, many students are still enthusiastic about returning to Cornell for the spring, and they see unique benefits to Zoom.
Travis Zhang ’24, who had spent his first semester studying remotely from his home in Arizona, said he is feeling hopeful and excited to see what comes out of Zoom classes.
“Maybe in classrooms they could bring more key speakers or panelists or something — I don’t know, maybe they could get Bill Nye to speak in some chemistry class,” Zhang said.