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The semester resumes on Zoom

Students and faculty adjust to distance learning

Four students talk to each other via Zoom
Victoria Borges

For Josh Hadley-Goggin (Arch ’16, ’20), proximity is crucial to his training as an architect.

“We are in one big room together for long amounts of time” in the Architecture School, he says. “Someone is always looking over your shoulder to give informative critiques right there and then.”

Like every other UVA student, Hadley-Goggin has had to adjust to learning from a distance. His basement apartment doubles as a makeshift studio. He emails pictures of sketches to his professors, logs into seminars over Zoom and, for one class, will submit a written final report in place of a presentation.

The change is a result of UVA’s transition of more than 4,200 classes online in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Everything from architecture studios to research labs to 500-person economics classes went virtual when classes resumed after a slightly extended spring break. 

Despite the “massive disruption,” as Provost M. Elizabeth Magill (Law ’95) has called it, students and faculty confronted the challenges and made it work. 

“We’re all doing the best we can,” says Politics Department Chair John Owen. “And it’s working out better than I thought it would.”

Nia Dennis (Engr ’22) continues school from home in Prince William County, Virginia, maintaining focus by studying when her family sleeps. She has more worksheets and small assignments than normal, and her tests are open-source but weighted less.

While she can still collaborate with classmates in small groups via Zoom’s breakout-room feature, “it’s definitely not the same as being there together, on the same computer or with a whiteboard,” she says.

Perri Nelson (Col ’22) notes that her history classes on Zoom can feel enough like real class—if her peers keep their cameras on. But she struggles with the recorded lectures. “I’m not … seeing people’s faces and feeling like I need to be accountable to them,” she says.

That loss of interaction is felt on the other side of the screen as well. Owen, who records lectures for his 180 students, has realized how much he relies on cues from them when lecturing.

“I’ve been teaching for a lot of years, so I kind of know when I’m going too fast or being obscure, unintentionally. But I’m not sure unless I have an audience and can look at faces,” he says. 

Owen’s students also attend live discussion sections on Zoom, which are recorded for students whose time zones prevent them from being there live.

“Our directives from [the dean] were: ‘We’re maintaining our high standards, but we have to be flexible and compassionate,’” he says. Students who need financial assistance for technology needs, for example, could receive money through a special assistance program, and schools are encouraging students to speak up if they need accommodations. And the University imposed a default credit/no credit option that allows students to opt in to a letter grade on the last day of classes. 

“We have to assume that every single student is facing now, not just a personal struggle we don’t know about … but now a personal barrier to learning that they would not have experienced otherwise,” says Will Guilford, professor and assistant dean in the Engineering School.

Though he has been surprised by the relatively smooth transition to online, Guilford says he hopes this time just underscores the value of learning together, in person.

“There is something magical about being in the presence of others, and learning together and working together. And especially at a place like UVA, where history and place and context are so vital that we would never want to see that go away.”