OSU Professors Face Off with Zoom Screen of Black Boxes

The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped a lot of everyday activities, and schooling was no different. Though Oregon State University regularly boasts a large number of online classes, the switch for many classes to become remote uncovered some interesting problems and new insight.  

Dr. Rorie Solberg, an associate professor at OSU, explains that there was no single change, but many small ones such as teaching from home rather than on campus in a classroom or her office. 

“I had to deliver courses while my children were also at home and dealing with their schooling,” she said. “Notable changes then are hard to decipher as solely due to the change of modality versus the stresses and uncertainty of the virus, the lack of separation between home and work, and the impossible task of balancing work and life when they are merged together in an emergency situation.” 

Flexibility was not the only challenge. Because her classes met over Zoom, students had the option to turn their camera and microphone off. When a student does this, the section of the screen that would normally have a face is instead completely blacked out. Solberg said that most of her students opted for this: “It was incredibly hard to teach to 28-30 black boxes. Even when a ‘black box’ student participated, it was challenging not seeing the student’s facial expressions at the same time.” 

Dr. Christopher Stout, associate professor and e-campus coordinator at OSU, admits that not being able to read body language is difficult, but he has found a silver lining. He said he noticed the chat function allowed students to speak up, even when they were shy, and that the polling system on Zoom was very helpful in this regard.  

“My main concern is not having the face-to-face contact that comes during normal times also makes it harder for students to build connections with each other. This makes it harder to form study groups which generally benefits students,” Stout said. 

Solberg said that disconnect continued in all other aspects of the course.  

“First, there is the distance. It doesn’t matter how interactive you try to make it, you are still separated from the experience, in my opinion,” Solberg said. “Second, many students were attending class from their bedroom or a common space in their home. There are just so many distractions added to the mix. While students could always go online during class and ‘zone-out,’ the temptation to do so at home, I would think, was greater.” 

Evan Davis, a second-year student at OSU said, “The disconnect from my peers has not affected my studies in any way as I have always been a lone wolf in academics. However, the disconnect from my professors has, in my opinion, severely hampered my ability to retain knowledge.”  

Emily Bartles, another second-year at OSU disagreed, saying, “I felt more disconnected from my peers than my professors.” 

Stout said, “Remote teaching is an adequate substitute for teaching in person. However, I don’t think it works as well as being in person. I will learn more about this next quarter when I teach a course which usually requires a lot of hands on supervision.” 

Despite the difficulties, Solberg believed classes functioned as a source of stability for students living in uncertainty and helped alleviate some feelings of isolation. She also saw that with teaching from home, she took a slightly different role.   

“During spring term, we had some construction going on in our house and the kids would need to ask questions about school, so we would be interrupted at times to let in the plumber or something else,she said. “In this way, I think I was modeling what ‘adulting’ might look like for some students.” 

By Hannah Ramsey