Education in the Digital Age: YU Professors Face an Online Learning Curve

By: Channa Buxbaum  |  April 24, 2020

By Channa Buxbaum, Staff Writer

Two months ago, I could never have imagined reminiscing about the simple human experience of sitting in a classroom during my last semester at Yeshiva University. Yet here I am, half-pajamaed and bleary-eyed in my living room, trying to wrap my head around the fact that, technically, I am in class.

I miss the small things most – the pre-class conversation with classmates, the atmosphere of learning, the way I could fully immerse myself in a lecture both as an intellectual pursuit and a bodily experience. Something physical and foundational has been taken from our education, and students and teachers alike are struggling to cope with that loss. 

“It’s difficult to take an entire school and shift from brick-and-mortar classes to going online,” says Dr. Terry DiLorenzo, chair of Stern College’s Psychology Department. “For YU, it was particularly crucial to do that, because one of New York’s first clusters of COVID cases was identified in the Jewish community [in Westchester]. We were hit as an institution earlier on than many other places, which was an added stressor that needed to be dealt with.”

Dr. DiLorenzo describes the frantic rush for YU’s comparatively small administration to address not only online instruction, but housing, food services, continued maintenance and cleaning of dorms, and more. “Many people were sleeping a few hours a night when this was going on. Quite honestly, I have nothing but praise and respect for all who were involved in making the transition happen.”

But while in-person courses were smoothly reorganized into virtual ones by the university, the emotional process of acclimating to the change proved more challenging. Dr. DiLorenzo quickly discovered that the new medium of education meant major changes to the class dynamic. “Teaching on Zoom is multitasking by definition. Going back and forth between slides, lecture, class discussion… it’s been difficult to adjust.”

Along with additional stress of class itself, Dr. DiLorenzo has found herself spending long hours answering student questions, grading additional assignments, changing the course curriculum, and designing new exams which better fit the course’s new online format.

Equally pressing is the awareness of how easily the students’ own stresses and needs could fall through the cracks in an online classroom. “If students are struggling, what can we do as faculty members?” Dr. DiLorenzo shared how important the in-person contact was for teachers – and especially for her as a psychologist – in identifying and addressing students’ subtle requests for support. “But now I’m not seeing that. I can’t see it, I can’t pick up on it.”

That said, the transition to online teaching has had its benefits. “Like any teaching platform, Zoom has its positives and negatives,” remarks Rabbi Gamliel Shmalo, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Stern College. “There is an immediacy created by sharing a screen and being right up in front of the teacher. It can become a more intimate teaching experience – instead of learning Torah under the harsh fluorescent lights of a classroom, it’s something you’re engaging with in your own personal home environment.”

Genuine involvement with the material is critical for Rabbi Shmalo, who has spent the past 14 years developing a curriculum geared toward critical student engagement and organic learning. But while these advantages exist for online educators who were given the time and resources to employ them, the immediacy of the situation left professors with little preparation.

Instead, Rabbi Shmalo has resorted to parsing his lessons down to their most fundamental and compelling elements, and requesting that students leave their webcams on. “I’m constantly reading the room for body language and facial expression – are my students getting it or not? Do I have to repeat the information at a different angle, or am I being redundant?”

Without the assistance of nonverbal cues, however, his interactive approach to pedagogy has been made virtually impossible. “Zoom tends to work more like a broadcast, with the students becoming more like passive participants. It’s not clear to me that they’re getting the same value from my lectures as they were previously.”

He pauses to laugh at himself. “I’m calling them ‘lectures’ now!” Then quietly, adds, “It would be a tragic loss for things not to go back in person.”

At home, over 600 miles away from my beloved university building, I can’t help but agree.