Online class trial creates confusion

Students are left with questions following USC’s decision to temporarily shift classes online for three days this week as it continues to evaluate its preparedness for the spread of coronavirus.

Friday’s community-wide email stated that all faculty will use Blackboard and Zoom to conduct classes Wednesday through Friday; however, some departments, faculty and teaching assistants have said they will still hold classes in person. This move has led to confusion among students, who said they have been frustrated by inconsistent communication and conflicting information about their classes following the email.  

While most lectures and seminars will meet through Zoom, multiple discussion-, performance- and lab-based classes will continue to meet in person during the three-day trial period, raising questions among students about these programs’ continuity plans should the University suspend classes in the future.

Samantha Ruzon, a sophomore majoring in theatre and political science, said most of her classes did not classify as lecture or seminar courses and would continue to meet in person Wednesday through Friday. Ruzon said she hadn’t received information from some of her professors and did not know what to expect. 

“I have a midterm in one of them and a performance [in] the other,” Ruzon said. “I want to know what to prepare for. If I’m going to have to take a midterm online, that makes my life a whole lot easier, but if I have to go to that class on Wednesday, I need to have my performance ready.”

The School of Cinematic Arts sent an email to production students Sunday, notifying them that courses not categorized as lectures and seminars will continue as normal. Students in “Organic Chemistry” were told laboratory sections and office hours would proceed in-person as normal during the three-day Zoom trial, with the same attendance policy the department normally enforces.

According to the letter sent to the USC community Friday, classes will resume in person as normal when students return from spring break March 23. The three-day trial period will be used to gather feedback on the platform’s feasibility in the case that the school were to use Zoom as a long-term solution due to an increase of coronavirus cases in the surrounding area. 

The University of Washington and Stanford University officially shifted all classes online on Friday after a rise in coronavirus cases in the area.

“As the COVID-19 (coronavirus) situation evolves, your safety and wellbeing are our main priority,” the letter read. “As a result, we continue to take precautionary measures to ensure that we are prepared for any potential disruptions to teaching and learning at USC.”

Zoom, the video conference service that will be used for the trial, links to Blackboard, allowing professors to deliver lectures virtually. The University currently uses Zoom for several online graduate degree programs, including some classes in the Rossier School of Education, the Sol Price School of Public Policy and the Davis School of Gerontology.

In a Friday interview with the Daily Trojan, Provost Charles Zukoski said USC will continue to monitor whether it will need to shift classes online in the long term. The final decision would be made depending on advice from health officials. 

“We have a policy following public health and [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] rulings,” Zukoski said. “It’s business as normal until that time, but we [will] continuously assess the situation … and look at all of the information that is coming in. The exact triggers will depend on exactly the situation … It isn’t a very explicit answer, but that’s because the situation is so fluid. We’re all learning as we go through.”

Some classes experimented with Zoom prior to this week. A pilot plan, led by the Committee on Information Services, had certain faculty members test out the program in February as part of Disaster Recovery Teaching Virtual Pilot Class, a program meant to evaluate alternative classroom teaching methods to use in disaster situations.

The program was established in Fall 2019 and has been primarily used for earthquake preparation, Chief Information Officer Douglas Shook said in an email to the Daily Trojan. Faculty were able to participate in the pilot on an opt-in basis. 

Karen Mendoza, a sophomore majoring in business administration, said her Marshall School of Business class participated in the pilot last week. 

“Two weeks ago, our professor had us test the [Disaster Recovery Teaching Virtual Pilot Class] because she told us that there was a possibility that [classes were to move online], so when I saw the email, I was not surprised,” Mendoza said. 

Alexis Garcia, a sophomore majoring in physics, said his physics professor was confused about the trial period and how it would affect labs and exams, especially in the case that online courses were to continue after spring break.

“From what I’ve heard told so far, most of the professors haven’t been told many details, and they’re not sure how exams will work, so I’m not sure if it could have a negative effect,” Garcia said. “For example, my physics class has a lab component, and I’m not sure what would happen if [classes moved online] permanently.”

While Mendoza said the risk coronavirus poses for students may not be urgent, she believes it is important to consider how coronavirus could affect others in the USC community, including older professors and employees. The disease is known to have more dire consequences for the elderly and those with impaired immune systems.

“If [coronavirus] hits younger people, they can recover, but if it hits older populations, they’re at greater risk,” Mendoza said. “A lot of the faculty wanted to do online [classes] since they were worried about their health, so keeping that in mind, I think that it’s a good measure.” 

She also said that although her professor had introduced the idea of transitioning to online classes, she hadn’t expected the implementation of the University-wide Zoom trial.  

“I didn’t expect it to happen soon,” Mendoza said. “I know that [the professor] mentioned it but it was almost like a suggestion. I didn’t think it actually would happen. I thought she was exaggerating it at the time.”

Ruzon, who is mainly taking theater and dance classes this semester, said she was unsure of what would happen if all courses are moved online permanently. Because her schedule comprises mostly performance-based classes, she was concerned they might be canceled for the remainder of the semester.

“That would be bad, especially for someone like me who is very tight on units,” Ruzon said. “I don’t want to have to stay here longer than four years since I can’t afford that.”

Mendoza, who plans to return to her hometown in Colorado if the University decides to shift classes fully online at any point, said she wished USC was more transparent on alternatives for future events like commencement but said she understood that making firm plans for cancellations might lead to premature upset. The University has yet to address how it will manage large campus events in the case of a shutdown.

“I think they should definitely let students know how [the University] is taking on graduation … being more transparent on that,” Mendoza said. “But I also understand that it’s too soon to tell … if they officially made an announcement, I think it would cause a lot of worry and anxiety.” 

As of now, classes will resume in person as normal when students return from spring break March 23. However, USC will continue to evaluate the spread of coronavirus over the next weeks. 

“This is an evolving situation and we are continually monitoring all possibilities,” Zukoski said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “It’s hard to predict how this will go after Spring Recess. The safety and wellbeing of our students, faculty, and staff are our main priorities.”