Professors, students talk virtual fall classes

Professors can choose whether to hold their classes online, in person or with a hybrid learning model. Reasons for their decisions range from coronavirus concerns to creating a more accessible classroom environment. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan file photo)

As USC begins classes for the Fall 2022 semester, students, professors and administration alike are keeping close eyes on two things: coronavirus case counts and where, physically, their classes are being held — in person, remote or both. 

Professors are taking what they have learned in the past two years of teaching online and applying it to a new era of learning at USC — one where some individual professors have elected to hold classes online or in a hybrid environment as their concerns surrounding coronavirus remain. 

Guilan Siassi, an associate teaching professor of French, is holding her classes this semester in person but has a hybrid option — what she calls “hy-flex” — running during every class. With “hy-flex,” students can join a Zoom call where they can see both a view of the classroom and a view of whatever Siassi is screen-sharing. The classroom camera is equipped with a microphone and speakers so that students participating via “hy-flex” can both hear and speak to the class without feeling bad for not being physically present.

“I don’t want sick students coming to class because they don’t want to miss out on participation,” Siassi said.

Joe Saltzman, a professor of journalism and communication, has taken things one step further: his classes are fully on Zoom. The reason for this is not necessarily coronavirus — but it certainly helps, he said. 

When Saltzman moved his class — “Culture of Journalism: Past, Present and Future” — to an online format during virtual learning last year, he found that the format of teaching online for this particular class worked better than in-person learning. For a large, historical lecture-with-media class such as Saltzman’s, he realized that having students sit in “cramped auditorium seats” for the entire two-plus hour course was “not an effective way of teaching.” In a lecture hall, the professor and the students are far apart and, for those in the back, the screen is too small and far away to clearly see what the professor is presenting. 

“Now online, the student can watch the entire PowerPoint presentation and video on the screen and see it clearly,” Saltzman said. “They can also review that same recording as many times as they wish to find things that they missed the first time, and they can get up and stretch.” 

There are, however, often challenges with Zoom. Siassi, for example, recalled how she lost 20 minutes of class time to a video that refused to play for those on the Zoom, requiring her to disconnect and reconnect the call. 

Saltzman, on another hand, said he is worried about potential disruptions to his online class that are out of his control such as problems with his electricity and Wi-Fi. 

“We just had a blackout this morning here,” he said. “My genuine fear is what if I have a blackout right during my class? How am I going to recover? How am I going to get that time back?”

Unlike Siassi and Saltzman, most professors at USC this semester are teaching entirely in person, with no hybrid — or “hy-flex” — options for students. 

Rachel Newman, a PhD student at USC and assistant lecturer in Thematic Option, teaches  “Writing Seminar I” entirely in-person — with no hybrid option. 

“Last year, [I] had a bunch of tech issues … when I tried to do hybrid — having students in the class and students on Zoom — and it was very stressful for me as an instructor,” Newman said.

As for how they feel USC has handled coming back in person, professors have mixed reviews. 

“One thing I love about USC,” Saltzman said, is that “they’re very transparent.” 

He said he appreciates the daily coronavirus emails which tell him how many coronavirus cases there are on campus, as well as where each person who tested positive has been, especially because, he remarked, this is something the administration could easily not share.

“You don’t have to reveal this kind of stuff to everybody,” Saltzman said. “Prior administrations would not have revealed this. Carol’s administration — I love that part of it.” 

Newman, on another note, said she is nervous that the lack of masking and testing requirements may cause trouble at the University. 

“The problem with not requiring testing is that there could be so many more cases than we’re aware [of]… the only cases we’re gonna find out about are symptomatic cases where someone is actually ill, and as we’ve seen with COVID, a lot of people can have it and be asymptomatic,” Newman said.

Hagit Arieli-Chai, a Hebrew language coordinator and lecturer, noted that “fall [semester] in general has a larger amount of students” and, given the small classrooms around the University, may have liked to see USC implement a hybrid model for at least the beginning of the semester to facilitate a slower transition to in-person learning. 

Students such as William Baharian, a freshman studying applied and computational mathematics, have mixed feelings about the jump to in-person learning this semester. Baharian has most of his classes in person, yet one is temporarily online due to a coronavirus exposure within the group. While he said he hopes that this class will return to in-person learning in the coming week, he said he believes that the class can function online rather well. 

“Zoom,” Baharian said, “it’s not optimal, but you can still have good discussions… and most of the work for the class is already being done on a computer.”

Vaughn Hays, a freshman majoring in applied and computational mathematics, has all of his classes in person, but some include a Zoom option for those who need it. At the moment, Hays is one of those students — he is in quarantine at a hotel.  

Most of Hays’ classes with a Zoom option, however, are rather different from the “hy-flex” classes taught by Siassi. Hays said that he often feels like a spectator of the class.

“I’m not struck with the feeling that there’s good infrastructure to go full virtual for a class that started this year not being full virtual,” he said. 

Students also had mixed reviews as to the University’s return to in-person learning. 

“I think USC as a whole is doing a fairly good job,” Baharian said. He would, however, have liked to have seen a mask mandate in place. “I don’t think [coronavirus cases] can be completely avoided, but we could have mitigated some of the increases.”

Justin Bai, a junior majoring in computer science, doesn’t have “too much of” an issue with returning in person. 

“USC handled [the coronavirus] the same way as every other university has done it,” he said. “To my knowledge, I don’t think there’s any other university that still has indoor mask mandates or weekly testing.” While Bai seconded wanting a mask mandate, specifically indoors, he acknowledged that at this point, “USC is just doing what the majority of people want.”