Joan Bevelaqua, an adjunct professor of studio art at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland will begin holding design classes online for the first time in her two decades of teaching at the school on March 30. The transition poses big challenges for her and her students.
Like professors at hundreds at college campuses across the country that closed overnight to curb the spread of coronavirus, Bevelaqua says she feels like she hasn’t received sufficient training or resources to switch to a virtual classroom. The college provided her with access to a free Zoom account and a few other tools, but not nearly enough training to feel confident teaching art classes online, which could make it difficult for students to stay on track to complete their degrees.
“We’re being thrown into uncharted territory,” Bevelaqua told Motherboard. “My school held a few all day workshops where we were trained to teach our classes online, but it was way too much information to absorb in that short period of time. We’re going to be spending hours and hours reframing our classes to be online without getting paid for it. The school told us not to do too much to prepare, but I can’t imagine not doing too much when I already don’t know what I’m doing.”
Adjuncts and other non-tenure track faculty, who make up 80 percent of faculty at community colleges (and nearly three quarters of faculty at all colleges and universities) around the country will be hit the worst during the pandemic. Many earn poverty wages (some make $1,000 per course), and do not receive benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave, leaving them defenseless if they get sick during the pandemic. To add insult to injury, most of the adjuncts Motherboard spoke said they will not receive compensation for time spent readjusting and training to teach classes online. Meanwhile, some students and professors may not have access to necessary technology at home. Readying students and teachers for the virtual classroom is a process that usually takes colleges months to prepare for.
One adjunct French professor at City University of New York (CUNY), who wished to remain anonymous because she feared retaliation from the university, told Motherboard she did not have internet in her apartment when she learned about the switch to online classes. “It was scary and terrible. I was like ‘what am I going to do?’” she said.
Since then she purchased a WiFi hotspot at Best Buy, but says she wishes she had more training to teach online. “I attended two online training sessions at my school that had over 60 people, and had to sit through four hours to get a single question answered. I needed much more instruction, but there wasn’t any way to get it.”
“This is going to be a real transition for many of my students,” Teresa Greene, an adjunct psychology professor at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida told Motherboard. Greene says many of her students are low-income and first generation seeking two-year degrees. “One concern is for students that don’t have access to a computer, because they can’t go to the library now. My other concern is that this does take a bit of self-regulation to take responsibility for their learning and our students might not be able to do that right now. Adjuncts are really trying to allay student fears while processing our own.”
A recent study found that roughly one in five college students has trouble accessing basic technology, including caps on data and shoddy internet access. Those students are disproportionately low-income students of color. Adding to the stress of already vulnerable teachers, the impact of the transition to online education for the most vulnerable college students could be increased dropout rates. Research shows that already marginalized students have the most difficult time adjusting to online learning.
Some internet providers, including Comcast, Spectrum, and Altice, have committed to providing free high-speed internet access to college students during the coronavirus pandemic, but it's still an open question as to whether students are actually going to be able to get connected in time for classes to restart.
“I have something like a 6 percent response rate from students so far,” Geoff Klock, a tenured English professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College, told Motherboard in an email. “They are having the normal reactions to something like this (sadness, fear) but they are not trained well in like how to be a good student and switching online is going to be tough for them—in terms of gumption, computer access, and other priorities such as work or taking care of siblings while parents work.
“I expect it is going to be a mess,” Klock continued. “My college already has something like an 18 percent graduation rate—my worry is that students are going to be frustrated, give up, and never come back.”
For older, undocumented, and low income students, the transition could derail the learning process entirely. Amanda Price, a part-time English instructor for foreign language speakers at community colleges in the East Bay in California, teaches all three types of students. Price told Motherboard that the majority of her students tend to be older immigrants from East Asia and Central America, many of whom are undocumented, and do not have access to wifi or technology that is required for online instruction.
“My students do not have cell phones or data plans or computers, and we’re not being paid to accommodate them for that,” said Price. “For them to move online technology is not really an option.”