A Day in the Life of a Remote Undergraduate Student: Fall 2020

Beth Seltzer envisions how the term may unfold for a student who remains off campus in September.

June 24, 2020
 
istock.com/Ridofranz

You give your hands a quick spritz with hand sanitizer as you start your walk home from the community food bank. You volunteer there two days a week, part of your Civic Engagement class.

Another online semester. You were dead set against it, but there are parts of it that feel meaningful. It feels good to be volunteering in your own community. Pretty much everyone’s taken the option to do a civic engagement experience this year, working on authentic projects that respond to COVID through research, art, science, writing.

Your phone buzzes, and you hop on to the class conference call as you walk. There are eight of you, all levels, all majors, all interested in combating food insecurity in your communities. You’ve never met any of them in person, but you feel close to all of them. After a few minutes of students swapping stories and recipes, the professor hops on the call.

A View From the Other Side
Envisioning a day in the life
of a remote instructor this
fall. Read the companion
article here
.

“Sorry I’m late; the baby would not go down for his nap,” the professor says. You like hearing about your professor’s family -- it makes him seem more accessible. “Now, I asked you to think about the Holban reading while volunteering today. What did you notice?”

The phone call wraps up as you get back home. It’s time for your next class. You open your laptop and log in to your classroom management system. When you heard class was going online again in the fall, you were dreading more three-hour Zoom sessions with glitchy internet. But this semester, your instructors have been trying new things. More of the work is asynchronous, so you’ve had less trouble with internet speeds and time zones. And you spend less time watching lectures and more time chatting online with your class, working through projects, building and writing and doing.

Today, you watch a 10-minute introductory video the instructor posted. It’s not very high quality, but it’s pretty informative and funny, actually. Then you hop on to the classroom live annotation document. You see a few other cursors moving around the doc as you do your last-minute review of everyone’s comments since the last discussion. It’s a bit overwhelming, but as a student who often feels a little bit uncomfortable speaking up in class, you appreciate that you get to make your points without having to break into the conversation.

Now, it’s time for the live video call. You usually put your camera on, but today you don’t bother -- your room is a mess, and your instructor respects your privacy. She pulls up a few slides.

“You can download these in the learning management system and just phone into the meeting if you’re having trouble with the video,” says the instructor. “I noticed three big debates emerging in the annotation assignment. I’m going to put you into three groups, and you’ll have 10 minutes to come to a consensus around the issue.”

She spends 10 minutes framing the activity, you spend 10 minutes talking with your group and then you spend 10 minutes chatting with the whole class and hearing about the homework assignment. Thirty minutes and you didn’t feel bored once.

You check your calendar -- it’s harder to keep track of what’s due when online, and you missed a few deadlines until you got better at writing everything down. You see you’ve got a discussion board post due at 5 p.m. You’ve been doing a lot more writing and reading in discussion boards this semester, and you’re not always a fan -- but it was helpful to have all that writing done when you wrote your first essay of the semester.

You have a break now, for dinner and family time. You have some friends who were able to go back to socially distanced campuses, but the majority of other students you know are still at home, like you are. Your best friend, who doesn’t have a great family situation, is one of those back on campus. You’re a little jealous, but mostly you’re grateful that she had a place to go back to -- she needed the spot in on-campus housing a lot more than you did.

For you, it’s not all bad, being home. You and your parents definitely get on each other’s nerves more than you used to, but you like being able to help your little sister with her homework after dinner, and you feel like you’re getting to know her more as a person.

After dinner, you’ve got a virtual party. Social life happens, even in a plague year. You laugh as your friend’s unicorn avatar starts glitching and eventually dissolves in a shower of pixels. You’re not in the Oasis here -- this is a very bad 3-D web hangout built by a bunch of undergrad students -- but you still have a good time.

The university has been really encouraging students to take the lead on building presence on campus, offering college credit and even seed funding. Over the last few months, you’ve been to student-planned social events in VR, in Minecraft, in text-based apps. You’ve gone to your friend’s weird digital theater experiences and to arcade game nights. It’s all experimental and imperfect, but some of what emerges is actually pretty fun.

Right before you go to sleep, you check the text thread from your RA. “Everybody doing OK? Anyone need to talk?” You thought it was weird to still have an RA when you’re not living in the dorms, but you’ve come to really appreciate the text chains.

Someone on your floor is upset -- a family member is sick. You send a string of hearts. It doesn’t feel like enough, but then more messages come in, messages of love and support from others on your floor. “I know I’ve said this before, but just in case anyone needs to hear it, the campus counseling center is still doing digital appointments, and they’ve been super helpful for me -- here’s the link,” writes the RA. “And we’ve got other students and alumni in your city who have volunteered to be resources; keep us posted, we can help.”

Rough times can also strengthen a community. You know it's not perfect -- it's not what you wanted -- but you still feel like you’re in college.

Bio

Beth Seltzer is an academic technology specialist at Stanford University.

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