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Faculty, Students Adjust and Find Benefits in the Virtual Classroom Experience

Professor Joe Isanga admits to being terrifically anxious before switching on his home computer, logging on to Zoom and making last-minute preparations before teaching his first online class.

So many things could go wrong, so many technical factors out of his control could undermine his carefully planned presentation. Would all the students successfully log-on? Would the meaning and substance of his presentation translate to a virtual classroom? Would he feel a connection to his students?

“I was very, very nervous,” said Isanga, who teaches contracts and international law. “I was nervous about almost everything, and even wondered whether the students would complain about the format. But truth be told, I was pleasantly surprised how everything went so well.”

Like so many law schools, universities, and public schools nationwide, Concordia Law closed its campus due to concerns about COVID-19 in late March, three-quarters of the way through the semester. The decision was made to continue instruction online, with professors and students interacting via Zoom conferencing.

For Isanga, who had previously taught online, the key to a smooth transition to the virtual world came down to preparation and sending a clear message to students.

“What I knew was that I had to be professional,” he said. “I put on my suit, wore a necktie and logged on 20 minutes before class began. I started taking attendance 10 minutes before class and made sure to start on time.”

In addition, Isanga, who grew up in Uganda, committed to speaking with a more measured pace to ensure his voice would carry as effectively as it does in the classroom. He added more content to each slide of his PowerPoint. He adjusted the lighting in his home office to ensure a clear, quality stream.

Like his colleagues, Isanga embraced synchronistic style instruction, teaching in a real-time format rather than posting lectures and quizzes online for students to view and digest on their own time.

“I think the ability to interact with students in real-time style helped alleviate some of the concern many of us had about the quality of instruction,” Isanga said. “There is an advantage that this group of students had, however, and that’s the fact we had in-person classes for much of the year.”

Despite the positive impressions and student feedback, Isanga readily admits he prefers teaching the next generation face to face. There is simply too much value in a classroom setting where he can challenge students in person, encourage debate and small group discussions and gage student understanding.

“When I’m teaching, I rarely just stand still at the podium,” he said. “I like to look into the eyes of my students, move around the class and between the rows. Some of those things that make up the in-person dynamic are obviously lost because of the virtual platform. Nevertheless, I think we’ve been able to limit the impact and restrictions of moving to a virtual learning space, and we are learning as we go along with this.”

First-year law student Sheila Kopczynski said the virtual classroom experience has its share of pros and cons. By its technical nature, the Zoom platform limited the lively back-and-forth student exchanges she appreciates in the in-person classroom. At the same time, she said student use of the chat boxes could be unproductive and a distraction at times.

Still, she understands the decision to transition classes to an online format to guard against the spread of Coronavirus and for protecting the health of students, faculty and staff. She also praised professors who made an extra effort to keep all students engaged and were responsive to her effort to connect outside of class.

“Professor Isanga was very cognizant of the potential for folks to wander when they didn’t have their video on,” she said.

For now, Concordia Law plans to return to some form of in-person classes in the fall, and administrators, faculty and staff are all working on guidelines to enable social distancing and protecting the health of the law school community.