A Year of Remote Learning

May 21, 2021
Leta Albrecht, a student in the SSM program, smiles while looking at her webcam, giving a thumbs up. She wears a big pair of over the ear headphones while on a zoom call. Leta Albrecht, a junior in the BBE program, on a zoom call for school.

With a global pandemic creating challenges for in-classroom learning, students in the program had to adjust to a schedule of mostly online classes and limited lab time. 

For undergraduate students Leta Albrecht, a junior BBE major, and Sarah Whiteside, a recent spring 2021 graduate of the SSM major, the virtual setting didn’t take long to adjust to. Both students found positives in their remote routines. For doctoral candidate Vinni Thekkudan Novi, the changes were more challenging, with limited opportunities to conduct research leading her to re-prioritize her workflow. All three students had a shared sense of relief as the spring semester wound down, and a sense of normalcy began to settle on a more open campus. 

“I was actually planning on getting a lot of research done that summer [of 2020]. The pandemic changed all of that,” said Thekkudan Novi. “Instead of worrying about my research, I focused on my coursework. Now I’m done with my coursework.” 

The time away from the lab gave Thekkudan Novi more bandwidth to focus on other aspects to advance her studies at a higher level. “I may not have had enough time to concentrate on my preliminary examination if I had my research and coursework happening all at the same time. I think one good thing that came out of this is that I didn’t have a lot to do on my research front, so I was able to concentrate more on my prelim.”

Thekkudan Novi wasn’t the only one who was able to find a positive from all the changes. “There were some parts of it that I actually ended up enjoying more,” said Albrecht. “Having professors record their lectures and things like that were super helpful for my learning.” The option to review recorded lectures at a later time gave Albrecht flexibility with her schedule, allowing more control of when to focus on her studies. 

“It had its challenges,” said Whiteside, “but I wasn’t completely unequipped to go about it.” She said a large part of the SSM classes are already online. “I knew how to carry my own learning schedule when it was on me to get things done on time, so that familiarity helped me with time management.”

It wasn’t the online setting of classes that was difficult for Albrecht, but the stress from having to stay in her home. “The biggest challenge was separating school life and home life because it’s all in the same space,” she said.

 Vinni Thekkudan Novi wears a maroon and gold Minnesota sweatshirt as she poses with one foot on top of a soccer ball. Vinni Thekkudan Novi, a graduate student in the Bioproducts and Biosystems Science, Engineering and Management program.

All three students felt the strain of being confined to their living quarters. “It’s challenging to sit at home in the same place, especially being an international student,” said Thekkudan Novi, who is from India. “You can't visit your family or get away. That was very challenging.” 

Whiteside agreed, “it’s hard to live, work, sleep, socialize all in the same small square footage of a home or apartment. Looking back, I will say there were stressors—feeling cramped, not comparing it to other years of college that I still loved that were fully non-covid. Butlearning-wise, it actually worked out pretty well. It teaches you a good lesson in self-motivation, time management, and asking questions or asking for help when you need it.”

Albrecht mentioned quite a few professors made an effort to check in and acknowledge that the situation for both students and faculty was challenging. They would say things like, “this is hard for us all,” said Albrecht. The candidness regarding the less than ideal format was helpful to her. 

Whiteside had similar sentiments, “I liked professors who acknowledged the state of the world in class,” she said. “We’d have conversations about how we’re feeling, even if it was a little awkward. I really do appreciate professors who broke down those barriers.”

Thekkudan Novi said it was helpful that the college accommodated her need to be in a lab by allowing graduate students to apply to be considered ‘essential workers’. With this label, she could get access to campus buildings and her lab. “I filled out that form and sent it to the department and they gave me access to the building where I have my lab, so I was still able to do some things.” 

Even with the lab access, she still faced limitations due to COVID restrictions. “I’m planning to extend my PhD by a year,” said Thekkudan Novi. “I wanted to finish early, so extending by a year I feel like is already too long, but I also know that it is practical—I have made peace withit.”

Sarah Whiteside stands on the side of a road at a scenic overlook in Duluth, MN. The trees behind her are bright red and yellow, showing fall colors. Lake Superior is seen beyond the tree line where it connects with the St. Louis River on the border of WISarah Whiteside, a graduating senior from the SSM program, poses for a photo while visiting Duluth, MN in the fall of 2020.

The remote learning environment led to non-traditional friendships developed over Zoom. With frequent breakout study sessions on the video conferencing application, students were face-to-face with each other in a way that likely would not have manifested in real life. “Overall, I have a pretty good impression of [the school year],” said Whiteside. “I still made friends over zoom classes who I have now seen outside of class post-vaccination, which is pretty exciting.” 

When asked what they look forward to most with the vaccine rollout and campus life emerging again, Thekkudan Novi said she is excited to interact with fellow students, visit her parents back in India, and attend conferences and networking events. “You can do it online, but it’s just not the same!” 

Albrecht felt similar, “with my senior year I’ll be really excited to see these people I’ve talked to for a year and half in person.”

The University of Minnesota plans to have faculty and staff return to campus on August 2nd. Fall classes are expected to be back in-person for the 2021-2022 school year.