by Christy Heitger-Ewing
When the pandemic began, RJ Schuster was two weeks away from flying to Poland to study abroad through the 3/2 MBA Field Study Program. What followed in the subsequent weeks was a whirlwind of Zoom Meetings and moving home to quarantine with his parents and siblings after four and a half years of living in Bloomington. Amidst all this change, however, Schuster, MBA Student, Finance & Accounting Major, was given the opportunity to become a Graduate Assistant for Intro to Financial Accounting (A201), and it was a turning point for him.
“I’m an extrovert so I struggled with the isolation the pandemic necessitated. In many ways, teaching was a tremendous relief for my caged extroversion,” says Schuster, who had previously worked as a ski racing coach, mentoring students to help them achieve their goals. “Teaching A201 [allowed me to see] students build their confidence in the material, ask questions and succeed despite obstacles.”
Jeremy Ambrosio, Kelley 3/2 MBA Program/Class of 2021, began the 2020 school year as a Teaching Assistant for the discussion portion of A202 (Introduction to Managerial Accounting). Because everyone needed to follow social distancing guidelines, classrooms had to be big. Ambrosio’s first section had only 16 students in a lecture hall that seats 180. Immediately, he, like all instructors, was met with the challenge of teaching students who are spaced six feet apart.
“Students were unable to easily work in groups, and speaking in front of others in a large room, despite the number of students, can be intimidating,” says Ambrosio. “Still, there’s a certain connection and mutual understanding you can gain by being in person, explain[ing] with gestures and whiteboards. You can clearly see if your students are paying attention or if they’re confused.”
Professor Brian Williams says that the pandemic improved the clarity and precision of his explanations while teaching.
“Teaching virtually is hard, and unless your explanations are clear and concise, students can get lost quite easily,” he says.
Once learning at IU shifted to online, professors and teaching assistants had to familiarize themselves with hosting large Zoom meetings. Since social distancing wasn’t a factor, class sizes could significantly increase. That was a plus. Unfortunately, a negative was students’ ability to focus during Zoom lectures.
Lecturer Shaun Fleener maintains that the pandemic nudged him down a path that was in front of him the whole time, and that’s learning from his colleagues.
“My success the past year had very little to do with my talent or experience. It was from watching countless hours of live and recorded videos of Ashley Sauciuc, Diane Biagioni, and John Waters, all of whom graciously and selflessly shared videos, class materials, ideas, and sacrificed their personal time to help me,” says Fleener, noting that when learning shifted to online, the accounting department formed a united front.
“The pandemic opened the door for me to learn from everyone in the department,” says Fleener. “I can’t tell you how many brain-storming sessions I had with Diane Biagioni, Anita Morgan, Katie Metz, Joe Burke, Bree Josefy, Geoff Sprinkle, and Chris Cook.”
Professor Marcy Shepardson admits that the past year has been exhausting. Not only did the pandemic lead to shifts in administrative roles for many accounting faculty but also shifts in the how and the why of teaching.
“I attempted to maintain rigor in my undergraduate course, but it wasn’t the center of my focus,” says Shepardson. “Instead, my focus was on preparation, flexibility, and compassion.”
Compassion is always an integral part of teaching but perhaps never more so than during a global pandemic.
Fleener astutely points out that the past year taught instructors to see the world through students’ eyes.
“We saw students graduate, both high school and college, with very little fanfare. Many students came to IU without having a senior prom, formal graduation, or a normal introduction to college life,” says Fleener. “We had students break down in Zoom calls [because they were] frustrated with online classes and [missed] having a normal college experience. [They struggled with] a lack of jobs and internships, and just fear, in general.”
Schuster primarily taught freshmen and sophomores whose collegiate experience has almost exclusively occurred during the pandemic. Though these students no doubt showed a great deal of resilience, they spent more than a year yearning for a normal collegiate life.
“Students missed the human interaction that is a staple of the traditional learning environment,” says Schuster, who nevertheless feels honored to have had the privilege of working with students during one of the most challenging times in their academic careers.
“I grew as an instructor by placing a greater emphasis on the student learning process and my role in facilitating it,” says Schuster. For instance, with students spread out across the classroom to meet social distancing requirements and minimized interaction with in-person instructors and their peers, Schuster made his classroom as interactive as possible. He did so by asking questions and iterative problem-solving. The most challenging aspect of teaching online was the content delivery and maintaining engagement throughout discussions.
“Especially in an environment where students can turn their cameras off, it sometimes felt as though I was talking to a computer and not to a discussion room full of students,” says Schuster.
An extroverted, animated instructor, Schuster stirred conversation in the online environment by incorporating activities such as Kahoot! quizzes and having groups of students iteratively solve problems with him in front of the Zoom classroom.
“Through trial-and-error, I created an atmosphere over Zoom where students were empowered to ask questions and embraced the challenges the weekly materials presented,” says Schuster.
Shepardson taught her class in a traditional hybrid format, with students in the classroom on Monday and participating online on Wednesday.
“Teaching in the classroom, socially distanced, in a course that is heavily discussion-based is not optimal,” says Shepardson. “It led me to focus more of our in-person learning on lecture and individual exercises and less on interaction, which is truly what the students were craving from an in-person course.”
To ensure that students were making connections during the pandemic, they worked in breakout groups and had discussions not just about content but about life.
“We did more storytelling and laughing in class,” says Shepardson. “Even silly online scavenger hunts.”
Many instructors reported that student morale was rather high when the university first transitioned to online learning as students were excited to still be in class, albeit virtually. Zoom classes were productive, student feedback was positive and participation was, in some cases, even better online than in-person.
“My students often provided more thorough responses. They wouldn’t just say the final answer but give an explanation as to how they calculated the final answer,” says Ambrosio. “Some went as far as to explain the ‘why’ behind their solution, demonstrating a stronger grasp of the material.”
Not surprisingly, most students didn’t care, however, for pre-recorded lectures since in-person discussions tend to be more conducive to learning. Instructors witnessed a noticeable decline in class attendance and participation in the fall semester as the pandemic took its toll psychologically. The consensus from students was that the most difficult challenge to online learning was being stuck inside all day long.
“Bloomington is a beautiful campus so it was hard not being able to attend classes in person every day,” one student wrote. “To make online classes more bearable, I did them outside. Attending Zoom classes anywhere but in my room was a huge boost to my mood and motivation.”
Others missed the daily interactions with Kelley peers.
One wrote, “I used to really enjoy seeing a bunch of my friends in Hodge Hall every day between classes and studying with them in the SPEA library and the fourth floor of Hodge. Doing most of my classes and studying in my room by myself made me feel lonely.”
At the onset of the pandemic, Schuster worried about meeting with students during office hours due to the physical distancing requirements. However, Zoom enabled him to still meet virtually and develop those positive relationships.
“I may not have been able to shake a hand or show my smile through a mask, but over Zoom, I learned about who my students were outside of A201,” says Schuster. He also learned a thing or two about himself. “I now understand
the amount of care and passion it takes to be a teacher, and it has been both a thrill and a privilege to know that like the educators of my life, I’m now able to make a difference in another student’s learning.”
He wasn’t the only one to experience a shift in perspective. While the past year was both personally and professionally challenging, Fleener admits that it was also a bitter-sweet blessing.
“There are many people, including myself, who lost family members due to the virus. [With] so many unexpected turns, it was difficult to maintain a sense of normal,” says Fleener. “However, the state of constant change, restrictions, and isolation highlighted the irreplaceable, and often taken-for-granted, relationships we have with friends and family. Personally, I will never again take for granted simple handshakes, hugs, or casual conversations.”