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  • Lauren Johns

The Rise of Online: A Glimpse at The Digital Divide

Updated: Jan 31

By: Lauren Johns

During the pandemic of 2020, online classes were all the rage like a new fashion trend. Teachers found themselves scrambling to make a full transition: overcoming technological challenges and altering their curriculum. The years following became the epitome of waking up from a fever dream, trying to put the pieces of normalcy back together. With most of the pandemic scares at bay, one might believe that classes will eventually return to their roots: a face-to-face format, but that could not be further from the truth.

Despite the Covid-19 scare residing mainly in the rearview, 50 percent of UMSL’s classes remain online, according to Perry Drake, the department chair and associate teaching professor of Marketing. “[Around 2020],we were thrown into that environment, without much time to prepare,” Drake said. “I felt the pain for some faculty that weren't technologically adept, but I will applaud our Online Learning Support Services group here. We had a lot of support in terms of creating online classes.”

Drake states that all faculty members teaching online were required to go through a training program. Nowadays, if faculty choose to continue down the digital path, there is a review mandate.

Emily Goldstein, the director of instructional design outlined what that entailed. “Instructors teaching online courses go through periodic review of their course materials at least once every 5 years,” said Goldstein. “They do this so that faculty are aware of the current trends and technology as it applies to online courses.”

Online classes need to be approved by Missouri Online, before they can become official. The main aspiration being to reduce the digital divide between students and teachers alike. According to the website, “Missouri Online increases access for students in Missouri, the Midwest and across the nation to a four-university network of accredited, highly ranked and outcomes-oriented online educational offerings.”

An important part of this review system is the five pillars, or five main requirements for setting up an online course. This is where the concept of weekly modules comes into play, which most of us should be familiar with even if we don’t worship the prospect of all things virtual.

As described by Marcia Countryman: associate teaching professor of accounting, the pillars are as follows:

  1. Initial student experience: “start here” folder on the modules, which usually includes a welcome video and course requirements.

  2. Interaction and engagement: videos, introductions, discussion boards.

  3. Learning objectives: quizzes, tests, writing assignments. Are they straight forward?

  4. Technology, Student Support and Accessibility: make sure students have access to what they need (ex: PowerPoint, Excel and other programs, good internet, enough storage space on your computer, aka RAM).

  5. Course structure: grading on time, sticking to deadlines.

Keeping all this in mind, various mishaps and issues with inclusivity remain inevitable.

Drake recalls the height of online classes in 2020 and the extra rules and regulations he had to implement. “It took longer to teach certain things, like you didn’t have a whiteboard at your disposal that you could just walk up to. I had to acknowledge the limitations of being stuck in that two dimensional computer space and learn to adapt. I resorted to typing on blank PowerPoint slides and screen sharing them.”

In relation to class policy, Drake required that each student (with the capability to join the live Zoom lectures), would have their cameras on and sign a virtual attendance sheet prior to class starting. He also had a graduate assistant that would monitor any questions that arose, in this way he was free to “ramble” without losing momentum.

Appearance policies, in particular; dress code requirements, were non-existent. “I always told my students, ‘I want your cameras on but I could care less if you combed your hair or you didn't comb your hair,’” Drake said. “Now, I could tell you I've seen some interesting stuff on the cameras before. I probably should have dress code requirements.”

When the concept of a dress code loophole was brought to his attention, (where teachers require you to dress nicely on camera but they can only see your top half), he laughed at the prospect of wearing a suit and tie and then pajama pants or shorts on your lower half.

Post 2020, Drake teaches once a year overseas, which ignites another host of issues regarding class format and cultural differences. “In Finland, the graduate class I teach there (Digital Social Media Strategies), half the students are face to face, half of them are remote themselves,” Drake said. “So you've got UMSL students mixed with German students and Finnish students, and the issues of obtaining a visa.”

Culturally, the students in most European countries are not as advanced with digital and social media aspects, as stated by Drake. “Especially in Germany, where I used to teach, they do not really embrace social media because they're very protective of their personal space and security.”

Despite all of these uncontrollable circumstances, UMSL’s sister school in Finland, has required all Undergraduate classes to be fully in person. “I completely agree with this decision because you come to campus to experience life, not sit in your room watching lectures on a computer screen,” Drake said.

However, the decision regarding class formats is far from black and white. When given two different options for the same class, students might choose the online option as an “easy way out” but there are other perspectives to consider.

Alex Stevenson, a history MA student, prefers online classes so that he can keep up with his job at the St. Louis County Library and not have to worry about transportation, being without a car. To add, Stevenson finds online courses to be better for his mental health.

“I am introverted, so taking an online course helps remove the pressure of having to always interact with people, and I can work at my own pace,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson also encounters a wide array of miscommunications with his in-person professors, equating it to the feeling of speaking through a brick wall.

“[With in person classes], when I need to clarify something with them, I would email them, but I always feel let down when the professor would say something along the lines of ‘you could have asked me this after class’, ‘you’re interpreting it incorrectly’, or just not email me at all. When I do try to clarify with the professor in class, they either answer, ignore the question, or try to get me to email them.”

Furthermore, he enjoys the fact that online classes keep people on the same page. Canvas is more regularly updated, the pressure to take rigorous notes and retain information is lessened due to recorded lectures. Email responses are also more prompt and more detailed.

“I feel more seen and respected in an online course that I do in an in-person course,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson emphasized the reason behind the prompt communication. The professors are fully aware of the limitations of an online course, so they work harder to level the playing field.

For many professors like Drake, there is no substitute for real-life. But getting to know students as individuals is a step in the right direction, via individualized meetings or other means. Stevenson’s struggles don’t need to become repeat offenses through the fault of the professor.

Dan Grossman, the assistant professor of marketing, gets the highest student evaluations of any faculty member in the college of business, according to Drake, because he works tirelessly to humanize his online environments.

“In face-to-face interactions, humans benefit from non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language, which enhance empathy,” Grossman said. “Additionally, the immediacy of real-time feedback (in face-to-face interactions) allows for a deeper understanding. [With online] it is crucial for professors to make a conscious effort to amplify their empathy. It doesn’t take much and can go a long way in humanizing the virtual classroom."

For instance, he allows students to choose which assignments they would like to complete and the medium for that assignment, (video, PowerPoint, paper, etc.). He also allows students to choose how they would like to participate in his classes: commenting directly on lectures, or via discussion board posts.

When it comes to incorporating more individualized instruction in classes, certain accommodations may need to be utilized to create a more seamless experience.

Dr. Countryman requires her Accounting students to take their online tests in a way that simulates a real-life testing environment. For each exam, they are required to test on camera with a working microphone, and take a panoramic view of their environment to make sure only the permitted materials are at their disposal. These materials include: blank scratch paper (which can be turned in for additional points in case of an online typo) and a basic calculator. In lieu of technology failure or lack of a quiet environment, students can take the test in UMSL’s testing center on paper.

“If you’re going to take the test at a library or someplace like that, make sure to check the hours,” Countryman said. “One of my past students started the exam and forgot that the library closed at nine, so she ended up having to finish the test outside on a bench.”

All classes have different ways of setting up their curriculum. Countryman was against having open note tests because she wanted her students to truly know the material, not just memorize basic terms and formulas and then have to Google the rest.

While Countryman wants her students to become productive workers in an accounting firm, Drake has a similar mindset, wanting something that goes beyond the basic written (open notes) exam: getting certified via Hubspot and Google. A certification is more tangible than a letter grade.

All in all, regarding the online versus in person class comparison, there is no better choice. It all depends on the professor and the student, and their mutual understanding of each other.

“Comparing online asynchronous classes to in-person classes is a lot like comparing sculptures to paintings,” Grossman said. “Both could be amazing pieces of art, and both take significant effort to create. Nowadays, I think it's a professor's responsibility to work their hardest to be the best they can be in all mediums of teaching.”


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