FARGO — Somedays, North Dakota State University communications professor Ross Collins said he feels like he is lecturing to an empty classroom as he teaches during the coronavirus pandemic.

And some days, he is.

During an early October advanced media writing class, two of 13 students showed up at the Family Life Center to hear his lecture. The others logged in online.

That’s normal for this year, he said. There are days no one shows up in person.

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“Students are just not coming back to class, and they have some good reasons not to,” Collins said. “It is pretty frustrating trying to teach when you really have nobody in the classroom.”

He’s not the only one who has noticed a decline in attendance for in-person learning as the fall semester has progressed. Professors and administrators in North Dakota and Minnesota said more students are choosing to attend class virtually.

“We’ve got greater numbers going online to attend those classes and diminishing numbers sitting in class,” said Carlos Hawley, an NDSU Spanish professor and former faculty senate president.

When other schools said they would switch to online only, at least temporarily, NDSU and other schools said they would offer a mix of online and in-person education this fall. Students wanted an in-person experience, NDSU President Dean Bresciani said.

However, what a person wants in theory can change in practice, professors said.

“I think some of it is, when they said they wanted an in-person experience, I think what they meant was an in-person college experience, not necessarily an in-person class experience,” said Elizabeth Legerski, a University of North Dakota sociology professor and the school’s university senate faculty chair.

Beena Ajmera, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, teaches a class in Minard Hall at North Dakota State University. She said about half of her students typically show up in person, while the other half tune in online. David Samson / The Forum
Beena Ajmera, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, teaches a class in Minard Hall at North Dakota State University. She said about half of her students typically show up in person, while the other half tune in online. David Samson / The Forum

Behind the move

NDSU uses HyFlex, an education model that allows students to attend class remotely anytime they wish without permission. Students also can attend in person on any day, which means there is no way to track how many are logging on remotely.

Not all classes are seeing a dramatic drop in physical attendance. Beena Ajmera, an NDSU professor of civil and environmental engineering, said about half of her class has consistently shown up at Minard Hall this fall. For labs, 90% of students are in person, she added.

“I’ve actually found that it’s made me be a better instructor in certain ways and it’s made me be creative,” she said of doing online education while also in-person teaching.

At the University of Jamestown, most classes are meeting on campus, Provost Paul Olson said. He attributed that to smaller classes and the ability to follow social distancing guidelines.

As the semester progressed, Valley City State University students have gravitated more toward online classes, said Brenda Tyre, a business professor who serves as the school’s faculty staff president.

Minnesota State University Moorhead Faculty Association President Matthew Craig said he didn’t have hard numbers, but classroom attendance appears to be down.

Beena Ajmera, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, teaches a class in Minard Hall at North Dakota State University. David Samson / The Forum
Beena Ajmera, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, teaches a class in Minard Hall at North Dakota State University. David Samson / The Forum

“I think some students are feeling their way through it,” the physics and astronomy professor said.

Students who wanted to be in class may not have felt comfortable once they sat down in a classroom, Craig said. Others noted they have every class but one online, so it was easier to make the switch, he said.

With more professors teaching remotely, students may find the experience of being in a classroom isn’t the same when a professor is lecturing from home, Hawley said.

There is also convenience, professors said.

“It is so much easier for me to roll out of bed, have breakfast and shuffle over to my computer than it is to drive to my office or walk into the office,” Craig said. “I’m sure students are the same way. If you can get to class by just opening your laptop, then it’s hard to argue against that.”

Learning online is more convenient, but what is lost is comradery, Collins said. There is less of a chance of building the relationships students would if they were on campus and in classrooms doing work together, he noted.

He sometimes wonders if people on the other end are listening.

“You try to have discussions, but they don’t respond very much,” he said. “They log on, but no one really turns on their video. So you really have no idea whether they’re there or rather they just decided to log on and go back to bed.”

North Dakota State University. Forum file photo
North Dakota State University. Forum file photo

Fear of burnout

Teaching during a pandemic requires flexibility, which demands a lot of work, Legerski said, but knowing that other professors are facing the same challenges is reassuring.

Before the start of the semester, half of her students volunteered to take her courses online, she said.

That number fell throughout the semester, she said.

“It felt so silly to just be talking to two students in the class where I had 15 online,” she said.

Students don’t have to give a reason why they want to learn online, but several told Legerski they feared they may catch the virus and infect others, especially if loved ones are more vulnerable, she said. They also didn’t want to accidentally pass it on to their fellow students, she added.

She and others have brought up concerns about faculty burnout. This year, some professors have to sometimes prepare three lessons: in-person, synchronous — live, online classes — and asynchronous, or not in conjunction with a live class.

The added load of online classes, especially for larger classes, can be overwhelming, Legerski said.

“I think people are exhausted,” Hawley said.

Typically, professors often have to conduct research alongside teaching. In-person studies had to be put on hold due to the pandemic, Legerski said.

“Research productivity is really taking a hit,” she said. “It’s been really hard to keep research going.”

Faculty at UND are worried about whether the limits to conducting research will affect promotions, Legerski said.

NDSU professors have been allowed to put off research if needed, Provost Margaret Fitzgerald said.

In meeting regularly with faculty, Fitzgerald said she has encouraged professors to focus on things they have to get done and “let some of the other things go.”

“We can’t do everything right now, and we can’t do it in the way we have traditionally done,” she said.

UND’s provost office said departments should take into consideration the impact of COVID-19 when doing evaluations, Legerski added.

“I think that that’s genuine,” she said. “I hope that that’s the case, but that still doesn’t prevent people from worrying about that.”

Beena Ajmera, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, teaches a class in Minard Hall at North Dakota State University. David Samson / The Forum
Beena Ajmera, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, teaches a class in Minard Hall at North Dakota State University. David Samson / The Forum

‘Adjusting far better than I’

Having the option for online and in-person class is important, NDSU Student President Matthew Friedmann said. He said he and others wanted an in-person experience, but some have become comfortable with virtual classes.

Half of his classes are online, he added.

“I think there has been this really great attitude between professors and students that we are all in this together,” Friedmann said.

Hawley, who teaches online only, said his students seem to be adjusting fairly well to the change.

“They seem to be well-prepared,” he said. “They seem to get everything in on time. Of course, they grew with the technology, so they may be adjusting far better than I.”

There was one message professors and administrators repeated when asked what they want people to realize about teaching during a pandemic: While it is problematic, everyone is doing the best they can to provide a quality education with compassion.

“I think higher education is going to come out differently after the pandemic,” Ajmera said, adding future students and professors will be better equipped because of the experiences and lessons observed during the pandemic. “I don’t think we are going to return back to the normal as we knew it.”