Navigating Stanford’s digital campus

April 20, 2020, 6:46 p.m.

Two weeks ago, we began an unprecedented, fully virtual spring quarter. Faculty and staff prepared tirelessly over spring break to move course material to a digital platform, while attempting to maintain the integrity and rigor of their courses. Departments changed grading to a Satisfactory/No Credit basis, dropped final exams and divided some longer classes into multiple shorter periods. As the professor of one such class noted, “Research and experience suggest that two hours of online engagement via Zoom is far too much and that attention spans will flag.”

Highly hands-on courses have found more creative ways to adapt. A dance class allows students to upload recordings of their dances or to perform live over Zoom. A geological sciences class mailed all its students chemistry set pieces to build crystal structures so they can engage in an applied project together, even in a virtual setting. Other classes, unable to adapt, have been forced to cancel, like some lab-based chemistry courses.

While our campus is near-empty, campus life has been virtually bustling. Concerts and performances have moved to the digital platform, under the mantra, “the show must go online.” Student groups are meeting online, organizing everything from Netflix watch parties and live yoga sessions on Instagram to multiplayer video games.

I was excited to begin my first day of our spring quarter. It was an opportunity to return to a routine, to restore a sense of normalcy in these abnormal times. I eagerly logged onto my first class on Zoom and watched as classmates’ faces popped on the screen. The number above the “Participants” icon kept rising as more and more students were pouring into the virtual classroom. Students were sprinkled across the world and in different time zones. Some had sunlight falling on their faces, and others had their room lights turned on, their eyes baggy and a mug of coffee accompanying them. Some even had artificial virtual backgrounds — a beach resort, outer space, the pyramids of Egypt. 

As the lecture began, I tried to focus on the professor. But it was easy to get distracted. My eyes slid to the panel view of students at the side: What is Nico baking? Is that a dog that just walked past Dallin’s screen? I exited panel view. But it was harder to exit thoughts of how my face looked while I looked at the lecture slides. Midway through the lecture, my younger brother entered my room, peeked at my screen and started snickering before running off and shutting the door.

We had opportunities to actively engage. A chat box allowed us to pose comments or questions. I virtually raised my hand or clapped. But it all felt so artificial. The flat glowing rectangle of my laptop screen lost the dimensions of the classroom and its dynamism. The screen felt like a glass barrier, prohibiting me from tangibly connecting with the material and with my peers. There are nonverbal cues that occur in a classroom — the eye contact and body language, the buzz in the atmosphere between students when a professor asks a question, as we collectively try to figure out the answer. Now I felt inertia in raising my voice and talking to stamps of pictures on the screen.

Soon, the class was over. The number of participants dwindled down as we each left the meeting. I turned away from my screen and found that I was alone in my room. Overwhelmingly, my first reaction after that class was melancholy. As my classmate, Toni Friedman, aptly noted, “Going from a large zoom chat of dozens of people to being alone in an instant is a bit jarring.” Other students I talked with are struggling with different types of connections — weak or unreliable internet connection or time zone differences. But among the most pervasive concerns I heard is a lack of motivation and organization.

One reason for this is that online, spatial cues get blended. We often associate each space with a designated function. We rest in our bedrooms, read quietly in libraries and attend class in the classroom. These functions are evident not only in the names we give these spaces (i.e. dining hall, shopping mall, playground), but also in the senses they induce in us. We’re tempted to eat when we sit at the kitchen table, but are not appetized to buy the snacks sold in a clothing store. Online learning mixes up such hard-wired habits and cues; there is no physical separation between school and home. Thus, we never fully switch on to the classroom environment, nor do we fully switch off from it. We are in a liminal state, in limbo.

As the “Harvard Business Review Guide to Being More Productive” quotes, “Unless you are careful to maintain boundaries, you may start to feel like you’re always at work and losing a place to come home to.”

Our phones and laptops are also becoming the one-stop shops for everything. Online, we go to class, complete our assignments, check the news, scroll through social media, shop on Amazon and connect with friends and family. We turn away from our laptops after class only to turn to our phones to do something else. And when we step away from it, every ping, every buzz, keeps us running back to our phones as though they are our life lines, when, more likely, they put quality life on the line. At the end of the day, it is not just our laptop batteries that are dying. We too are drained.

Warped into this online world, we also lose our sense of time. It is devastating to look away from the blue screens to notice a black night sky and wonder where the day has gone. Watch a person as they sit behind their device; they are still, hunched over glowing rectangles, their minds in circles, the day is a blend. Hence, as the online realm blends our sense of time and space, it impacts our organization and motivation.

But given this knowledge, we can make small adjustments to recreate the sense of a school environment. We can designate a certain corner of our homes as our classroom space — a space only for logging into and participating in classes. Before lectures, we can get “all dressed up with nowhere to go” because it takes us to a more motivated mental state. We can do brief intervals of exercises between classes, not only to feel re-energized and fit, but also to recreate the sense of moving from class to class, and marking our place in the day. If we usually went to a dining hall after lecture, we can now schedule our meals right after class. As we seek to restore our disrupted routines, we also have the opportunity to incorporate new and healthier habits.

Meanwhile, as we seek to recreate the traditional classroom setting, we can also take advantage of the distinct opportunities provided by the virtual venue. Zoom allows us to take polls instantaneously and record lectures more easily. We can enter break out rooms, meeting with various groups of classmates, without moving from our spot. We can participate more. Shyer students uncomfortable about raising their voices can pose questions in the chat box, and respond to their classmates’ comments without vocally interrupting the professor. As I got organized, and recognized these benefits, the following week of classes turned out to be better than I expected. 

Ultimately, we have no choice but to continuously adjust and adapt our ways of learning, and in the process, learn more about the process of learning itself. In the meantime, we can notice small blessings in our lives and cultivate bigger dreams. When we have hope for the future, we can tolerate any present. 

Contact Maha Al Fahim at mfahim ‘at’

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