Students find a silver lining with hybrid classrooms, virtual instruction

While Zoom learning lets some students prioritize mental and physical health, USC’s inconsistent guidelines have caused confusion for others.

A USC student studies.

After more than a year of virtual learning, USC returned to campus to kick off the 2021-2022 academic year. Residential halls are full of students and Trousdale Parkway is once more packed with skateboarders, bicyclists and pedestrians alike. For fall courses, most students have returned to the classroom, but the flexibility for virtual learning remains in place — a unique feature of the university’s return.

But according to students, professors’ attitudes toward virtual learning and rules for the classroom vary widely when it comes to hybrid learning options.

Some professors choose to use Zoom alongside their in-person courses to allow flexibility for students who have tested positive for COVID-19 or who feel sick but still want to attend lectures online. Other instructors allow students to use Zoom for flexibility in other circumstances. While this flexibility is seen by some as a benefit, the inconsistent policy across campus is confusing to others.

Willa Seidenberg, professor of professional practice in journalism, says Zoom is a “game-changer” for her and her students. She allows students to Zoom into class for reasons beyond COVID-19, including other health-related and personal matters.

“I have to just trust that students are doing it for the right reasons,” Seidenberg said. “And if they’re not, that’s on them. This is not elementary school, this is college, in a lot of ways students are kind of responsible for their own education.”

For students with busy schedules, prioritizing mental health and personal complications is sometimes more urgent than a discussion or lecture. These students believe that their education is important, however, when other priorities get in the way, having virtual options is beneficial.

“Sometimes going in person is difficult, you don’t really know people’s situations,” said Premlatha Premkumar, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering. “They could have family members to take care of, career-related opportunities or obligations or just general or mental well-being concerns.”

While some students believe professors should be respectful of students’ personal circumstances and allow them to attend class via Zoom, no questions asked, others believe that they are taking advantage of flexible remote learning options provided by professors.

“Students shouldn’t be able to Zoom in because they just didn’t feel like coming to class that day,” said Henry Baez, a freshman majoring in international relations.

Despite about a year and a half of online classes, USC has yet to publish any university-wide policies regarding virtual learning policies.

“Your health and safety is our number one concern,” said the Office of the Provost in an email sent on Aug. 20 to students. “Faculty have been asked to practice flexibility for any health-related absences this year. Students who are following university protocols can request lecture notes, recordings of lectures (if available), and work with professors to continue their academic progress should they feel unwell or need to isolate.”

For some programs, like performing arts majors, not all classes can offer virtual options because of the class structure and requirements.

Savannah Watson’s classes are all held in person with a Zoom option strictly for students who are sick. Watson, a sophomore majoring in music, said that virtual learning is difficult for her program and disadvantages students.

“A lot of what we’re doing is collaborative and being in rehearsals together, which is something that’s just not possible to do over Zoom because of lag and other technical difficulties,” Watson said. “So I understand professors being more strict in these cases, because you actually can’t accomplish the coursework over Zoom.”

Watson said that performance-based classes, such as those within the USC Thornton School of Music or the USC School of Dramatic Arts, ought to be strict about in-person attendance. However, she does not necessarily agree with professors who are strict about those who attend via Zoom for lecture-based classes.

“A lecture is a lecture whether you’re on Zoom or in the classroom,” Watson said.