Dean of Faculty Robert White on AUBG’s Switch to Online Education
AUBG became the first university in Bulgaria to offer online education to its students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. With an e-learning platform already in place, all students in AUBG’s Bachelor program will be able to finish their semesters on time. Similarly to many leading universities in the U.S., the university also introduced the option for students to choose whether to complete their classes with a grade or on a pass/fail basis.
Online education, however, does not come without its challenges and limitations. We spoke to AUBG’s Dean of Faculty Dr. Robert White to learn more about the way that AUBG has coped with the unusual circumstances and hear his advice on how to make the best out of e-learning.
What advantages are there to online classes compared to learning in the classroom?
The main advantage is that we have been able to continue the academic program. Although everyone is now in different locations, professors and students can come together, virtually, from many different places. Cambridge University has only closed twice in eight-hundred years. The first time was because of the plague. The second because of the coronavirus. Remember, a few years ago, the technology that we are relying on to keep the academic program going did not exist. We are fortunate that companies have created products that help us to stay in business.
What are the specifics of online teaching at AUBG?
Online teaching is conducted through Canvas. We have integrated three platforms into Canvas to avoid placing too much demand on a single platform. These platforms are BigBlueButton, Virtual Classroom, and Microsoft Teams.
What is the reasoning behind the decision to introduce a Pass/Fail option for the students this semester?
A number of top universities in the United States introduced a pass/fail option for students in recognition of the fact that a student’s performance this semester may not reflect their academic abilities. We believe that this option will benefit our top students who are struggling to maintain a high GPA in the face of unusual and unprecedented stresses.
What are the most significant differences between online and in-class learning?
There are two significant differences. The first difference is the lack of nonverbal feedback. In a physical class, professors can adapt their teaching in response to students’ verbal and nonverbal feedback. The professor can see if students don’t grasp a point. To avoid bandwidth issues, most professors ask students to turn off their cameras. The result is that teaching online is like teaching to a blank wall.
The second difference is the disruption to the flow of the conversation. In a physical class, students can bounce ideas off each other and the professor. To avoid microphone feedback, professors have to ask students to mute themselves and raise their hands when they want to speak. For this reason, online teaching works best for lecture-style classes, where the professor delivers a monologue. Online teaching is not well suited for the type of dialogic education for which AUBG is known.
What are the common challenges that students face with online classes? What tips can you share on making the process more effective?
There are two common challenges. The first challenge is frustration with technology when things do not happen as expected. It is frustrating to be listening to a lecture and then have your internet connection drop. When universities across the world went online, we faced reoccurring technical issues as our platform struggled with the demand. We have now addressed this problem. Still, some students and professors face bandwidth issues that may cause them to be logged out of the class or to disrupt the audio connection.
The second challenge is having the will power to stay focused on the class. When a student sits in a physical classroom, they have to focus on the front of the room. When a student sits in their bedroom with the camera off and microphone muted, they may be tempted to complete homework for another class, text a friend, or play with the dog. There is no professor physically present to make sure that they are paying attention.
What advice would you give to a student struggling with learning online?
You need to appreciate that the decision to focus on your studies is a choice. Cloistered in the Skaptopara campus, your life revolved around classes and extracurricular activities with your classmates. You now face distractions that you did not encounter before. Now, the choice to focus on your studies is harder, but it is still a choice. You need to decide that completing this semester is a priority.