Class Finds Connection, Community Through Online Learning

Article by Sarah Whitesel, ORMC Graduate Assistant | April 10, 2020

The image shows a screenshot of an online classroom, where each of the eight participants has his or her own portion of the screen. There are eight participants.

Connecting with Students…Remotely!

At the ELI’s Office of Recruitment, Marketing, and Communication, we thrive on connections with the students. When we meet the students and hear what they’re leaning and experiencing in their classes, it gives us the special opportunity to share their stories and let others know what life at the ELI looks like.

Today, our desire to connect with the students remains the same, but the way we do it looks a little different. With the transition to online classes, I received the unique assignment to connect with the students remotely and learn what their experience with online classes has been. To do this, I got a lot of help from the teachers, who have been contacting me with stories of their students and recommendations about which ones might like to have an interview.

It has been a fantastic journey meeting with students via Zoom and interviewing them about their experiences, and one of my favorite interviews so far was not with one student, or even two students, but with an entire class! During the week of April 5, I met with all seven students from Mary Beth Worrilow’s Level 6 business class, and learned that not only were the members of the class fun to interview, but they also had some thoughtful insights about online learning.

The background

When I reached out to Worrilow to hear how her class was doing, she told me that she was concerned about the students in her Level 6 class when the ELI initially transitioned to online classes. She said that they seemed to be having trouble adjusting, and she wanted to lighten the mood. To do so, she resorted to some Zoom hijinks.

On April Fools Day, Worrilow showed up to class using Zoom’s tropical beach background. She told the students she was vacationing in Hawaii, if only to hold them in suspense long enough to reveal the prank when she held up a big “April Fools!” sign.

For the class as a whole, it was a turning point. The levity of the moment helped the students relax, and Worrilow said that since that day, the students have started to reconnect through their online class.

This class was very close before the self-isolation and distance learning, but now they seem to have gelled even more!” Worrilow explained via email.

The interview

Fast forward to one week later, and I had the opportunity to meet with the whole class via Zoom and learn about the individual students’ experiences. During the interview, I noticed that the mood was light and relaxed. The students shared jokes, laughed freely, and talked about their classmate’s dog, who unfortunately did not make it into the interview. 

There was an evident connection between the students in the jokes they shared, while their attentive listening to each other spoke of their mutual respect. They were hopeful and optimistic about online learning, but also unafraid to admit the fearfulness and tension of the global pandemic.

“I just wonder what’s going to happen, but I don’t have any recipe or experience for it,” explained a Turkish student, Mustafa Kandil.

Kandil’s classmate and fellow Turk, Bursa Sadic, said that she has tried to focus on healthy eating and getting plenty of Vitamin C.

“I can say that I’ve become addicted to fruit,” she said with a laugh.

For their evident enjoyment of each other’s company, the students also explained their surprise in the academic value their classes still hold.

Nada Alfahmi, the youngest member of the class and self-appointed spokeswoman for Generation Z, said the independent nature of online classes is an opportunity to build professional value.

“Independence in learning is at its most growing trend of all time,” Alfahmi explained. “So I think this experience is also to our advantage somehow because it’s like a warmup for us to experience that.”

For Zhengjun “Christine” Nie, the online classes have been surprisingly conducive to maintaining the student-to-teacher connection.

“I think since we did not have a high expectation for the online class, it turns out really good. I have the same good experience as a real class,” she said.

Despite the unexpected circumstances of this session, the students have continued to engage in their classes and to live life as fully as possible, even when they have to celebrate special moments at home.

Students from the class celebrate and clap during an online birthday celebration.It was Sadic’s birthday the day of the interview, and she said that she had used social media to have an online celebration with her friends back in Turkey. She was also thankful to her roommate for making her a special Turkish birthday meal.

At the conclusion of the interview, all of Sadic’s classmates cheered for her in celebration of her birthday. Although each student was confined to his or her little square on the screen, the cheers were a meaningful end to the interview, if for only a moment making the distance between each individual feel just a little bit smaller.

Student Profiles

Mustafa Kandil | Turkey

Kandil, expressive and talkative, was impressed by the efficiency of his online classes and grateful for his teachers.

“We have two teachers, Mary Beth [Worrilow] and Nigel [Caplan], and they are both really good at using Zoom,” Kandil said.

Jiuyi “Joy” Sun | China

Sun was quiet during much of the interview, but when she spoke, she was very clear about the value of online classes during this health crisis.

“Because of the Coronavirus, it is still a good system for me and my classmates and our teacher to deliver new knowledge to us. It is a great experience for us,” she said.

Nada Alfahmi | Saudi Arabia

Early in the interview, Alfahmi expressed her comfort with online classes. Drawing upon previous experience with online learning technologies, she has found the current classes to be familiar and comfortable.

“To be more specific with the ELI, I would say the experience is beyond my expectation,” she said. “It’s super organized. The lesson, the emails, the session on Zoom are super organized, and also the faculty are so collaborative or so responsive to all of the students here.”

Zhengjun “Christine” Nie | China

Worrilow says that Nie is the cheerleader of the classroom, helping the other students to stay encouraged and keep their spirits up. During the interview, Nie’s appreciation and encouragement went beyond her classmates, extending as well to her teachers.

“We had a really good online experience with our teacher,” Nie said.

Saniye Cesmecioglu | Turkey

Cesmecioglu was quiet during the interview, listening attentively when her classmates spoke and joining in the laughter at their jokes. Yet, even if she didn’t have much to say, Cesmecioglu is still a clear support to her classmates — she’s the roommate who made a special birthday dinner for Sadic!

Yan An | China

During the interview, An explained that she had some previous experience with online learning in China. She said that the online classes she is taking with the ELI are similar in many ways to her prior classes, but she has found that the ELI classes are especially interactive.

“In this class we have to say a lot of things,” she explained. “We express our ideas, we need to write, and things like that.”

Bursa Sadic | Turkey

Sadic was skeptical about online classes before they began, but she said she’s been happily surprised at how effective they are.

“It is really efficient. I didn’t expect it to be like that. I thought it would be not good, but it is going really efficient and effectively,” she said.

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