Choosing to extend instruction through screens

Why some professors at SPU continue to take advantage of virtual learning options

Belle Privitera, Staff Writer

Illustration by Rio Giancarlo

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about many changes to the modern educational system. Schools were forced to adapt to an unpredictable classroom environment, swapping out the squeaky chairs and desks for breakout rooms and muted audio. Switching to virtual learning during the first year of the pandemic required teachers and professors to learn how to teach and keep students engaged in a whole new way. 

Seattle Pacific University was no exception, having online courses for the majority of the 2020-21 academic year. Once the campus was allowed to open back up, most courses reverted to typical classroom learning; however, in 2023, some professors have chosen to continue virtual classrooms.  

Dr. Katya Nemtchinova, a professor of linguistics, decided to take up the university’s offer to continue her courses online. Instructing her courses virtually gives her schedule more flexibility, as she does not need to commute to campus daily from Redmond. 

“The benefits for me as a teacher are huge, mainly since I live in Redmond. It takes me 45 minutes to get to campus if there is no traffic,” Nemtchinova said. “I am sitting comfortably in my chair, and I have my favorite cup of tea with me, which is something I could never do in an in-person class.” 

While online classes can be beneficial, working through an online platform can be difficult and ineffective if the subject cannot be easily adapted. 

Throughout her time with SPU, Nemtchinova has taught Russian, a topic that she said would not benefit from being online. 

“It needs a lot of interaction, a lot of hands-on instruction and engagement. I still have friends who teach Russian, and everyone complains about teaching a language online,” Nemtchinova said. “I now teach linguistics, and it is a much more cognitive subject. Linguistics is fine online.”  

Online classes can make it harder to engage with other students, and professors will often have to rework their daily class schedules to accommodate that. 

“The level of interaction is never the same. I try breakout rooms, I call on students’ names, I build in questions and discussion points in my lectures,” Nemtchinova said, “However, some students think that they don’t have to do the same amount of work in an online class.”

Junior economics major Mahea Hetrick has taken many online courses and has noticed this lack of group and student interaction. Working better in responsive classroom settings, Hetrick found it difficult to stay motivated in a class where most were muted with their cameras turned off. 

Although, being in Nemtchinova’s linguistics class this quarter, she may be changing her tune on virtual classrooms. 

“I knew it was going to be online based on the class schedule and was able to talk to a few friends before registering a day after classes began. They told me that the teacher was super interactive and that everyone had their cameras on. So, I knew it was going to be an environment I liked,” Hetrics said,  “I’ve really been enjoying it, the class is very interesting, and we’ll do group work in breakout rooms. She is super great with incorporating everyone, making sure everyone is listening and working together.” 

Dr. Katie Butte, assistant professor of health and human performance, has been teaching her courses primarily online for the past three years. She finds that online teaching allows her to interact with students in a way she could not before. 

“The place that I think there’s a huge advantage to online learning and engagement is that students who want to be engaged but don’t like to talk in class, have other ways to actively participate,” Butte said, “I’ve actually really appreciated that part of online teaching is being able to feel like I’m connecting to students who don’t want to verbally engage. I was one of those students too.” 

Learning to teach through a screen, while challenging and often less effective than traditional in-person instruction, has provided the educational community with far more flexibility than ever before. No longer are the days of school closure due to inclement weather, now students can join a Zoom link and continue to attend class as scheduled. 

“Another benefit, probably the biggest, is that there are no more sick days for me, even if I don’t feel right, I can teach from home. I don’t have to cancel classes. If I am traveling, I can record classes,” Butte said.

Regardless of one’s opinions about online classes, there is no denying that the educational system that society knew before the pandemic has been irrevocably changed. With new ways to learn surfacing each day, there is no telling where the nature of education will be in the future.