Online’s Not Fine?

By Rayes Gallegos / New Mexico News Port

Online classes were increasingly popular at UNM before the pandemic pushed all classes to Zoom, but now students and professors are starting to reevaluate how online classes fit in the overall picture. 

Associate Provost of Student Success Pamela Cheek says since the pandemic online class offerings have increased in every department. She’s proud of the work UNM did to address the sudden crisis of COVID-19 but says it’s time to “rebalance” the ratio of in-person to online classes.

When schools switched to remote learning during the pandemic UNM student Luke Hudson-Goodman liked it. “It felt like I was on early summer vacation,” he said.

But he was relieved to return to campus last fall. “I had motivation to put in the extra effort because I was actually seeing the teachers in person and it wasn’t just like a computer I could dehumanize,” Hudson-Goodman said. 

Some departments have struggled to achieve an ideal balance. Some students prefer taking classes online because it’s easier to fit school in with work and family obligations. 

“When given a choice it appears that students want to take online,” says David Weiss, chair of the Communication and Journalism Department. But that can have unintended consequences. 

When in-person classes don’t meet required enrollment numbers they’re canceled, pushing students who want to be on campus into online classes.

Distribution of Hybrid, In Person, and Online max course modalities for Spring 2022 at Main and HSC campuses.

For example, the C&J department has a successful Accelerated Online Program in strategic communication. It’s intended to help students complete degrees they started years ago and never finished, to reach students who can’t be on campus and to bring in more money. 

Tuition paid by Accelerated Online students goes directly to departments on a per-student basis, so resource-strapped departments have an incentive to offer more AOP classes. Traditional classes don’t bring in money the same way. 

 “Whether I have 25 students in intercultural communication or 35, that doesn’t change my department’s budget that semester,” Weiss said.

And because UNM requires that any class in the AOP program must also be offered to on-campus students, those sections automatically start with higher enrollment numbers, giving them an advantage over in-person sections.

For example, Media Ethics and Law is a required course for all journalism and strategic communication majors but it hasn’t been offered on campus in two years because the AOP sections have filled, while the in-person sections haven’t. 

As a result, some journalism students can reach 300-level writing courses without having ever taken a writing class in person. 

“Students are gravitating away from face-to-face and into the online sections and that breaks my heart,” Weiss said.

CJ 400 is the final class for Comm majors and this semester the department offered it face to face and it filled. However, some students wrote to David or the advisors needing this class to graduate and could only take this class online. 

David then created a special section for these students “We were trying to create a situation in which the only way you would take that class would be face to face and it didn’t work for everyone,” he said.

We have heard from students but what perspective can teachers explain more on.

C&J professor Cleophas Muneri is teaching online for the last six years and notes that not all the courses he teaches online are hard but “Challenging in a sense that one is to be more creative,” he said.

From a learning perspective, Muneri believes that online learning is suitable for driven and organized students “Those are the students who are likely to succeed because there are many students that I know from teaching online both prior to and after the pandemic who thrive in an online environment,” he said.

“The low and short of what I am saying is that online classes work for a specific type of student who are highly motivated and organized so it’s not for everyone,” said Muneri.

Rayes Gallegos is a reporter for New Mexico News Port and can be reached at nmnewsport@gmail.com.