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University professors, students adjust to online learning



An APR News Feature --Part of an innovative collaboration between Alabama Public Radio, the commercial newsroom at WVUA23-TV, and the University of Alabama's Center for Public Television.

The coronavirus means almost no students are allowed on campus. And, almost all classes at the University of Alabama are being moved from face-to-face instruction to online platforms like ZOOM. 

Creative media instructor Maya Champion is trying to make the best of it.


“It’s a bit tougher challenge, so we’re trying to keep out spirits up and positive,” she said.


Senior psychology and telecommunication and film major Montana Maniscalco wants to work a movie director after she graduates.


She came to Alabama to do that instead of taking the more traditional route of studying in the film mecca of Los Angeles. Maniscalco says taking classes with a roomful of other students created an atmosphere that writing and shooting short ten minute student films work.


“Maya is kind of like the mom of JCM,” she said. “Everybody just wants to see everybody succeed...You have this whole community of just people who just want to create things. And we all lift each other up in the process of trying to help each other out, and make sure everybody is successful.”


And now, that community will be a collection of little thumbnail pictures on a ZOOM videoconference. Maniscalco said it will be different.


"It’s gonna be odd, it’s gonna be challenging, too,” she said, “because, me personally, I’m a very hands-on. I need to see it in front of me learner.”


And Maniscalco isn’t the only one.


“When we’re working on a script, it’s not methodical as much as, ‘What if you did, this? And, what if you did this? And, what if you did this?’ And you take it all in, and then you work it from there,” said Nathan Stephenson, a senior majoring in film and creative media with a minor in music.


For Stephenson, it’s not just that he can’t put together a crew and shoot his final project film. But, the traditional graduation ceremony complete with a cap and gown and a handshake from the university president is cancelled as well because of the coronavirus.


“It’s very, very weird to not have any closure,” he said. “There’s not even the build up to the final sprint to the end. It just like…got cut off, dissolved, it got…my semester got Thanosed.”


For those of you who don’t speak college senior, Thanos is the bad guy who made half of the universe disappear in the next to last of the Avengers movies. Yes, Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, those guys.


But, as daunting as everything seems for Stephenson, Maniscalco and everyone else in Champion’s classes, there are those who do this all the time and they say it works, if you use it right.


“My biggest advice for students who’ve never done online classes, is to be proactive. Work ahead of time,” Andy Yousef said.


He lives in Birmingham. Yousef doesn’t attend class in Tuscaloosa. Instead, he’s pursuing a masters degree at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. And that means taking a lot of his classes online. Yousef said there are ways to make this kind of class work, if you know a few tricks.


“I like to set imaginary deadlines for assignments,” Yousef said. “So, if I have an assignment, say, due on Friday, I trick myself and say ‘It’s actually due Wednesday.' So, I’ll turn it in before hand.”


Online classes at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa are meant to help students avoid catching or spreading the coronavirus. This isn’t a theory for Yousef. He tested positive for COVID-19 a little over a week ago. Yousef said he remembers when his test came back.


“On the outside I was calm and collected,” he said, “but, on the inside I’m definitely freaking out.”


His symptoms were like a bad cold with shortness of breath similar to asthma. Yousef’s story has an upside. After our interview, he started feeling better and took a second test. This time it came back negative, so he’s beginning to return to his usual routine.


“I think the platform makes it pretty easy to engage,” Stephenson said. “I think when you have a lot of people on ZOOM, and people don’t have headsets or stuff like that, you can get audio feedback, or things of that nature, so normally I would have myself muted when I wasn’t talking."


For Stephenson, Champion, and Maniscalco the rest of this semester will likely be anything but routine as they all work online. Maniscalco said being banned from campus from now until graduation will be bittersweet. 


“I worked on campus, I had classes on campus, and I spent most of my days on campus,” Maniscalco said. “It’s a little odd, and it’s a little sad, just more so the fact that I got an untimely goodbye with my friends, And there are some people I actually didn’t even get to say goodbye to.”


After graduation, she plans to move out west to pursue her film career. That could make linking up with those college friends even tougher.



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