Shifting Gears: What NYU Online Classes Are Really Like During A Global Pandemic

laptop with headphones and pens

COVID-19 has disrupted our lives in ways we could never have imagined. In a matter of days, we were forced to rearrange our daily routines. And now we’re working, learning, and socializing—all from the comfort of our own homes. As a result, dining rooms have become offices. Living rooms have become classrooms. And parents, siblings, and family pets have become our favorite new coworkers and classmates. The shift to online classes came swiftly without much time to prepare. But NYU’s faculty rose to the occasion and showed their creativity and agility. Learn all about the innovative ways NYU’s professors have transformed their classrooms to keep students engaged at home.

Professors Flex Their Creative Muscles

Translating the in-class experience to the virtual arena is not easy. But NYU professors have found plenty of ways to interact with students and make online classes feel more engaging. Miliana, a first-year student, says, “some of my teachers have actually made learning from home almost identical to learning in school or better in some ways.” In one of her classes, her professor has had guest speakers join in on Zoom. One special guest speaker was the manager of award-winning hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. And after class students were encouraged to connect with her for future professional opportunities.

Some professors are using friendly competition to keep students’ attention during online classes. Sam’s Spanish professor engaged her students in a virtual scavenger hunt. During class, the professor utilized Zoom’s breakout room feature to put students in small groups. Then, she gave them a list of items in Spanish to find around their homes. Whichever group found the items and returned to the main group first, won some major bragging rights.

Additionally, seniors Lauren and Sanjana both agree that professors are more understanding in light of recent events. And they’ve made themselves more available outside of class time. Professors are also utilizing Zoom’s chat feature to engage with students and facilitate class discussions.

A Campus Without Walls or Timezones

Of course one of the major benefits to online classes is that students can log in from wherever they are in the world. However, for some students who are thousands of miles away from their home campus, logging into class live can be a challenge. For Keairn, who calls Australia home, logging into class at 2am her time for a 12pm class on the east coast is pretty difficult. So instead, her professor allows her to participate in asynchronous learning, which lets her engage with class material on her own at a more convenient time. Then, she writes a short reflection paper outlining the overall themes and takeaways. 

Sinéad, who is taking online classes from Hawaii, has a similar process. Since she’s unable to participate in real-time, Sinéad’s professors allow her to watch recorded lectures according to her schedule. They also have adjusted assignment deadlines to account for the time difference.

Similarly, sophomore Zani based in Maryland is taking online classes at NYU Abu Dhabi. Since she can’t join class live, Zani has connected with another student in her philosophy class who happens to be in the same time zone. The two of them have their own “mini class discussion” on Zoom.  Zani says, “Over our Zoom calls we’ll discuss the text that we read, we’ll discuss the lectures that she posts. So we don’t have to come to class in the middle of the night.” And most importantly, Zani and her classmate don’t have to miss out on important class discussions.

On the other hand, there are students like Alisha who would rather wake up at 5:15am in New Zealand to catch the live lecture.  Alisha sees it as a creative motivator. “It’s a creative way to get me more motivated to wake up in the morning. If I get my day started earlier, there’s a lot I can get done.”

Student workspace at home
Stern Student Alisha's workspace at home in New Zealand
student workspace
Tisch Student César's workspace in Florida

The Show Must Go On

Many would think that it would be nearly impossible to translate a performance-based class into the digital space. But some Tisch professors have challenged that notion. Tisch Drama junior Mia talked about her Screen Acting Class. She says of her professors, “They’re making it work. He’s been having students bring in clips from movies and TV shows. And having students break them down and say, ‘If I would direct it, this is what I would do.’” Students are encouraged to critically examine the lighting, music, and other elements of the scenes. Then, they discuss as a class.

Wyatt, a first-year Dramatic Writing major, says the move to online classes has exposed him to new mediums he can use to create art. In one of his classes, his professor is having students produce radio plays instead of the usual screenplays. He describes the process to me.  “So we basically record the actors over Zoom-just audio…then I go onto an audio editing service and I piece their things together and make it quick and make it sound good and I add sound effects.” 

Drama major César’s professors have also shifted their curriculum to accommodate for the new normal. In his Directing the Actor class, his professor is directing student actors through Zoom. She helps students set up the scene in their homes and suggests common household items as props. She also suggests camera angles. And she asks thoughtful questions about characters to help students think more critically about their scenes. 

Customized Curriculum

Another way professors have made online classes more interesting is by shifting subject matter to incorporate trends and current events. In Hunter’s social entrepreneurship class, his professor has made COVID-19 a part of the curriculum. In the beginning of the semester, the class was working in small groups to identify and address a social issue of their choice. Now, they’ve pivoted and they’re all researching and developing digital platforms that could combat the pandemic. According to Hunter, this shift is “a cool way for us to work, adapt to the new environment, while also making an impact.”

And if you thought Tik Tok had no place in the classroom, I have news for you. Several NYU students report their professors have used social media’s newest craze as a teaching aid. Sanjana says her professor has used Tik Tok to illustrate points in his lecture. And one of Alisha’s professors assigned Tik Tok for homework. Students were asked to make Tik Tok videos to demonstrate their understanding of concepts from the lecture. Alisha really enjoyed the integration of social media into her academics. She says, “It was so much fun because then we got to watch all of them in class.”

Professors Are People

One surprising revelation from many of the students I spoke with was how much this transition has humanized their professors. In addition to being flexible and creative with their approach to online learning, professors are also more transparent about their lives outside the classroom. To that end, children and family pets sometimes make guest appearances in class. Sanjana has enjoyed “getting to see the professor as a human being who has an actual life. ” She says it allows students to feel more connected to faculty.

Final Thoughts

The global pandemic has forced us to make significant changes to the way we live our lives. In light of these changes, ensuring minimal disruption to students’ academic journeys was NYU’s number one priority. And for NYU faculty, maintaining a standard of excellence in online classrooms has been paramount. Not only have the faculty made the transition to online classes a seamless one. They have showcased their flexibility, creativity, and empathy. And most importantly, our students have not been left behind.