Remote Learning Through the Eyes of a Teacher and a Student

Two views on remote learning, and how it's shaping student education during the pandemic.

When it was 4 PM in New Haven, the sun was beginning to set. At that time, it was 5 AM and pitch black in Taiwan. Photo of the empty Pierson College Courtyard at 4 pm, by Stephen Davis.
When it was 4 PM in New Haven, the sun was beginning to set. At that time, it was 5 AM and pitch black in Taiwan. Photo of the empty Pierson College Courtyard at 4 pm, by Stephen Davis.

Through the lens of a student:

Claire Fang

I started writing this on January 1st, 2021. In New Haven, Connecticut, it was 13 hours behind, December 31, 2020 — a different day, a different year.

Studying abroad in Taiwan, but at (is “at” even the correct word anymore, given the spatial difference?) Yale University, I’ve come to experience time as a truly relative, socially-constructed concept. These numbers that once had so much meaning to me: the New Year’s countdown, essay deadlines, minutes before midnight — they all lose their special, unique significance​ when I realize that they are all duplicated, duplicable, duplicitous. 

What I’m trying to convey is how I’ll look at the clock and note “It’s almost eleven o’ clock.” And then immediately after, I make this adjustment: “It must be 10 a.m. back in America, now’s the perfect time to send my professor that important email.” I used to live in one place, with one time. Now I live in two. I have to think about the schedules of two geographically and temporally distant peoples. Figuring out where in the house I should set up my Zoom classes so I don’t wake my sleeping parents, deciding when I should wake up so I can have lunch with my family, considering whether I should reply to my friends’ chat messages now or later so I can catch them when they’re awake — that’s all become a part of my Zoom University routine. 

Though, what actually happened can be better described as how I forced myself to abide by New Haven time while living in Taiwan. I slept sufficient, yet still ungodly hours. My sleep schedule would ricochet from about 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the weekdays (7 p.m. to 3 a.m. in New Haven time, post-daylight saving), to 5 a.m. to 12 p.m. for the weekends. I’d make frequent adjustments to that schedule, of course, depending on what meetings I had or what “midnight” essay deadlines I had to meet. I kept my circadian rhythm going with artificial light; night and day no longer had any meaning for me. I’d go to sleep long after dawn and wake up in time for the sunset.  

Speaking of my circadian rhythm, I spent the last four or so months of 2020 learning the meaning of this term, and that of many other sleep-related concepts, in a class called “The Mystery of Sleep.”  

You can imagine how much I’ve been thinking about sleep, and how to optimize it, for this last semester. As soon as I saw “Mystery of Sleep” in the course catalogue (we call it the Blue Book) I knew that this was what could give my remote learning experience some measure of comprehensibility. I learned much of what I expected to learn: how the circadian rhythm works (Fun fact! It’s slightly longer than 24 hours, which might explain how my sleep schedule would steadily shift later and later as the semester went on), the disastrous consequences of not sleeping enough, and the particular sleep needs of people my age.  

Of course, reality tends to exceed our expectations (in both the positive and negative sense of “excess”). I was truly pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of sleep-related material from the arts, literature and early philosophy. It gives a much more holistic view of sleep than pure science material — of which there was plenty. I had no idea there were so many breakthroughs (or what those breakthroughs even were!) in sleep science during the 70s, so much so that we call the 70s “The Golden Age of Sleep Research.” And some of what I learned in this course directly contradicted bits of “folk wisdom” I once thought was sleep gospel, like how, if you can’t sleep, you should just lie down and close your eyes anyways (best practice for bouts of insomnia like this is actually to engage in some light activity, like reading).  

One advantage of remote learning was that it was very easy for me to show up early to class, where I could chat with my professor and other early birds. I realize that if I took this class on campus, there’d be all sorts of things I’d be taking care of before 4:00 p.m. (or 5 a.m. in Taiwan, GMT +8). During daytime hours, there’s talking to be done with other human beings, getting late lunch or early dinner, reading emails, laundry, etc. When you’re alone in your room at 4:30 a.m., with everyone you know asleep or busy, there’s little reason to be late for class. I enjoyed talking about my dreams, which were rather strange, and also more emotional than usual this semester (“fun” fact: COVID-19 has led to an upsurge in nightmares).  

The sleep log was one of the more “useful” (by which I mean good for practical, daily use) projects I did as part of this course. It was, also, unsettling for me personally to see how little sleep I was getting during some particularly busy weeks (sleep debt accumulates, as I painfully experienced firsthand) and the severe social jet lag I was under (social jet lag refers to the difference between the midpoint of one’s sleeping hours during the weekdays, and the same midpoint during the weekend). I lived with the knowledge of how my sleep was suffering and what steps I could take to remedy that, and at the same time contended with all the factors that prevented me from acting on that knowledge; personal family issues triggered by and exacerbated under COVID-19 restrictions, the false illusion of “extra time” I had by living 13 hours ahead, and simple inertia when it comes to long-held habits.  

Last semester, I also took microeconomics, econometrics, comparative politics and a Global Affairs course titled “Inside the Next China.” I found the classes highly interesting and timely, though time zone issues plagued me here as well; it was virtually impossible to coordinate study sessions with other people, and I went through several study groups without ever “clicking” with one. It was hard to make friends, and even though I kept up contact with my old friends from freshman year, their physical absence weighed on me. My semester learning abroad was full of stimulus, and yet felt very lonely. 

A piece on remote learning isn’t complete without some reflection on remote learning technology; I’ve heard that the Zoom platform itself has received scrutiny due to privacy complaints. I can’t speak too much on that, as I started using Zoom after the update which prevents professors from knowing if you’ve been looking at another screen for more than 45 seconds (of course, I haven’t taken undue advantage of this). I will say that overall, I felt more unhealthy and uncomfortable using Zoom compared to in-person classes. I worried a lot about eyestrain, my slumping posture, and even my laptop’s health (just two weeks ago, I had to replace the battery). It’s admittedly much easier to be distracted, and I found it occasionally awkward to take notes, in case professors watching thought I was doing something else like looking at my phone or reading non-course materials. In defense of Zoom, though, it was effective. I still felt I’ve had, accounting for unprecedented circumstances of course, a genuine Yale education.  

We’ve all had our struggles last year. I’d like to leave off with a hopeful message for this year: If I could live like a vampire for a semester, never feeling the sun on my skin for months, then surely, we can survive whatever 2021 has in store.  

Through the lens of a teacher:

Meir Kryger

I have been teaching a course to undergraduate college students at Yale, The Mystery of Sleep, for about five years.  The purpose of the course was to explore the many ways that sleep impacts the humanities and the sciences. For the first few years the course was taught as a seminar with 18 to 24 students. Demand for the course far out stripped positions available, and so that ultimately the course was expanded to about 60 students and it was taught in a hybrid lecture/seminar style, by myself and Dr. Suman Baddam, and two teaching fellows. What a joy it was to teach students from diverse cultural, geographic and academic backgrounds ranging from the humanities (e.g. art, dance, drama, music, philosophy) and the sciences (e.g. cognitive sciences, pre-med, computer sciences etc.). The projects which were part of the course were inspiring and were presented to the class in person! The course included visits to the Yale University Art Gallery, and on the day of my insomnia lecture I would give students Insomnia cookies — large almost pizza-sized cookies embedded with chunks of chocolate.  

Then, even before COVID had any significant impact on Connecticut, on March 10, 2020 @ 7:51 p.m., an email from the President of the university outlined the new realities for students and teachers. All aspects of my life changed. I was to work from home and my class would have to be via Zoom. I had been on and organized many, many Zoom sessions with between two and way more than 300 participants, but this was going to be different for many reasons. 

Some of the students were in New Haven (either in their residential colleges or off campus). Some of the students were taking classes from their homes. How does one develop and nurture a live student-teacher learning environment when students are anxious (being tested for COVID twice a week, severely limited or locked down in their activities, not in physical contact with friends)? The biweekly classes started at 4 p.m. Eastern time. Its one thing and not a big deal for students within the U.S. In California it was 1 p.m. However, in Europe it was 10 p.m. and in parts of Asia it was 4 a.m.! There was a student in New Zealand where it was spring (instead of fall in New England) and I had no idea what day or time zone they were on.

When the sessions were “live” and on-campus in previous years I set aside a half-hour before and after each seminar to meet with individual students to discuss concerns they might have, clarify learning points, give feedback on papers and projects. Between these sessions and discussions in class I got to know many of the students well enough that I could write letters to support their applications for prestigious programs and universities. Some of the students published papers in journals based on what they had learned in class. Can one replicate that experience when the only contact is via a Zoom screen with 60 people, some in pajamas, some eating, some wanting to sleep? 

 In a real classroom, students generally sat in the same place each class. In a Zoom classroom, where the students appeared in the gallery view was a function of when they logged on. Thus, the location of the students on my screen was different each session. And I had to look carefully to try to find specific students. Sometimes students turned off their cameras and only a letter or sometimes a photo appeared instead of a live video. Sometimes I would only see their foreheads, their eyes, and sometimes they weren’t even there and I would see an empty room.

Restful sleep is often the victim of stress, anxiety, and illness. There was plenty of all three in the fall semester. Some students had been infected with COVID. There was the anxiety associated with the harrowing news about cases and deaths due to COVID, and the frequent COVID testing for those students on campus. And of course, on top of all that was the contentious presidential election. Two days after the election, when the outcome was up in the air, I was faced with a Zoom roomful of depressed faces. A show of hands indicated that most had developed trouble sleep. 

One of the weirder experiences, was to proctor students taking examinations on Zoom. You would see the expressions on their faces which would range from confident to being worried. It was frankly uncomfortable seeing some of their anguished faces. If the students looked up to their screens, they would see the faces of all their classmates.

Don’t get me wrong. Teaching on Zoom wasn’t all bad. One big plus of remote teaching is that one could invite world famous teachers from all over to teach and we took advantage of that. Students really enjoyed that.

At the end of the day though, they did really well on their tests and projects. I hope that what they learned in the class is going to be helpful in their lives. What was gratifying was it after the course was over several students emailed me to ask how I was doing during the pandemic, reminding me to stay safe. 

This pandemic will end. I wrote so almost a year ago. While the pandemic was out of control, there really was no practical way to teach except by using electronics. Hopefully we will have all stayed healthy and we will return to classrooms. We will be in one room, one time zone and I will be able to arrange visits to the art gallery and distribute Insomnia cookies again.  

Claire Fang, Yale, Class of 2023

Meir Kryger MD FRCPC, Professor

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