Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 60% of undergraduate courses at the University of Maine are being offered either remotely or online. Although this helps keep students, staff and the surrounding community safe, it has posed some challenges. This semester, amid a pandemic, UMaine decided to do away with Blackboard, the platform that online content had previously been hosted on, and switched to a new program called Brightspace.
Brightspace gives online classes a modern and refreshing look but both students and faculty note learning online still poses challenges. Professor Michael Howard, a professor of philosophy, stated that although “it was unfortunate timing” to change to Brightspace during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many resources available to professors that helped make the transition easier. Howard started learning how to use Brightspace at the beginning of July and he prepared for all his courses well in advance. Usually, he would not begin prepping for classes until mid-August, but with classes being remote and Brightspace being brand new, he felt like he needed to budget more time. Even with the help of a course designer and the Center for Innovation Teaching and Learning (CITL) on campus, Howard still found himself rushing to have all his courses ready for the fall semester.
Howard found that while Brightspace took time to set it up, it was worth it.
“I think it’s better [than Blackboard]…there are a lot of similarities,” Howard said. “The integration of videos is helpful. I videotape a lecture and then the whole Zoom section is set aside for discussion.”
Zoom is not accessible to all students for various reasons, Howard explained, so he aims to format his classes so that the graded portion can be done completely through Brightspace. One reason students may not be able to join Zoom discussions could be a lack of stable internet connection in their town. In rural areas of Maine not all residences have access to internet, and some residences may have connectivity issues because of low bandwidth.
According to broadbandnow.com, a website that tracks statewide internet access, not all towns in Maine have equal or adequate internet coverage.
“A few of Maine’s cities are better off when it comes to broadband access than the rest. The five cities with the best mix of internet coverage, speed, and pricing in Maine are Kittery Point, Eliot, Springvale, Sanford, and Lebanon, with Kittery Point ranking as the best-connected city in the state… On the flip side, the worst-connected cities in Maine are Cliff Island, Monhegan, West Forks, Wesley, and Waite, with Cliff Island ranking as the worst-connected city in the state,” the website notes.
Although online classes are a necessity now, they may not be in the future, and Howard worries that if everyone becomes comfortable with Zoom, they will become reliant on it and do away with in-person classrooms and offices. He feels this approach would be dangerous because Zoom and Brightspace remove that human connection from the classroom, where you have a professor physically accessible to answer questions. He noted that it can also cause feelings of isolation.
“If I had to do my whole college career in this medium…” Howard contemplated, “That is a really depressing thought.”
Some professors are resisting the move to Brightspace by running their classes though other online platforms. Becca French, a third-year majoring in animal veterinary sciences, shared that her animal nutrition class is being offered on Tophat. While she understood why this platform was chosen since it allows her professors to easily monitor participation and attendance through interactive questioning, she still doesn’t think that Tophat is a more efficient platform than Brightspace.
“There are a lot of bugs with the system which make it difficult to talk to the professor during class and it is harder to access worksheets and assignments [than on Brightspace],” French explained.
Both Howard and French recognized that with online classes, professor and student relationships could be less meaningful which can prove problematic for students who are looking for guidance through a course or striving to make better connections with faculty. Howard stated that he also misses attending in person events that the philosophy department would run periodically, such as inviting philosophy colloquium speakers to give a presentation, and then going out to dinner with the speaker afterwards.
Although both students and faculty miss in person classes, no decisions have been made regarding whether more in-person classes will be available to students in the spring.