Nicholas Grasso is a freelance journalist who covers elected officials, new businesses and events for Greater Long Island, an award-winning community news website. He graduated from Stony Brook University in May 2021. While a student, he worked as a copy editor and wrote about music and social issues for the Stony Brook Press.
Just as they did in classrooms in the “before” times, most professors begin their virtual classes by taking attendance. Some call out students’ names, seeking a “here,” a “hi,” a “hello,” or a courteous but rare, “how are you?” Others simply scroll through the list of participants or check off students in the gallery view on Zoom.
Professors may have thought their students showed little sign of life in traditional classrooms. In these cases, they would typically call on students whose minds they suspected were miles away. Now, in Zoom University, professors are even hungrier for active participation among students whose bodies are miles away. But professors can still tell who has checked out while logged on.
In every Zoom class, there are several black squares occupied by a student’s name in white letters, or filled with a green “T” or an orange “A” or a brown “L.” These are the students with their cameras turned off. Some of them are actually there. Some are just too shy to grace the class with their presence. Others are simply having a bad hair day. But they are still seated in front of their screens. Some of them may even be taking notes.
But others have gone away. The giveaway is straight out of the John Hughes 1986 classic movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” The teacher cries “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” but Bueller is nowhere to be found.
Where was Ferris? He was out joyriding with his best friend and girlfriend in a bright red Ferrari, taking in art in a museum, attending a ball game and, oh yeah, boarding a parade float to sing the Top Notes (and later, Beatles) classic “Twist and Shout.”
But where do the Zoom-era Ferris Buellers go? The Met opened a few months ago with limited capacity, baseball stadiums seat cardboard cutouts and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade took place on an otherwise empty 34th street.
Some students admit they are back in bed, asleep. Many are tired, others succumb to the emotional toll of quarantine. Some are multitasking, working on an assignment for another course, tending to a mound of laundry or making a meal. But why would they sign in, only to ignore their professor and ultimately let their class fall by the wayside?
That’s what college students have always done. Generations of students have sat in classrooms they had no desire to be in, ignoredprofessors who sometimes bored them, completed homework assignments while pretending to take notes and thought about the laundry they never finished.
The only difference is that now – thanks to the coronavirus and Zoom – they can do it all from the comfort of their beds. And they think they can fool their professors – but they can’t. Because as always, our professors know more than we think they know.
Diana Voss has been pushing Stony Brook University into the digital era ever since she was an undergraduate information systems student more than 20 years ago.
“My undergraduate project was to find a course management system or a way for faculty to post their content online for courses,” Voss says, squinting behind her glasses as the sun fills the porch of her Commack home. The new program she proposed in her “Research in Information Systems” course is now used at higher education institutions across the country, including her alma mater.
“I always joke that I’m as old as Blackboard at Stony Brook,” she says.
Not exactly, but it is true that like Blackboard, the one-time student consultant in what was then the university’s sole SINC site – which, by the way, stands for Students In Need of Computers – has become an integral part of how Stony Brook University functions. Now, the 46-year-old Voss is the director of Academic Technology Services (ATS) in the Division of Information Technology, commonly called DoIT. She is in charge of a new generation of students responsible for five public SINC sites. Two decades into her career, she continues to stay ahead of technological trends and cutting-edge tools to bring the latest and greatest advances to the university she graduated from in 1998.
In recent years, faculty and staff came to Voss looking for a way to remotely connect with one another as well as students for meetings, office hours and tutoring. “It was just a question that kept coming up,” she says.
Two years ago, she began toiling over a request to bring a web-conferencing service to Stony Brook. “You could have a baby by the time these things are done,” she says, chuckling.
This particular baby was called Zoom.
Thanks to Voss’s research and proposal, the university signed a contract with California-based Zoom Video Communications, Inc. in March 2020, just before the campus was abandoned to the coronavirus. And like everyone else at Stony Brook, Voss was forced to work from home, turning her living room into a computer lab.
“I had wires everywhere ’cause I had to hook up my WolfieNet,” she says. “And then every Friday night I would take it all apart. And then every Sunday night I would put it back together because people were tripping over wires.”
In September, she relocated to her kitchen, which is now under renovation. She goes to work in the family loft, occasionally with a Wheaten Terrier named Mississippi, who can be found underfoot when she needs to hide from Voss’s son’s thunderous drum set.
As is the case with most home-bounders, Zoom infiltrated Voss’s personal life. When she is off the clock, she cannot stand to use the tool she worked so hard to bring to her university.
“The truth is, I’m so Zoomed out that the minute anybody’s like ‘Oh let’s Zoom,’ I’m like ‘Please no, can I just call you on the phone?’”
On more than one occasion, she has found herself giving into friends and family craving a camera chat. When her sister-in-law proposed they open presents on Christmas morning over Zoom, Voss made a counter offer. “You live in Smithtown, you’re like around the corner. Can’t we just meet with masks outside?” she pleaded.
Her sister-in-law and her husband declined the offer, so Voss took to the web.
From the very beginning of the lockdown, Voss worked behind the scenes to make sure professors knew how to use the new program and existing digital teaching options. Luckily, she had a stockpile of resources saved up.
“The truth is, I’m so Zoomed out that the minute anybody’s like ‘Oh let’s Zoom,’ I’m like ‘Please no, can I just call you on the phone?’”
–Diana Voss, director of Academic Technology Services in the Division of Information Technology (DoIT), who brought Zoom to Stony Brook just before the university locked down
For the past decade, the “Keep Teaching” subsection of Stony Brook’s DoIT webpage contained a wealth of instructions and helpful tips for professors looking to digitize any aspect of the traditional classroom experience, from taking tests online to recording lectures and connecting students for group projects.
“It was originally created for faculty if there was a snow day or a faculty member had to go to a conference,” explains Rose Tirotta-Esposito, associate director of teaching excellence at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), which has worked alongside Voss and her team for several years. “It was one of those like, ‘There’s an emergency and you need to put your class online.’”
While ATS points professors to the appropriate software to run their digital classrooms, CELT helps professors redesign their courses for online learning.
“We were always the tech geeks and they were always the design geeks,” Voss explains.
But “geek” may not be the best word to describe them now. “We’re the most popular people on campus!” she says with a gleaming smile as her curly brown hair bobs on her shoulders.
This newfound popularity is the result of even the most tech-phobic professors’ sudden dependence on digital tools to keep their courses running and their students engaged. Voss’s team monitors the use of the digital tools Stony Brook offers, and reported 6.8 million logins to Blackboard alone during the spring 2020 semester – exactly double the number logged during the previous fall term.
Teaching the Teachers
Remote instruction became nearly universal in the spring of 2020, but the concept was not foreign to Stony Brook. CELT has helped professors transition traditionally in-person courses to the digital landscape in the past, typically for summer or winter sessions. From this experience, Tirotta-Esposito knows course digitization is an involved process. “Typically something like that, we would suggest it would take about six months to do,” she says.
But last spring, time was not a luxury professors – or students – could afford. “Obviously they only had a couple of weeks in which to do it,” Tirotta-Esposito says.
The department routinely offered an online teaching certificate – a five-week, zero-credit course for the situation in which professors across the campus now found themselves. In the nick of time, CELT developed a paired-down, two-and-a-half week, asynchronous version of the program.
Linda Unger, a senior instructional designer for CELT since 2014, explains that the program puts professors in the students’ digital desks, a concept known to her since she was a member of the School of Professional Development. “I had created what I called an immersion experience,” she says, running her fingers through her straight brown hair. “To train faculty how to teach online, I put them in a Blackboard course with me as the instructor, so they could really understand how the asynchronous environment is different than teaching in a face-to-face class. When I came to CELT, I brought that training experience with me.”
Unger and her CELT colleagues run the certificate course the way many Stony Brook professors run their virtual classrooms. The designers ask participants to utilize the hand-raising and chat features of Zoom, send their students to breakout rooms and even give them assignments.
“One of the things we as instructional designers work very hard at is to model for faculty members what we’re teaching them to do with their students,” Unger says. “So we try to deliver our workshops in a way that illustrates to them examples of what they can do with their students.”
This lead-by-example approach even impacts the types of assignments the designers create for their certificate program. CELT introduces professors to what it calls formative and summative assignments. Formative assessments, which Unger describes as shorter low-risk assignments, are more effective for helping students recognize what they do not understand. They act as benchmarks for measuring student success and provide feedback before the high-stakes summative assignments, such as final exams or term papers.
“To train faculty how to teach online, I put them in a Blackboard course with me as the instructor, so they could really understand how the asynchronous environment is different than teaching in a face-to-face class.”
– Linda Unger, senior instructional designer for CELT
Throughout the five-week course, Unger and other designers require formative assignments, such as having professors post in a discussion forum to track their progress as well as summative quizzes.
Tiratta-Esposito says she feels the professors she meets are well-prepared to structure and teach their courses in this new digital environment. “When they come to us and they work with us they’re asking really great questions,” she says.
Unger says the two biggest concerns she continues to hear from professors are student engagement and academic dishonesty. She says formative assignments are key to engaging with students and “are more needed in the remote classroom where there tends to be less interaction between the student and the faculty member.”
Unger again calls on her expertise as an instructional designer to mitigate professors’ concerns about academic dishonesty. “Tests are not the only way to measure student understanding,” she tells them, adding that having multiple shorter assignments will make it more difficult for students to cheat.
Even before the university announced that classes would be conducted remotely, Zoom had been added to that list of programs. Learning to use the intuitive program was no issue for Voss and her team. “It’s not hard,” Voss says of the conferencing platform. “What’s hard is getting it to work inside of Blackboard.”
Her team of four full-time staffers and 18 undergraduate students had less than three weeks to ensure that more than 3,800 courses could connect to Zoom through Blackboard – everything from “Long Island Marine Habitats” and “Science Fiction” to “Music and Culture in the 1960s” and “Mobile Cloud Computing.”
Zoom Video Communications Inc. has not disclosed how many universities use its program, although more than 125,000 K-12, primary and secondary schools in 25 countries use it, according to a company report from last March.
The 10-year-old company reported that it had surpassed 300 million daily Zoom meeting participants in April 2020, and continues to see elevated usage compared to pre-pandemic levels.
It was critical that Blackboard contain a link to Zoom so professors and students could connect to the program with a single sign on, or SSO, option, which required their Stony Brook NetID numbers.
The proper link can be accessed through the university’s website, or more conveniently through a hyperlink ATS established within Blackboard. But on that anxiety-ridden first day of remote classes, the two programs Voss helped bring to Stony Brook – her babies so to speak – weren’t playing well with each other.
The program went down throughout the day, unable to handle the new volume. Pre-pandemic logins accounted for only half of those recorded during the spring 2020 semester. And traditionally, Blackboard was used for what Voss describes as passive tasks. “People would post up course notes, all you’d have to do is look at it,” she says. “Then all the sudden we’re telling Blackboard, now they’re gonna do stuff like take a test.”
To cope with the volume of users and the complexity of tasks, Voss purchased more memory space for the program.
With Blackboard out of commission on that first day, professors and students should have accessed Zoom through the university’s website. Instead, many went directly to the program – where they were denied access to secured Stony Brook Zoom meetings.
And then there were the Zoom bombs, unwanted guests who disrupt meetings and disrespect hosts and guests.
Voss remembers one professor whose class was attacked repeatedly. “It was so bad that we actually had IT people at his class every week just to keep out the bombers.” Strangers stormed his Zoom classroom, disrupted his lectures and called him names. It turned out that students were posting links to his class on Facebook pages and Reddits. “We set up waiting rooms and we’d just boot people out that we knew didn’t belong there, or kick somebody out the minute they started misbehaving.”
Zoom eventually implemented the option to only allow users of a particular domain, such as stonybrook.zoom.us, into a meeting, and the following fall and spring semesters were more secure. Voss said the repeatedly targeted professor has not faced a Zoom bomber since that first semester of lockdown.
Voss’s student technologists struggled to keep up with the volume of people in need of tech support during the early days of remote learning. Nikhil Bamarajpet, a clean-shaven biology major with side-slicked black hair, arrived on campus around 9:00 a.m. every day. His rectangular glasses stayed glued to the barrage of emails and service tickets while the phone in his office in the Melville Library SINC site was ringing off the hook. “By the time I came in to the time I left, my hands never left the keyboard,” Bamarajpet says. “I was typing, I was answering calls, like it was nonstop. It was like an adrenaline rush.”
In his junior year, the soft-spoken young man with a slender frame was also a student of “Zoom University,” experiencing the other side of remote learning firsthand. “It helped that I knew what was going on behind the scenes,” he says. “And me helping professors out with screen sharing and setting up Zoom sessions, I was also able to help out my own professors as well. I would try to be as empathetic as I can.”
Last spring, DoIT restarted it’s live chat feature, which had been discontinued a few years before due to limited use, adding to the mountain of pleas for help. Bamarajpet remembers a day when a call came in as he was in the middle of a chat. “It was a teacher who had scheduled a Zoom class at that time, and now Blackboard was down,” he says. As he was helping the professor, a plea for help arrived in his inbox. “By the time I was done with the call and done with the email, the person in the chat got frustrated because I wasn’t answering fast enough and they left.”
If last spring and the semesters that followed taught Voss one thing, it is the importance of empathy and resilience, she says. Even if she cannot provide support, Voss keeps an ear to the ground to listen to the needs of Stony Brook students. “I used to just run up to people and be like, ‘Hey I’m Diana, I’m from DoIT. Can I chat with you for a little bit?’” she says of the pre-pandemic world. But during this past year, she’s been more hesitant to converse face to face – besides, there weren’t that many people on campus to stop and chat with.
As a Stony Brook alumna who remembers getting involved in campus organizations like the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program and welcoming new students at orientation, she feels for the pandemic generation of students who are missing out on the social aspects of college life. Communal experiences that speak to what it means to be a Seawolf – the Roth Regatta, the Staller Steps and falling in the fountain at the end of the academic mall. Whenever she checks into various Stony Brook subreddits and notices students lamenting, “I don’t know how to make friends, I’m all alone in my room,’’ she feels their pain. “You guys are supposed to be having fun,” she says.
As what appears to be the last of the pandemic semesters has ended, the number of frantic calls from professors and students has dwindled. Voss spent a few days in her Melville Library SINC site office and it didn’t take long for her to feel ready to return full time in-person in the fall semester. “I was excited,” she says of her return to campus. “I walked around, I saw some people, I was like ‘there’s people!’ It was a rainy day, but yet there were students around … that was really nice to see.”
The woman who brought Zoom to Stony Brook may dread its presence outside of work, but she thinks it is here to stay, especially with the Javits Center set to close for renovations. “I don’t think we’ll see a change as far as the large classes go.” She believes Zoom and Blackboard exams will become staples of academic life.
Already, Voss has set her eyes on her next endeavors. She is still involved in the WISE program and is preparing to teach “Women’s Leadership in STEM” this fall. She is also planning her next digital innovation, one that will combine her tech skills with her watchful eye over students. “One of the future projects that I’m hoping we can accomplish is if you are not showing up for your Blackboard classes, if you are not submitting assignments, wouldn’t it be nice if someone reached out to you?” she says.
If DoIT could enable Stony Brook’s various software programs to communicate with one another, Voss’s student outreach idea could link together Stony Brook’s community of students, staff and faculty. “In the future, perhaps we can set up the ability for our learning management system to alert our advising system that a student may be in trouble, they may need help. And then that would be a really nice way of having students know that somebody’s looking out for you.”