When Not in Rome: What we learned so far about learning remotely

After their time in Italy was cut short due to the COVID-19 health crisis, Winter 2020 Rome LSA+ director Tania Convertini and students had to quickly restructure the rest of their term for remote learning. Here they share their lessons learned and suggestions for faculty and students this term.

On February 24, my Rome LSA+ students and I gathered at my house for dinner after their week of break and exploration across Italy. Over dinner, before resuming classes the day after, we spoke about the places they visited, what they learned, and how they had applied the intercultural learning abilities developed during our trip to Milan. At that time, we were already reading news about the coronavirus. We were becoming increasingly aware of our behaviors, but we were not worried yet about what we now know would become a pandemic problem. We were ready to resume our program together spending the last three weeks of it on the completion of an interdisciplinary field research project. The program's culminating experience would have given students the opportunity to apply all the skills developed in the three courses taken in Rome. We all shared a sense of excitement and anticipation for what was still ahead of us.

Only two days later, on February 26, I had to announce to the group that they should return to the United States as soon as possible and that the program would continue remotely. Of course, nobody was happy about it, but we did what we had learned to do in the previous weeks. We put our minds together and thought of meaningful solutions to the problem. How could we complete the program remotely in the best possible way? Which changes did we need to make given that we would be working from different time zones and without the cultural contact that made our program so special? We did not know, at that time, that this experience would have been the test drive of a much longer remote learning experience. As we would learn a few weeks later, Dartmouth, like many other institutions across the world, would have shifted all its classes to remote learning for the whole spring term, and possibly longer. I asked my students to reflect with me on the process of adjusting to a different kind of learning and share their suggestions. 

What Did I Learn? 

  • The Rome LSA+ faculty and I needed to streamline the curriculum. There was no way we could keep the same assignments – in the same format as they were before.  Something had to go – or be rearranged. 
  • We needed to give new coherence to the three-week program in the remote environment. To do so, we redesigned all assignments for the three courses according to two main tracks: looking back (tasks that invited students to reflect on their past work) and moving forward (tasks that would contribute to their culmination experience). This way we were able to capitalize reflection, while still looking at our goals for the completion of the work. 
  • We needed to create more space for asynchronous discussion giving full agency to students. We invited them to interact more through posts and comments in discussions and blogs. 
  • We divided students into clusters that allowed them to meet at their own time, being responsible for the discussion. At the end of each meeting, they shared a report with the class for everyone to see. This proved to be a useful tool.  
  • We instituted regular check-in meetings, drop-in hours, and continued to use the WhatsApp chat. Individual and group Zoom meetings were useful to keep the sense of community alive.
  • We kept students in touch with their host families through the WhatsApp chat and other platforms. This was also helpful to ensure that students stayed in touch with language and culture. 
  • Finally, we introduced an element of cultural comparison to the interdisciplinary field-based final project. The goal was to maximize students' presence in the United States (instead than penalizing it). It proved challenging but enriching of their work. 


What Did the Students Learn?  

The Challenges

  • Access to reliable Wi-Fi: While some students may have fast Wi-Fi, other students may not, and they may need assistance finding such.
  • Time zone management: Time management/time zone differences: students on the West Coast might not be as attentive as their peers on the East Coast when meeting synchronously early in the day. 
  • Mindset:  Be in the proper academic mindset at home: in an environment like Dartmouth, students are surrounded by classmates, professors, academic resources, and libraries. This environment can inspire students to work hard and pursue their academic goals, something which might not be the case at home.
  • Communication: Professors will not have physical office hours; it may be stressful waiting for responses to questions that may arise. This breakdown of healthy communicative boundaries may stress students out and make them feel as though they lack control over their academic lives. 
  • Keeping in touch: The need for more frequent contact with professors, both for keeping up with course materials and receiving feedback on work.
  • Isolation from peers: It might be challenging to suddenly be so isolated from everyone after bonding and being close, without group meetings of the entire class due to the diversity of time zones.

What Worked for the Students 

  • Group text chat: Our class created a group text chat to ensure immediate communication. It helped to stay on top of critical commitments that we usually would remember with the help of peers in an on-campus environment. Students were generally much more responsive to text messages, and professors adapted in this way to avoid confusion in an at-home learning environment. Texting in addition to email and Canvas announcements was helpful.
  • Frequent contact with the professor: We tried to chat with our professor every week (it was beneficial to keep regular contact during the last three weeks of the program completed remotely). 
  • Working in clusters: Working in clusters was helpful. Each student felt like they had each other for a last-minute resource for questions or clarifications when professors are unavailable. Working in clusters helped us preserve some sense of collaboration and social connection we encounter at Dartmouth.

Recommendations from Students  

  • Zoom meetings: Treat them as you would a class: make sure you allocate time for finding a quiet atmosphere and getting set up before the meeting, just as you would allocate time to walking to your class at school.
  • Working space: Because you will be working and living in the same space for an extended time, be sure to construct some kinds of boundaries for yourself. If you prefer and are capable of doing so in your current living situation, designate a workspace that you will only use as such. If you prefer to work in a more comfortable space or do not have space in your house to do this, at least attempt to designate specific periods to work and others to relax.
  • Keep in touch: You will miss the face-to-face interaction. Keeping in touch with your professor, and with everyone in your class is very important. 
  • Clarity: Professors should make sure to allocate time at the end of each meeting to summarize upcoming assignments, so students who might miss assignment due dates are made aware. 
  • Feedback: Keep seeking feedback from your professors through all the available channels. 

Despite the many challenges, the sense of displacement that students experienced at home, and the many concerns they had during this difficult time, we were able to complete together our program positively and productively. I had a chance to speak at length – in Italian - with each of them before they left Rome, and also at the end of the program on Zoom. The primary concern that all students voiced before leaving Rome was losing their Italian proficiency after returning to the United States. In our 45-minute wrap-up conversation (in Italian) at the end of the program, they demonstrated that their Italian had continued to improve, despite returning to the United States. Their ability to reflect on culture proved outstanding. During our open conversation, many of them demonstrated the ability to transfer their newly developed intercultural awareness on the analysis of the COVID-19 world emergency, correctly applying intercultural analysis paradigm that we had discussed in our courses and workshops – all in Italian of course. 

Tania Convertini – Director of the Rome LSA+ Program W2020  
Diana Alvarado, '22   
Sophia Bailey, '22 
Chris Candelora, '22  
Maddie Doerr, '22 
Hunt Hobbs, '22 
Ben Hunt, '22 
Zoe Marzi, '22 
Gabriel Onate, '21
Sunaina Sekaran, '22