By Brian Crespo – News Editor
COVID-19 has pushed the United States and most other developed nations into a digital existence. Restaurants have switched to take-out, their chairs stacked neatly on their tables, their waiters and waitresses laid off. Sports events have all been cancelled – no Yankees, no Knicks, no nothing. Venues holding thousands of rowdy fans a year prior, now stand quiet and disused. Businesses deemed ‘non-essential’ – the trampoline emporiums, batting cages, and roller rinks of our fun-economy – have been shuttered. Packagers, nurses, and grocery workers keep the country on life-support.
To say the economic impact is disastrous would be an understatement. Statistics flash from underneath the more urgent matters of masks, ventilators, and mortality rates, allowing us a brief glimpse of the world to be. Forty million Americans are unemployed, and one hundred thousand are dead. Millions are unable to pay back their mortgage and credit card debts. Even behemoths of industry are wringing for tax extensions – JCPenney, the sick man of retail, has closed its remaining eight hundred and fifty locations. Small and medium-sized businesses are requiring extensive government bailouts to survive, and many are predicting their own bankruptcy in the absence of future funding. More than an economic downturn, the virus is being compared to a natural disaster — the raw, unnegotiable rampage of a biological Katrina through a politically fractured nation.
The old law of the jungle has reasserted itself — adapt or perish. ESPN is moving sports into the age of Twitch with real time polling and chat features to complement its live broadcasting. The already sickly WeWork is attempting to salvage what remains of their open-air office plans, a massive liability in the era of social distancing. Amazon seems poised to swallow an even bigger share of the economic pie. Schools, both public and private, are struggling to adjust to an uncertain future.
Rutgers is among the many schools that has transitioned to online learning in response to the crisis. Originally intended as a temporary measure covering the week or so after spring break, it has since been expanded to include the entirety of the spring semester and all three summer sessions. Whether the fall semester itself will be done remotely depends on the severity and length of the virus. Even conservative forecasts do not paint an optimistic picture.
Educators are having difficulty adjusting to the new normal. An overburdened communications network buckles under the weight of millions of newly created homebodies. It is not uncommon for audio to lag minutes after someone has spoken, and video streams freeze at what often appear to be the most crucial moments. The first 10 minutes of any class are usually spent wrangling with technical issues. Every professor begins their lecture with ‘Can you hear me?”
Testing has become completely derailed, though hopefully not delegitimized. Some professors have adjusted their exams to be shorter and more difficult to compensate for their inevitable open-book nature. Others appear resigned that the rigorous testing procedures available in classrooms are unenforceable through an online medium. One professor of mine ditched scantron-like multiple choice questions for a series of mini-essays. Another required the installation of a special browser locking students into a single tab upon starting their exam. So far, no professor has required an active camera feed to monitor test-takers in real-time. Grading finals is probably joyless enough without having to review eight seasons worth of students thumbing in front of their laptops.
Students have had their own issues. The stories have become something of a cultural gag at this point, and everyone has a few good ones. Some students in my morning class were initially unaware that their preferences were set to an active video feed and microphone — many odd conversations and picked noses were observed. A girl once spent the entire virtual period eating, with each chomp and swallow heard in excruciating detail. That same lesson had a student slumbering off mid-lecture, his camera panned into his first fluttering – latter peaceful – eyelids. A mixtape was sampled to a marketing class of three hundred.
The online systems have quirks enough to match their users. Many retain their original ‘conference’ facilitating configurations. One highly utilized system has the habit of switching to the next available video feed if the instructor is momentarily offline. The chosen students are unaware of having become the momentary television stars to an audience ranging upwards of three hundred plus. Good for an intimate board meeting? Maybe. For an online auditorium, not so much.