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As virtual learning wanes at Princeton, professors make their own policy

frist campus center abby de riel
Courtesy of Abby de Riel 

In March 2020, amid nationwide shut-downs and the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic, the University updated Blackboard, then the primary academic platform, with information about how to log into Zoom, a new video conferencing platform. The University announced that classes would be conducted remotely for the duration of the spring semester, as students dispersed across the world.

Full in-person instruction would not resume until fall 2021. By then, administrators anticipated a hard stop for remote learning — in a town hall meeting held Aug. 10, 2021, Dean of the College Jill Dolan said the fall semester would include “no option for remote learning.”


Two years later, that hard stop has not materialized, neither nationally nor on campus. Some academic institutions in the U.S. embrace virtual learning. Three state colleges in Vermont are currently in the process of using virtual learning to consolidate into one statewide institution, Vermont State University, which will operate from three campuses using a hybrid Zoom and in-person model.

University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 addressed virtual learning in his seventh annual State of the University letter, published Jan. 31, acknowledging both its advantages and disadvantages. Eisgruber noted the necessity of virtual learning during the pandemic, questioning “how we would have persevered … without the means to teach and work online.”

Still, he noted the “dark sides” of technology, expressing concerns about distractions inhibiting academic success. 

“The tension between the online world and the scholarly world is real and deep,” he continued.

While campus has repopulated after students were sent home in 2020, with classrooms restored as the primary setting for instruction, professors continue to utilize Zoom and other platforms to accommodate extenuating circumstances, such as sickness, COVID-19 exposure, or travel. Certain educational and extracurricular programs, such as some Wintersession events, are offered exclusively on Zoom.

When contacted for comment, the University Office of Communications directed The Daily Princetonian to a memo issued to faculty on Sept. 2, 2022 with the most recent guidance on virtual learning.


According to the memo, during the 2021–2022 academic year, faculty were “encouraged” but not required to accommodate students absent from class due to COVID-19 by opening a “Zoom ‘window’ into their classroom.” 

The document describes the results of this flexibility as “suboptimal,” citing “technical and administrative burdens,” while faculty reported an “endless stream of requests” for Zoom access. 

The memo continues, advising faculty that while “not prohibited,” they are no longer required to offer a Zoom call for absences of any kind, suggesting alternative accommodations such as providing the absent student a recording of lecture, class notes, conference in office hours, or a make-up assignment. The memo also stipulates that instructors may “offer one Zoom lecture each semester if they must be off campus for an academic conference or invited lecture.”

The ‘Prince’ spoke to Princeton professors in several departments about their experiences with virtual learning and positions on the issue.

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Chemistry professor Andrew Bocarsly, who currently teaches CHM202: General Chemistry II, reported an aversion to virtual learning platforms — an opinion informed by his personal experiences teaching during the pandemic.

“There was almost no feedback in virtual learning,” Bocarsly stated in an email sent to the ‘Prince,’ “There’s a big advantage in terms of lecture, seeing people’s faces and seeing how they’re responding.”  

He says, “in the pandemic [we] have lost a generation of students, in terms of having trained them how to be students, how to learn.” Many of Bocarsly’s current students had learned chemistry in high school from home, and he noted that these students are “less well-prepared for a college chemistry course” compared to students he has taught in the past.

Mathematics professor Noga Alon, who currently teaches MAT478/577: Extremal Combinatorics, echoed Bocarsly’s concerns about engagement with online courses. He wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that he found academic experiences over virtual platforms to be “okay,” but “less fruitful.” 

Alon said that while he offered hybrid flexibility in his courses last year, he no longer does, even to accommodate absences.

“It's technically complicated to arrange a Zoom option in all lectures,” Alon said, “In some of the rooms this is impossible, and even when possible it often creates serious … difficulties.”

However, this critical stance is not universal. 

Neuroscience professor Jesse Gomez said in an email he “was initially worried that always having a Zoom option would mean little class attendance, but that doesn't seem to have been the case.” Gomez said by making recorded lectures accessible to students, students will “not feel too pressured to quickly take notes during class… students could be more engaged during lecture.” 

Gomez also noted that offering Zoom options can support students who are unable to attend: “I didn't want students who were ill to be at more of a disadvantage than they already were.” 

Other professors have gone further, choosing to embrace virtual learning platforms and integrate virtual resources into their course curriculum.

Professor Jeremy Adelman of the History department has capitalized on the flexibility provided by virtual learning. He runs HIS201: A History of the World as a “flipped classroom” in which pre-recorded lectures are released every Friday. Students are expected to watch the videos before their in-person lecture on Wednesdays, where they then dive deeper into the content covered in the pre-recorded lecture in a discussion-based format.

Adelman views online learning as a resource that complements Princeton’s commitment to developing students into global citizens. Every Friday morning, he holds an “open house” for his students where they converse with students at universities around the world through virtual platforms. He remarked in an email, “It’s about opening up global pathways and exchanges for students, the point being that they can do global history globally… [Virtual learning] blows out the walls of the classroom.”

He said that, in his opinion, virtual resources help more than hurt when it comes to students’ engagement.

“Students get much more content from a pre-recorded lecture,” he said. “They can stop, they can replay, they can pause. They can choose the time when they are most mentally focused to listen to a lecture.”

“In the classroom, so many students take their notes on laptops and get distracted by other things happening on their devices,” Adelman said, “Going virtual myself was a way to hack that space.”

Tess Weinreich is an Assistant News Editor and Features contributor for the ‘Prince.’

Sarina Sheth is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’

Minna Abdella is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’

Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]