Category Archives: student life

Two Sides of Online Learning: A Dual Perspective as a Student and Teacher

By Minghan Shelley Sun 

Edited by Natalie Grace Sipula

[4 minute read]

During the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems that we spend most of our time switching between screens while taking classes, socializing, or completing  work and internship projects. The digital fatigue we get from constantly looking at screens has eliminated the enjoyment and happiness we are supposed to receive from these activities or events. Because of this, a new question has been raised: How can educators infuse more excitement and motivation into online classes? Currently, I am taking online classes for the second semester in a row at the graduate level. I’m working from China and am also a student-teacher for a class at the USC International Academy. Therefore, I’ve gone through the process of adapting to online learning from both a student’s and a teacher’s perspective, and luckily, I’ve gained some insights and hope to shed some light on this issue for everyone who is also facing this issue.

Perspective as a graduate student

During this past semester (Fall 2020), my online classes seemed to always have group discussions and tasks. Having participated in many Zoom breakout rooms, I became aware of a sense of separation occurring when being grouped with different classmates. One experience I remember in particular is when I was in a breakout room with three classmates I’d never spoken to before. When we first entered the breakout room, no one started the conversation but just stared at their screens. I wondered to myself, ‘What are they doing?  Are they checking the rubric or looking for something?’ Eventually, I couldn’t stand the awkward silence so I broke the ice by saying “Hi, guys. Have you found the work document?” which started our conversation. Although we pretty much finished our assigned task, our discussion was superficial and did not really reach my expectations for that class. I was genuinely disappointed and felt upset about what I felt was a loss in value of that class time.

However, there was another time when I was grouped with a classmate who was talkative and willing to share their ideas, and that experience was totally different. From the beginning, our greetings naturally warmed up our discussion, and some common thoughts that we expressed about the class deepened our conversation and elicited more thinking and sharing. This experience showed me that if all of the members of a breakout room are willing participants, the conversation can be great.

Perspective as a teacher

Recently, I was granted the opportunity to observe as a student-teacher in a class. Student-teachers at the graduate level typically learn to teach by observing the host teacher’s practices and teaching micro lessons in real classrooms. This is what I did at the USC International Academy during Spring 2020 and Fall 2020. Due to the sudden shift to online learning, I’ve noticed a drop in student engagement and motivation in the classes I have assisted, especially compared to the behavior of students that I observed in in-person classes during Spring 2020. In particular, I noticed one odd but common phenomenon in breakout rooms: although the teacher had carefully explained the activity the students were about to perform before going into breakout rooms, the students tended to keep silent when they first entered the room and still needed some time to discuss what the task was about. Even though the teacher had asked if the students had any questions before they joined the breakout room, sometimes they even started the breakout room discussion by asking “What are we supposed to do?”. Even though they performed better in group activities after several weeks of class, communication efficiency distinctly decreased compared to in-person classes.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
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How I went VIRAL on TikTok

By Michael Neufeld

Edited by Natalie Grace Sipula

[3½ minute read]

A little while back, I went viral on TikTok. At the time of writing this (October 2020), I have thirty-one thousand followers and over half a million likes collectively on my posts. While this isn’t necessarily equivalent to the amount of recognition creators, influencers, and the like have gotten on TikTok, but it’s certainly more recognition than I ever expected to see on the app.

A screenshot of Michael’s viral Tiktok video where he plays the Star Wars theme in a parking garage-almost a quarter million likes!

Since quarantine started, I have been creating short, seven-second to one-minute long videos and posting them on TikTok. Most of them involve me playing trombone in some sort of creative way, whether that is playing along to a popular song, “duetting” someone else’s popular video, or just finding different shenanigans to engage in with my primary instrument. I found a variety of topics on the app, such as musical humor, anime discussion, or other interests of mine, and used those to creatively approach the way I made content. Soon, I found a community of people with similar interests. I connected with jazz musicians across America, who studied at reputable music schools that I knew of. They were all on TikTok for the same reason as me: we had nothing better to do in quarantine.

Over the first few months of COVID-19 lockdown, I had a few successful videos. At first, the bland videos would average around 500 views, while the more popular ones would score a few thousand. The response wasn’t massive, but it was entertaining for me to see which videos gained more of a response than others. I then started a consistent posting schedule which set me up to gain traction. I started one video off by saying “Alright here’s Day 1 of me Rick Rolling your feed until I go viral,” and proceeded to play Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” For those of you unfamiliar with “Rick Rolling,” it is a prank that was popular around ten years ago, where one person would send a YouTube link to someone else, saying it was a link to something interesting. For example, one might have sent the link over a text accompanied by an explanation, “Hey, check out this video I worked hard on making!” The twist comes when the recipient opens the link and is sent to the music video for Rick Astley’s hit song “Never Gonna Give You Up”. After I played day one, I played a harmony to the first track and synced it up, so it sounded like I was playing a duet with myself. The audio at the beginning sounded, “Alright here’s Day 2 of me Rick Rolling your feed until I go viral.” This harmonization process went on for a little over a month, and each video netted me more and more views. I broke 500 followers, which at the time felt like a big achievement.

Michael’s early attempts to go viral

I kept making videos and nothing of note happened for a couple months, aside from a couple hits that broke thirty thousand views. Then I got an idea: “I need to practice, but I don’t have a practice room available because of COVID restrictions. Because I make too much noise in my apartment, I need to go to a parking structure to get some privacy and not disturb anyone. Maybe I’ll film myself in that resonant, echoey space and see what happens on TikTok.” Within the first five videos of me playing in a high-reverb parking garage, I jumped fifteen thousand followers over the course of two days. The culprit was a video of me playing the force theme from Star Wars (or “Binary Sunset” by it’s official name). That video currently is close to hitting one million views, with almost a quarter million likes.

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Advice For ph.d. students

By Wei Gao

Edited by Natalie Grace Sipula

[3 minute read]

Are you a Ph.D. student? If you are, or you are considering pursuing a PhD, I have some advice for you. I am currently a PhD student, and without receiving advice from different individuals in my life, I wouldn’t have the outlook I do now. I want to share one particular word of advice that had a great impact on me, which I think could have an impact on any PhD student.

To fully explain why the advice I received was so important to me, I must introduce the person who gave it to me: meet my friend Tanya [ˈtɑːnjə]. Tanya is from China (the Chinese pronunciation of her name is Tanya [tán yǎ]). I met Tanya for the first time a few years ago in 2016 at an academic conference in Shanghai. As a graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Tanya was certainly a rising star in academia. I was responsible for her reception when she came to my university as a guest for the conference. Since it was such a rare opportunity to speak one-one-one with such a distinguished scholar, I asked her, “Tanya, I plan on pursuing a Ph.D. degree in the near future. Could you please give me some advice about how to do good research?” She replied, “Lady Gaga is a great singer; a real artist. You should listen to her music.” Then she left. Needless to say, I was confused after hearing that. I thought to myself, “So does she mean I should listen to Lady Gaga’s music to become a good researcher?” Following her suggestion, I started to listen to Lady Gaga’s music. However, after I listened to all of Lady Gaga’s songs, my research skills had only marginally improved.

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

One year later, someone told me that Tanya hadn’t published any papers this year. I couldn’t believe it, but after checking her website I realized this person was right. Soon after, I heard people starting to gossip, “Tanya is not a rising star any longer,” “Tanya flops”, “Tanya isn’t what she used to be”. I was genuinely worried about her, and I kept wondering what had happened.

A year later, I met her in person again at another academic conference in Washington DC. After some small talk, I had to mention, “Tanya, I have been following your research, but it seems that you haven’t updated your website for some time.” Although I didn’t ask directly why she hadn’t published anything notable, she quickly understood what I meant. Then she said, “Remember a couple years ago when I asked you to listen to Lady Gaga’s music? Here’s why I did that. Lady Gaga had a commercially successful career for several years. Then, she flopped in 2013 when she released her album Artpop. So what happened? Instead of just satisfying the public, Lady Gaga was trying to produce an album created from an artist’s perspective. Thus, the album Artpop was not accepted by the majority, although it had a large influence on the music industry overall when we look back at it today. The subjects of this album, art and pop, can be considered by many to be antithetical. She caused a stir with her pop fans when she picked sides. Lady Gaga chose art, but that came with a cost.” 

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