How Professors Are Planning for an Uncertain Fall Semester

Jun 25, 2020

Colleges are busy planning for what promises to be a dramatic and stressful semester. The COVID-19 pandemic continues, but states are in the process of opening back up, and the majority of U.S. colleges say they plan to restart classroom teaching on campus in the fall.

There are still many unanswered questions about what that might look like in practice, as colleges try to balance safety through social distancing while making teaching and other campuses experiences meaningful and effective.

At Purdue University, leaders have famously announced they are installing plexiglass barriers in some classrooms that teachers will stand behind to lecture. Meanwhile, even colleges trying to go back in person say that they’re looking at hybrid solutions to move some parts online and some parts in person.

What are some ideas for how colleges should do this? And what input do faculty have in the planning and about whether and how much they’ll teach in person?

These were the questions tackled this week during a live online discussion, part of our monthly EdSurge Live series.

Helping explore the topic were:

Stephen P. Beaudoin, vice chair of the University Senate at Purdue University

Robert Talbert, a professor in the mathematics department at Grand Valley State University and author of the book “Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty.”

Listen to the conversation, or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: We’ve been hearing a lot about Purdue’s plans in national media, especially this idea of teaching behind plexiglass. It’s such a powerful image in a way because it just embodies how strange and different teaching with social distancing and health mitigation might be. Stephen, have you seen any of the classrooms where this plexiglass has been installed? What does campus look like these days?

Stephen Beaudoin: My understanding is yes, that those barriers are being installed in the classrooms. Most of the buildings are still locked—we're in the process of reopening. So I haven't been able to go into a classroom and see what a plexiglass barrier looks like.

I'm going to be teaching a course with 110 students in the fall. I'll be in the classroom that should hold over 230 students. So my expectation is that we'll be able to separate them. And if we can't keep them separate in that room there, my expectation is they'll move us to an even bigger lecture hall, so that there will be something like 13 square feet of space [for each person]. Every student will sort of be on a bit of an island.

And the expectation is that the students will sanitize their workspace when they sit down. It's not precisely clear yet how that's going to work: If the students will come in, grab a wipe and all clean off their spots before they get to work, or if there's going to be a cleaning crew that comes in and out. So how do we get classes to move on a regular schedule?

I expect that I'll be standing there with a plexiglass shield in front of me. So they'll see me, I'll see them. They'll see me masked, I'll see them masked. And they'll be pretty isolated from each other during the lecture experience.

What do you say to the argument I've seen on Twitter that goes: If there’s going to be this much distancing and precautions, isn't Zoom teaching better?

Beaudoin: I don't know how I would address 110 students on Zoom all at once. They would be able to see if I'm confused, but I wouldn't be able to see if they are.

We run our Senate meetings with Zoom. So certainly there is the possibility ... but the ability for me to read their faces and read their body language, all of those kinds of things that a good instructor is doing, doesn't work as well on Zoom. So unless we could reduce the class sizes to numbers where I can physically see all of them [in a Zoom format], it's going to be a lot harder for me to read them and therefore respond appropriately in the moment.

I understand there's a debate going on at Purdue among faculty about the comfort level around teaching in classrooms. How would you summarize that discussion?

Beaudoin: It's fair to say that faculty are extremely concerned about the likelihood of the spread of the virus on campus. The safety measures that the university wants to implement, I think most faculty agree that that's about the best we can do. Putting masks on everybody, sanitizing every surface.

Most people do not have a lot of confidence about what the students or the faculty or the staff are going to do when they're off campus. We can go to any of our towns right now and walk into any restaurant. And there's some fraction of people obeying the distancing rules that you might expect, but certainly not the overwhelming majority. So I think people are concerned and rightly so about what can we do to minimize that disease coming onto our island once we're on the island.

Robert, you plan to blog about your teaching experiences in the fall, and I see you mentioned in a post this week that concerns over how this will go is literally keeping you up at night. Can you say a little bit about the challenges you see for the fall?

Robert Talbert: I have a lot of concerns about the safety of students, the safety of faculty, especially some faculty who are in high-risk situations.

In the mathematics department, we're very committed to active learning. We basically start with active learning and work our way backward from there. This presents a lot of challenging problems when we're thinking about a socially-distant situation. There are a lot of challenges if we're talking about an online situation. And if we're doing sort of a hybrid of, we have some people showing up face to face and some people are online, then it's double the problems that we have to think about. So this is really pushing our teaching creativity to the limits.

Will you be teaching in-person classes?

Talbert: Yeah. I have two calculus classes and a discrete math class, and they are all going to be partially face-to-face. My calculus classes [of 30 students each] meet four days a week. The students are going to be split into two groups of 15. Group one comes Monday and Wednesday, group two comes Tuesday and Thursday. And whoever's not present in the classroom is going to be participating online. So it's sort of a hybrid—what we're calling staggered hybrid.

So in one form or another, I'm going to be up in front of some subgroup of my students 10 hours a week in a classroom. So I'm thinking about how do we do this in a way that's as familiar and intimate as we're used to with our students—where we really like to get close to our students [while being responsible and distant]?

Keeping students engaged in that sort of setting is going to be a really challenging thing that we're going to have to work through day after day this semester.

[Audience question from Patricia O’Sullivan, in academic technology at the University of Mississippi]: We've been having a lot of these conversations as well. And we've been asking, is this the time for us to rethink some of the ways that we teach? The default for a lot of the faculty at my institution, especially for large classes and STEM, is to lecture. And that's something that we just can't do now. We can't stuff a hundred kids into a classroom. So I was wondering if anyone has really started to rethink lecturing as an effective way of teaching?

Talbert: That's maybe the most important question of the day. I've been questioning the effectiveness of lectures for about 15 years now. What I keep hearing [from students] is if all they're going to do is lecture, I'll just sit out a year. Because I can get a lecture for free on Khan Academy or YouTube. And I know it may not be as high a quality as what Steve might do or what I might do, but, you know, that's what they're thinking.

And there's a massive amount of pedagogical data that suggests that active learning is in many ways better than lecture for most situations, if not all, situations.

Lecture is a good tool. We need to be good at it. But as the tool in the toolbox, I think those days are over. Because I think we're at a point in history where we see that what students really want, if they're going to go to the lengths and literally put their lives at stake to be with us in a classroom, they need more than just to sit and listen. And in fact, they will learn more if they do more than just sit and listen.

I think this is a moment of clarity for almost every faculty member in the United States right now, as awful as this pandemic is and as much I pray every day it will be over soon. That's actually pretty exciting to see.

Beaudoin: What I will say is that the classic lecture where everybody sits and takes notes is optimized for a certain type of learner. The reason that most of us are faculty is because we could learn that way.

When we go to this new teaching mode [of mixing online and in-person teaching, we’ll need to engage students and] give them more than a TV-watching experience. So if we can build in active exercises, if we can build in reflective moments ... we'll be able to cross different media and still be effective in educating students.

[Audience question]: We’re hearing plans for professors wearing masks. And we've been getting a lot of pushback around this issue from the deaf and hard-of-hearing students and students with various kinds of disabilities or perceptual issues who need that facial cue to understand what's going on. How do we not exclude people while we're doing this?

Beaudoin: You're exactly right. I mean, there's, there's absolutely no doubt about it. And, um, I've worked very closely with the number of students who had various kinds of learning challenges on campus almost since day one. There are clear masks that can be implemented so that people can see your lips moving through the mask. How well those work, I don't know.

[Audience member:] One of the options we’re discussing is face shields. And I've been doing some research on it and it looks like the face shields are actually superior at providing a barrier and preventing the spread of the disease [compared] to the homemade DIY cloth face masks that people were wearing. And so those are an option. They can be sterilized, you can switch out the barrier. [And people can see the professor’s face.]

Beaudoin: I appreciate you tossing that out and this is something as vice chair of our Senate, I can present to our university and see what kind of homework we should be doing because it's obvious that that really would give a lot more visual access to what's going on in the instructors.

[Audience question from Joseph Ching, a Purdue student]: One of my experiences with online classes is that I hadn't been able to connect with classmates as well. Sometimes it's been harder to access instructors through email and office hours. How do the instructors build a classroom community in the fall—whether that's through online forums or other tools?

Beaudoin: What I've noticed is the same students show up for office hours at the same times. So we're going to have to schedule more and more sessions where I know that you and 15 other people are going to make it at that point in time. So that starts to build a smaller community where you're all together [by Zoom].

Talbert: Multiple channels of communication help—Zoom and some sort of chat program and Slack—not just one way.

Also as a professor, I've got to be proactive about this. I can't wait for someone to come and ask me questions. I’ve got to get out to you, Joseph, and ask you questions. Like, how are you doing? What do you need? What questions do you have? And communicate to you, signal to you, that it's OK for you to ask the questions, and that sort of taps a flow of communication that begins to build this community

Community begins with communication. So you've got to have a solid communication strategy. You’ve got to check your email every day. You’ve got to zero your inbox out every day. You just need to make sure you’ve got your act together, and you're getting out to where your students are. Don't wait for them to raise their hands.


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