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Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks: Professors Adapt to Pandemic Instruction

Education at Boston College looks a little different this year, as the University pursues a hybrid model of course delivery with a variety of online classes, in-person instruction, and some classes striking a middle ground with a mix of both online and in-person instruction. 

Approximately 40 percent of classes are being held fully online, 45 percent are fully in person, and the remaining 15 percent are a mix of online and in-person instruction, according to Akua Sarr, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs.

Many smaller classes were assigned to full-size, de-densified classrooms so that meetings may occur fully in person with masks on at all times. In deciding which classes to hold in person, the University said it focused on practical and hands-on learning experiences, courses for first-year students, and signature BC experiences like Core Renewal, First-year Writing, PULSE, Perspectives and Portico.

This semester, Sarr is teaching an in-person section of Courage to Know, a first-year cornerstone elective in which the instructor also serves as the students’ first-year adviser. Seeing first-year students face-to-face, Sarr said, is an important aspect of developing relationships with faculty. 

Susan Roberts, an English professor at BC, said that she believes in-person instruction for her freshman writing seminar—a part of the Core Curriculum—is crucial in helping first-year students establish a sense of ownership in their lives as college students. Beyond that, she said, the course provides important opportunities to think about and discuss the historical circumstances they are facing.

“We’ve talked in my first year writing class about this moment that we’re in,” Roberts said. “Not just about the virus and the quarantine, but also the political moment, and the racial moment and the sort of reckoning that we’re facing as a nation. And they’re writing about it.” 

History professor Ling Zhang is teaching “Asia in the World,” traditionally one of the largest courses offered at the University, with an enrollment of approximately 300 students. It is currently being held online asynchronously—with lectures recorded for students to watch on their own time—in order to comply with state regulations and public health guidelines. 

As a supplement to following along with the pre-recorded lectures and modules posted on Canvas, students also meet in synchronous online small discussion groups led by teaching assistants.

Zhang emphasized that faculty members care about their students’ physical and mental health just as much as any academic fulfillment. After sensing her students’ anxiety last semester, she said making her classes more intimate and lighthearted has been an important priority of hers. In this vein, she is offering open office hours on Zoom so her students learning from locations all over the world can all get to know one another in a relaxed environment.

Accounting professor Edward Taylor teaches his hybrid classes of 40 students on a rotational basis, with half of the students attending each meeting remotely while the other half learns in person.

Taylor said that his classes are going better than he expected, noting that the only challenges have been technical issues. Taylor highlighted the crucial role of teaching assistants this semester in tutoring and guiding students in various situations. 

“Students seem really serious about doing the right thing in terms of keeping healthy and staying distanced,” Taylor remarked on his classroom observations thus far. 

Though not without difficulties, professors have said they are grateful for the opportunities to interact with students again.

“It was really important for me to be back in the classroom, to be with my students, to be on campus, to feel that really essential part of my life,” Roberts said on her first few weeks back on campus. “And it’s not flourishing, but it is happening.”

After the University experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 cases a couple weeks ago, some professors have moved their courses online. Alisha Nguyen, a professor in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, chose to move one of her hybrid courses fully online after one of her students tested positive. The University doesn’t consider classes “close contact” when it comes to contact tracing, meaning professors aren’t notified if a student in their class tests positive.

Some students have also needed to attend class while on campus for other in-person classes, Nguyen said, which has made it difficult to engage with the students on Zoom who are wearing masks while in public locations. By eliminating the in-person aspect of her course, Nguyen hoped to reduce the number of students who are in this situation.

It was a difficult decision, she said, but she does not expect the change to disrupt her students’ ability to learn. She said that the course material is well-suited for an online model, as her students will be able to engage in more small group discussions on Zoom than they were able to do from their distanced assigned seats in the classroom. 

“Neither I nor my students have been notified by the University that we have a positive case in our class,” Nguyen said. “A student came to me and volunteered that information, and I really appreciate it because it helped me make my decision [to move the course online].”

Featured Image by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor

September 21, 2020

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