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Faculty members express logistical concerns, heightened workload in the move to remote teaching

In a YouTube video to incoming students of Psychology 220: Sensation and Perception, Assistant Professor of Psychology Julia Strand said, “this class is definitely going to be different than it would be if I were teaching it in person, but I think if we work together, we can still make it great.” 

Professors like Strand are spending Carleton’s extended spring break learning new technologies and reshaping their courses as the College adjusts to remote teaching in the face of COVID-19. The shift to teach courses online for at least the first four weeks of spring term is not without its challenges: several faculty members told the Carletonian that they are working far more than usual—as long as 16-hour days—as they balance winter term grading with spring term pedagogical adjustments. 

Leading the transition to remote teaching is Melissa Eblen-Zayas, Professor of Physics and Director of the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching (LTC). Eblen-Zayas told the Carletonian that she and the College’s academic technology (AT) staff “are focused on helping faculty think through their learning goals for their spring term courses and what technologies will allow faculty to work with students in a way that is a good fit for the faculty member and the specific course.” 

Over the past week, the LTC has hosted eight online workshops, covering topics such as online course design, synchronous and asynchronous discussion, and small group and collaborative work in online courses. Each workshop had a turnout of between 50 and 80 faculty members, Eblen-Zayas said. 

This is far from Eblen-Zayas’ first encounter with online teaching and learning: Eblen-Zayas helped design the Carleton Undergraduate Bridge Experience (CUBE) program, a six-week online quantitative skills course for incoming first-years, and is involved in a National Science Foundation-funded (NSF) project with Liberal Arts Collaborative for Digital Innovation, a consortium of ten peer institutions dedicated to teaching with emerging technologies. “I’m still a rookie at online teaching, but through these projects, I’ve become familiar with the research about effective practices in both online curricular design and student engagement with online courses and course materials,” Eblen-Zayas said.

Carleton faculty members have to be creative as they determine how to redesign their courses for online learning. Among the hardest-hit courses are those that would typically require an art studio or laboratory. 

Some professors, like Professor of Art Kelly Connole, are teaching entirely different courses. Originally slated to teach a ceramics course focused on throwing (ARTS 230), Connole will now teach a course on the history and design of ceramics (ARTS 228). “This is a brand new course designed for the move to remote learning,” Connole said. 

Chair of Art and Art History Ross Elfline said that studio art students will be mailed a toolkit, which the course’s typical materials fee will cover, but Connole added that some hallmarks of artmaking—in her case, firing clay for 21 hours in a wood kiln—will simply not be possible. 

Senior Lecturer in Dance Jane Shockley, who is slated to teach Moving Anatomy and Contemporary Dance Forms III, expressed that while “dance is meant to be experienced in community,” she teaches from a somatic perspective, which she thinks is more suited for virtual learning. “I will not be asking my students to learn choreography,” Shockley said. Instead, she will guide students through exploratory and improvisational exercises that can be practiced at home. Shockley’s dance students can even expect to join her on Google Meet or Zoom when they are not watching her pre-recorded Moodle videos.

Professor of Biology Matt Rand, who will teach a 200-level Vertebrate Morphology course, typically relies on lab space for hands-on dissections. As of now, Rand suspects that he will engage students with independent study projects that have to do with vertebrate morphology in lieu of dissections. Additionally, the Class of 1969 Makerspace has 3-D scanners that can scan fairly large skulls. Rand hopes to send students rotatable 3-D images of skulls and simultaneously hold live discussion.  

Director of Biochemistry Joe Chihade thinks that remote learning might provide an opportunity for a greater emphasis on experimental design. Chihade said that sometimes lab assignments give “directions that are so prescriptive that students don’t really make any choices in terms of experimental design, or by having students analyze data so compromised by experimental error that it is nonsensical.” Now, he hopes to emphasize these aspects of lab work while retaining a hands-on experience with tasks that already require the use of a computer, such as molecular modeling.

Other professors are replacing past course content with material that is relevant to COVID-19. For Assistant Professor of Anthropology Constanza Ocampo-Raeder, this means centering her 300-level Advanced Ethnographic Workshop on an ethnography of a pandemic, and for Chair of Philosophy Daniel Groll, this means incorporating a new unit on medical decision-making in a pandemic in his 200-level Medical Ethics course.

Faculty in the social sciences and humanities are especially concerned about losing the integrity of discussion-based learning. “One of the things I love about teaching in the classroom is that I can gauge how things are going on the fly and adapt,” said Strand. “An important part of teaching is ‘reading the room’—looking at students’ faces and seeing whether what you’re saying is landing with them. So, I’m thinking about how I can make sure students have enough opportunities to communicate with me. I’m working hard to avoid having this be a one-way flow of information. I’m feeling confident that I can make it work, though.

Elfline and Ocampo-Raeder also voiced concerns about reaching the same intellectual depth via virtual discussions that they would normally attain in the classroom. “I rely so, so heavily on this idea of extemporaneous back-and-forth of students and me in a kind of free-flowing discussion, and the idea of doing that via videoconferencing, like via Zoom or Google Hangouts or something, I don’t know how a student can raise his or her hand,” Elfline said. “The free-flowingness of that, I think it’s just kind of impossible,” he added. Ocampo-Raeder thinks that Carleton professors place a premium on their ability to do more than just lecture from a set of notes. “You present that information, but you present it with these sort of cues and prompts to get students thinking about those issues at different angles, from different perspectives,” Ocampo-Raeder said. “And based on what starts emerging from those conversations is how you actually harness that energy, harness those ideas and make it a little bit unique,” she added.

For Groll, figuring out how to maintain the give-and-take of the philosophy classroom is just one of a number of concerns now on his radar: “A lot of my time is spent just trying to think through how a typical week in the course is going to look: are we going to try to meet all together? Or just in groups? How much content should I try to convey in a pre-recorded lecture? What kinds of assignments will work?”

Chihade, who is teaching a 300-level Biological Chemistry course and a corresponding lab section, said that his to-do list is “completely different. For example, in my lab course, I would have been figuring out assembling the equipment and reagents that I need. Now I’m rethinking the techniques that I’ll be teaching and changing the whole focus of the course. Eventually I’ll need to worry about what software we’ll use, but I have a feeling much of that will be decided on the fly.”

“My to-do list now has nothing to do with content and has everything to do with technical stuff,” said Elfline. “It really is like learning how to ride a bike when I’m crawling at this point.” Elfline spent “a good six hours” familiarizing himself with distance learning tools, and that’s not all: now he has to record and edit a series of lectures for his two junior seminars, one in Studio Art and the other in Art History. 

Elfline also worries about how research papers will change shape. “I can’t guarantee that every student is going to have access to a good research library with artists’ monographs,” he said. “How do you do research in art history when you don’t have access to texts like that? E-books are not the answer because arts monographs are not published as e-books.” 

Chihade and Rand are concerned about exams, which are a critical component to their courses in Chemistry and Biology, respectively. For foundational knowledge—those “fundamental facts that need to be at one’s fingertips in order to do the higher-order work in the course”—Chihade said he will probably “test those things in shorter timed online quizzes,” and might use problem sets or more open-ended assignments to put together and apply ideas. Rand said that his lab sections are graded through practical exams, which his students will be unable to take. “The beauty of a practical exam is that you’re looking at specimens,” Rand said. Now, Rand plans to administer written exams and assign small group presentations. Written exams for the lecture portion of his course will remain largely unchanged.

How grading will change is another concern currently facing professors. “As more people fall ill, I expect that we will need to make adjustments to expectations and that we need to practice kindness, flexibility, and adaptability,” said Connole.

“I’m reducing some assignments, more because the term is a week shorter than usual because it is online,” said Strand. “I want to try to maintain academic rigor but also be sensitive to the fact that things are more tricky to do remotely, students will have different access to technology, and the fact that we all have a lot on our minds.”

“When I think of something that is built into all of our syllabi, which is class participation, how do you grade class participation in this case?,” asked Elfline. 

Professors also shared how the transition to remote teaching has impacted their lives outside Carleton. 

“Moving online has generated a lot of extra work,” said Groll. “That would have been fine, but what’s really making it difficult is that the schools are now out and probably will be for the entire spring term. I have my two kids at home. My wife is a nurse practitioner, so she is still out working all day, everyday. So, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to manage.”

Strand and Connole also have young children at home. Strand is learning new technology and adjusting her course while taking care of two preschool-aged children because their daycare is closed, she said. Connole added, “my quality of life has changed dramatically, especially since I have two third-grade children now at home and the whole world has changed!” 

When asked how far along they are in readying their online courses, the consensus was: not very. 

“The workload for next term has increased exponentially,” said Rand.

“This is an unprecedented challenge for everyone—students, faculty, staff,” said Eblen-Zayas. “From what I’ve seen, faculty and staff are working incredibly hard to make the move to online courses and keep the students at the center of their planning. We will all need to have lots of patience and flexibility, but the Carleton community is filled with curious, committed people and we’ll all learn together as we make this transition.”

“We’re smart and motivated and we want it to work well,” Strand said in her YouTube video. “So, yeah, it’s going to be an online class. But it’s still going to be Carleton.”

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