Carleton students are accustomed to attending in-person classes at regular times for lectures, discussions, labs and more. But this spring, a typical schedule is slated to look entirely different.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carleton has moved at least the first half of its 2020 Spring term online in order to minimize the number of people on campus. Spring break has been extended by one week as professors prepare to teach remotely and adjust their classes to fit a nine-week term. In a March 12 email announcing the decision, President Steven Poskanzer wrote, “even as courses move to a new format, they will stay within previously scheduled time-period blocks, which will allow courses to include real-time student-student and student-faculty interactions (a.k.a. synchronous remote learning).” Since then, however, college leadership has shifted to advocating for low-bandwidth, asynchronous teaching: classes which don’t meet all at once and don’t require high-speed internet, using technology such as Moodle discussion boards or collaborative documents.
The change comes as Carleton grapples with making Spring term classes accessible, given that all but about 260 students will be off campus, learning from multiple time zones, in homes that may or may not be conducive to studying. A March 13 survey about online learning, distributed to all students by Institutional Research and Assessment (IRA) and Information Technology Services (ITS), found that only 55% of students will have a reliable, high-speed internet connection this spring. Others may have to share a computer with family members, limiting their time and flexibility to attend class.
Dean of the College Beverly Nagel ’75 named asynchronous teaching as a method to offer accommodations for all students. Her office is not requiring any one mode of instruction, leaving professors free to teach in the way that works best for their courses, but they “are urging faculty to use this approach as much as possible, and when using synchronous instruction to have an asynchronous ‘safety net’ if possible.”
Nagel said, “With so many schools going to remote teaching and people working remotely, pressures on the internet infrastructure, whether in a student’s home or more broadly, will be very heavy. Asynchronous teaching provides the flexibility that enables class participation even in the face of potential technology lapses.” Asynchronous teaching also allows faculty to more easily condense their classes into a nine-week term. Nagel reported that the minimum number of instructional hours remains the same, even with one fewer week. “Leaning toward an asynchronous approach affords greater flexibility in pacing, as opposed to rescheduling specific class meeting times for every course to make up for those lost by starting the term one week later,” she said.
On paper, Carleton’s course schedule will stay the same, in Central Standard Time. “If there are synchronous meetings, they will take place at the regularly scheduled class times,” said Devashree Gupta, Professor and Chair of Political Science and Co-Chair of the Education and Curriculum Committee. “However, to ensure maximum access, the guidance from the college has been to try to make asynchronous teaching a priority whenever possible, and to build flexibility into courses and assignments.”
Melissa Eblen-Zayas, Professor of Physics and Director of the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching, has been the main force working to make asynchronous classes a reality. Throughout the developing COVID-19 situation, she has been supporting faculty as they adjust their teaching plans. The one constant, she said, has been professors’ willingness to adapt. “Our planning for instructional continuity began before we ever knew what the course of COVID-19 would be. When we started, we were considering that there might be small numbers of students and faculty in quarantine. Now the situation is completely different,” said Eblen-Zayas. “I’ve been very appreciative of the flexibility and patience that faculty and staff have shown in the face of this shifting landscape.”
Students are cautiously hopeful about the new approach to Spring term classes. Kyra Ngai ’21, who decided to stay on campus rather than return home to Singapore, mentioned synchronous classes as a factor which discouraged international students from leaving in a previous Carletonian article. Now, Ngai said that she appreciates the shift to asynchronous classes, but brought up considerations about student participation: “I can imagine it would be much harder to feel motivated when you lack instant feedback and live interactions. Don’t get me wrong—it still beats waking up at 3 a.m.! But I think asynchronous learning will bring new challenges of its own.”
Carleton Student Association (CSA) Vice President Brittany Dominguez ’21, speaking on behalf of herself and CSA President Andrew Farias ’21, said, “we definitely think asynchronous learning is a step in the right direction as far as equity concerns, especially for international students, but we know it will certainly not prevent inequity all together.” Dominguez and Farias have not been involved in discussing asynchronous teaching, and have instead focused their efforts on advocating for a change in the grading policy for Spring term as a way to further push for equity.
One concern of Ngai’s was that the college has not fully communicated its ongoing efforts to redesign Spring term courses to the student body. On Carleton’s Coronavirus FAQ page, asynchronous teaching is mentioned in only two responses. Eblen-Zayas maintains a page on Instructional Continuity which provides more detailed information; the source has not been distributed widely to students. Students have been advised not to contact faculty about courses until April 1, although they are encouraged to submit questions through this form.
Overall though, Carleton’s emphasis on asynchronous teaching has eased Ngai’s mind in such an uncertain time. “Hopefully these changes will address some of the anxieties that international—and domestic—students are facing,” she said. “At the very least, it’s comforting to hear that the college is trying to ease the burden that everyone’s feeling—it shows that they care, which makes me a bit more optimistic about Spring Term.”