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Professors navigate challenges of transitioning to remote learning

Across disciplines, faculty adapt large courses, small seminars, arts courses, lab courses to various online formats

Professors across disciplines are preparing for the challenges and opportunities of a virtual academic environment in advance of the resumption of classes remotely March 30.

The Herald spoke to six professors about their experiences moving their teaching online due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Many emphasized working to accommodate students experiencing a range of circumstances.

Professors across departments are adjusting their approaches to teaching by modifying the structure of their courses and reconsidering their evaluation and grading methods. Digital Teaching and Learning instructional designers, the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning and the Brown University Libraries are supporting these adjustments.

Ira Wilson, professor and chair of health services, policy and practice at the School of Public Health and professor of medicine at the Alpert Medical School, noted several elements of remote pedagogy that instructors must pay attention to.

The nature of a course influences how teaching is conducted generally and how it should be conducted remotely, since solving problem sets entails a different learning process than learning a language or listening to a history seminar, Wilson said. Class size, which may range from 10 to 500 students, also greatly determines the approach instructors should take to make the online course content engaging for every student, he added. 

"Because (PHP 0310: "Health Care in the United States) is so big, people in the class are literally all over the place … so you can sort of give up doing anything synchronous," Wilson said. 551 students are currently enrolled in his course.

An approach some larger courses may take is to offer live recordings of lectures and make the recording available to students at any time outside of the scheduled class hours. Some faculty in the Department of Computer Science "have already experimented with running their classes live, and there will also be a recording for people who can't attend," said Associate Professor and Vice Chair of the Department of CS Thomas Doeppner.

Classes that are difficult to move online for a range of reasons, including small seminars, face another set of issues. Many courses are discussion-based and require participation to optimally benefit from the class. Further, the professors of these courses need to determine accommodations for students based in different time zones or who do not have access to a strong internet connection. 

Mark Seto, director of the Brown University Orchestra and senior lecturer in music, said that his course MUSC 1120: "The Technique of Orchestration," remains a project-based seminar.  Students will score a piece of music for a full orchestra, and the Brown University Orchestra will read the scores remotely. He added that the Department of Music and the University have been helpful in providing technical support for faculty and seniors with theses, projects and recitals.

Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Rebecca Schneider noted that "Teaching in theater, which involves bodies working together in live space, is an interesting challenge to move onto a digital platform." For a class project, in which two to four students were supposed to form groups and stage scenes, Schneider said she expects students to try video-recording their performances or finding people to collaborate with at home. Given the novelty of the situation, "in a way, this is premature and I'm preparing for something that I don't know yet at all how it will go," she said.

Courses that require lab hours and recitation are also navigating the challenges of moving to online platforms. Visiting Lecturer in Chemistry Jesse Morin said that she expects students to complete lab reports at home based on videos she recorded of the experiment and posted online. Students will be able to complete their lab reports by watching the videos and using the knowledge they had already acquired in class, she said.

In the case of office hours and teaching assistant hours, many professors plan to offer Zoom meetings or appointments through Google Calendar. Some expect to make the hours and contact method more flexible for students in different time zones and with different levels of internet connection and access. TAs will follow a similar method and offer hours over Zoom conferencing together with other platforms, such as SignMeUp.

Reconsideration of grading and student evaluations also differ by professor while remaining in line with the temporary academic policies for the semester announced by the University March 24.

"What I try to capture for my students, is that I do not feel comfortable giving them grades in a rigid sense at this moment in time, because I think it doesn't reflect their learning,” said Associate Professor of Sociology Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, who is teaching SOC 2260T: "Cultural Theory and Methods,” a graduate-level course. “There are so many things a grade could be capturing that has no relevance to how wonderful they've been in the class."

Wilson said that he does not believe remote teaching should impact students’ individual decision to change their grade option. "I think there are gonna be some people that have problems with technology, but that's gonna be true across all their courses,” he said. “I think that this is hard for all of us. One of the things I (tried) to emphasize to students in the last class was how important it is for people to be on a schedule, to discipline themselves.”

Further challenges for remote teaching and learning will need to be addressed as they arise once virtual courses begin March 30. Many professors still face uncertainties about how some specific aspects of digital courses will work, such as Zoom connectivity issues, final exam formats, accommodations for students facing scheduling difficulties due to time zone differences and students without access to a strong Internet connection. For courses that exist in a sequence with other courses, questions remain on how to make future adjustments to subsequent courses based on the progress made in classes this semester.

"We are going to discover a lot about teaching and learning in the weeks to come," Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01 told The Herald. "I can't tell you what three weeks from now might look like … but I know that the part we have to emphasize right now, is that this is a learning opportunity, that we can help support one another."


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