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Faculty reflect on online teaching during pandemic

Majority of courses remain fully virtual, faculty continue to restructure, adapt courses for mostly online settings

Though campus has entered Modified Activity Level 2, which allows in-person classes of 19 students or fewer to meet in person, the majority of courses remain fully online.

Currently, 852 courses are fully virtual, while 608 courses are hybrid, according to Courses@Brown. Three University professors reflected on the obstacles and silver linings of online instruction.

With previous experience teaching online before the pandemic, Associate Professor of English Stephen Merriam Foley ’74 P’04 P’07 encountered a smooth transition to virtual instruction. Foley said he used his experience to design both of his courses — COLT 1430H: “Poetry, Art, and Beauty” and ENGL 0100Q: “How Poems See” — to be taught mostly through Canvas-based modules.

Because his classes deal with mostly written content, Foley believes that they can easily lend themselves to an online format. Canvas is a good medium to practice reading and writing, Foley said, and “really forces everyone to compose their thoughts.” He added that Canvas can also be a “great equalizer” and help accommodate students with different comfort levels about speaking in class.

“In an in-person class, there is favoritism given to the people that are talkative,” Foley said. “Online teaching favors students who are good at reading and writing.” 

Assistant Professor of History Daniel Rodriguez also found that the online format enhanced his teaching style. In his class HIST 0234: “Modern Latin America,” teaching solely through Zoom has allowed him the opportunity to expand instruction beyond just the use of a PowerPoint. Now, his students are “taking advantage of digital media, whether it’s historical or online exhibits.” 

Still, Rodriguez said he would prefer to have an in-person component to his class through discussion sections. But Rodriguez added that he does not want to potentially jeopardize the safety of his students and his family by hosting these sections. 

For Senior Lecturer in Engineering Indrek Külaots, the size of his class forced him to teach online. Both lecture and lab for his class ENGN 1710: “Heat and Mass Transfer,” which enrolled 29 students, are hosted digitally. For ENGN 1340: “Water Supply and Treatment Systems - Technology and Sustainability,” with 22 students, lecture remains online, while labs can be held in person with two students and a TA in a room. 

There is no “cookie cutter” way for how professors should approach teaching during the pandemic, said Melissa Kane, associate director for instructional design and contributor to the Anchor Program, a preparation program for professors for teaching during the pandemic. Kane added that there are advantages to both class formats, online or in-person.

“One of the great things about a hybrid course is the human aspect that you can bring to the classroom, while having an online course allows students to access (course material) wherever they are,” Kane said. 

Still, professors have noted that the varying modes of teaching during a pandemic can add barriers to learning.

For engineering specifically, Külaots said, not being able to host labs in-person can strain pedagogy.

“We need to give our students hands-on experiences, especially if you want to become an engineer. You need to feel comfortable putting together a piping system,” Külaots said. “You are learning as you build with your hands. This is the downside for the engineering department.” 

While Külaots can host all labs synchronously in one of his classes, which allows students to watch and ask questions live, he said that the course has lost the impact of tactile learning.

“It’s somewhat engaging but not as much as having students touch material with their own hands,” he said.

Similarly, Foley said that because his courses are being conducted entirely through Canvas, students miss the opportunity to capture and absorb the emotion of literary works being read out loud.

But despite the obstacles brought on by the pandemic, Kane commended the efforts of professors to adapt their class material to an imperfect situation.

“Nothing is going perfect,” Kane said, “but we are not in a perfect situation right now.”



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