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Simulation of a physically distanced lecture hall at California Institute of Technology

Virtual Reality Laboratory, Center for Data-Driven Discovery, Caltech

Welcome to "Transforming Teaching and Learning," a column that explores how colleges and professors are reimagining how they teach and how students learn. If you'd like to receive the free "Transforming Teaching and Learning" newsletter, please sign up here.


With each passing day, more colleges and universities unveil their plans for how they will operate this fall. The vast majority of institutions that have announced plans say they expect significant numbers of students to return physically to campus, to engage in a mix of in-person, blended and online instruction. A smaller number, but including the massive 23-campus California State University system and many community colleges, say they will offer mostly virtual learning, with a far smaller number of students in mostly clinical or lab-based programs learning in physical settings.

For the sake of this column, let’s set aside all the usual caveats attached to those plans and the fact that they could be completely overtaken by factors outside the colleges’ control, including the overall course of the COVID-19 pandemic and decisions by their states or counties that could render the institutions’ best-laid plans meaningless.

And let’s all pretend that we aren’t seeing distressing evidence of COVID-19's spread among young people from the campus return of football players, which could be a harbinger of the more general campus repopulation of students in six or eight weeks. (Yes, football players are crashing into each other and trading spit in ways that most normal students won’t, but are they really that different?)

Instead, let’s just focus on what’s likely to happen in and around the classroom this fall if colleges strive to have meaningful numbers of students educated in person rather than virtually. Doing that assessment is hard for a variety of reasons. The experience that awaits is unprecedented enough that we don’t have a lot on which to base expectations of how it might go. The scenarios and models campus leaders are running are only as good as the data and assumptions those models are based on.

Let’s throw some new data and assumptions into the mix.


First, here’s an intriguing analysis from virtual reality modelers at California Institute of Technology about how physical distancing might work in classroom spaces.

Leslie Maxfield, the director of academic media technologies and communications, said Caltech officials were motivated by faculty members who were dissatisfied wwith their remote teaching in the spring and pining to return to the physical classroom. Maxfield and her colleague Cassandra Volpe Horii, founding director of the institute’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach, wanted to give them an accurate sense of the physically distanced physical classroom they might see in the fall. But that posed a "quandary," said Horii, given that the campus remains closed.

So they asked the Virtual Reality Laboratory at Caltech’s Center for Data-Driven Discovery if it could simulate what some campus spaces might look like. Using currently available public health guidance, the lab simulated two of the larger rooms at Caltech: the campus’s largest dining hall, which normally holds 192 people at six-foot round tab, and a 2,000-square-foot auditorium with 149 fixed seats.

The modelers used fairly “cautious” guidelines, Horii acknowledges, ensuring eight feet between people instead of the commonly cited six because they will be together for extended periods of time in an enclosed space with uncertain air flow. These could obviously be adjusted, Maxfield noted.

The results are jarring.

The lecture hall that normally seats 149 people in this simulation holds just 16 students, 11 percent of capacity.

The dining hall, meanwhile, has room for 12 round tables with two students at each, for a total of 24 students instead of the nearly 200 it commonly holds, or 12.5 percent of its normal capacity.

Those capacity levels are much lower than the targets that many colleges and universities seem to be working with as they make their calculations about available classroom space for the fall. Many institutions appear to be assuming they can have up to half as many students as normal in their instructional spaces, but some of the most sophisticated analyses released so far, like Cornell University’s, conclude that “after accounting for six-foot distancing, classroom capacity is reduced to 13 to 24 percent, depending on configuration.”

Caltech is taking many data points and other factors into consideration as it decides on its plans for the fall; it has not done so yet. This is just one, says Maxfield, providing a “first-order, gut, visceral feeling” to those discussions. The simulations are just circulating but are already raising lots of questions, she says.

“Students seem so far away from the instructors -- how will they ask questions if everyone has masks on?”

“A lot of faculty love their blackboards and whiteboards -- can they still use them and have students be able to see them, or will they have to revert to the physical tablets they used remotely?”


Chad Raymond did a fall simulation of his own last week.

Raymond, associate professor in the department of cultural, environmental and global studies at Salve Regina University, in Rhode Island, described the experiment on the Active Learning in Political Science blog that he co-writes.

His goal, Raymond said, was to “identify possible points of failure in the technology that my university is thinking about purchasing” to carry out a mix of in-person and virtual learning in the fall. And “in this,” he adds, “I succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.” He is not shy in acknowledging that he thinks plans to livestream in-person sessions to dispersed students will not work; as he put it in a message on the POD Network discussion group: "This push by higher ed institutions across the country to do synchronous live stream video of 50- to 75-minute classroom sessions is going to result in an epic failure in terms of student learning and return on investment." (Raymond notes that his statements in public forums do not represent his university's point of view.)

As part of a series of tests organized by Salve Regina's IT department and a faculty committee, Raymond designed a set of instructional activities that represent how he typically teaches in the physical classroom, with a group of other professors and technology staff members physically distanced in the classroom and others attending remotely via the WebEx platform.

He tried to conduct the class as he might have under normal circumstances, but adapted to include those attending remotely. A PowerPoint for his lecture ran on the in-class screen and was shared via computer with remote attendees. Three breakout sessions, one for in-classroom students, one for remote students and a third with a mix of remote students and in-class students with laptops. Oral reports from each breakout group, with Raymond writing the results on a document camera whose image was shared in class and remotely, and a classwide discussion.

The classroom was outfitted with new technology that Raymond estimates to cost about $10,000, including a video camera, four omnidirectional microphones hanging from the ceiling, and a very large monitor so that he could see the remote students' faces, Brady Bunch style.

It did not go well, Raymond said.

The physical dispersion in the classroom "meant I could not quickly make eye contact with random people in different areas of the room. Everyone in the room was wearing a mask, which reduced my ability to observe facial expressions."

Remote students struggled to hear him, and "it became very awkward for me to speak upward at the ceiling microphones while trying to engage people in the room. I rapidly found the need to constantly shift my attention between in-room students, the remote students displayed on the second monitor, the classroom computer, the video camera, and my voice to be cognitively overwhelming."

"There were constant interruptions to what I consider my natural flow of teaching," he adds. "For example, when I was at the whiteboard I could not see students’ faces or read their chat messages on the large monitor on the other side of the room, so I had to cross the room to look at it and then walk back to the whiteboard."

Those problems, combined with a laundry list of technological issues, made it a "frustrating experience for everyone involved," Raymond wrote. "It confirmed my belief that productive interaction between in-room and online students is very difficult to pull off successfully. Online students quickly tune out if they can’t hear and can’t participate. Physically present students suffer when instructors are forced to interrupt class to try to manage malfunctioning equipment. Both student populations lose when universities require that all campus courses be configured for simultaneous in-person and online delivery."

Raymond comes at this from an unusual perspective: pre-COVID, he typically taught both fully online graduate courses and in-person classes for traditional undergraduates. But even his courses for undergraduate courses, he says, are "designed as a blended experience anyway … They're paperless -- everything's on the [learning management system], so if there's a snowstorm and students can't get to campus, they always know what they need to do, and it's there for them."

What troubles Raymond about many conversations about the fall, he says, is what he describes as "this immediate reflex, knee-jerk reaction that we have to replicate what has been standard experience in the physical classroom.

"For decades, the approach to undergraduate education has been framed around the standard definition of the credit hour, where you've got two and a half hours a week in the classroom. The focus now seems to be on how do we replace that two and a half hours a week, instead of how do we ensure students will receive the equivalent amount of learning whether or not we have a classroom."

The problem with the idea of streamed classes, he says, is "trying to teach to those two different audiences at the same time. To do it well is going to require such an investment in equipment and faculty training that most institutions simply can’t pull it off by the fall."


"I just fundamentally disagree," says Robert Talbert, professor and chair in the mathematics department at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan.

Talbert describes the preparations he and his colleagues are doing for fall as "putting the wings on the plane as we get on the runway," and says Grand Valley State's math department plans to offer mostly what he calls "staggered hybrid" courses for first- and second-year students. He'll break the 30 students in his calculus course into two groups, say the red and blue teams. The red team will meet in the classroom Monday and Wednesday, the blue team Tuesday and Thursday. (Grand Valley State expects classrooms to be at half capacity.) On the days they're not in the physical classroom, the students will be expected to monitor class through the livestream. (He expects to record the courses so students who might be sick or otherwise unable to attend can do so later asynchronously, too.)

The trick, he acknowledges, is making sure the students are actively attending, and that, he says, is a pedagogical challenge, not a technical one -- and it undoubtedly takes work to design a "set of active learning approaches that are slightly different for every modality," Talbert says.

But experts like Vanderbilt University's Derek Bruff, says Talbert, have laid out a set of active learning strategies that can work in hybrid or physically distanced classroom settings, and teaching and learning centers at many institutions (here are some from Texas Wesleyan University and Northern Virginia Community College) are sharing ideas for how to avoid the problems that Raymond's simulation anticipates.

Ultimately, Talbert says, "I’m going into this with the presumption that we did this once, in March. Clearly the experience from March and April is not something we want to replicate, but I don't think we came out of it too bad. Every student who put in the effort to learn did learn.

"If we give ourselves some grace, some space to experiment, to iterate, and commit to being vulnerable, it's going to be weird and we'll do some things wrong before we get to right," adds Talbert. Tentative instructors might be tempted to fall back on the lecture as the simplest, safest way to reach students in different modalities, but "if we start from correct first principles, which is that active learning is the right thing to do for students, I do believe the students will respond."

Attitude matters, he says. "You have to go in with positive presuppositions about yourself and your students. You don’t want to go in thinking, 'This sucks; it's going to be a terrible situation, and I'm going to demonstrate to the world how badly this sucks.' If you do that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."


There are so many questions rattling around my head as colleges plan for the fall. Below are a few. Please contact me if you have thoughts to share (or questions to add to this list):

  • How are institutions deciding which courses are held in person and which are delivered online or in a hybrid format? Is that a decision made at the department level or college level, or more granularly by individual instructors? And who gets to decide which faculty members teach in what formats? How much latitude do professors have to teach (or not to) in person, given health or other concerns?
  • Will colleges and universities continue to use the more flexible grading policies that many of them embraced this spring? Will colleges continue to play down the significance of student evaluations in employment decisions?
  • Will the amped-up faculty training modules many colleges are offering to help instructors prepare for online or hybrid delivery this fall also make room for any additional training in unconscious bias or antiracism, given the current social tumult and the likelihood that students return to campus energized to raise these issues?

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