Challenges of the Socially Distanced Classroom

Professors' experiment suggests the limits of on-campus, hybrid instruction this fall. Big Ten universities expand sharing of online courses.

August 5, 2020
 
Courtesy of University of San Francisco

Even as more colleges announce plans to offer all instruction virtually this fall, many remain committed to at least some in-person courses -- and to providing them in classrooms that are safe and effective for students and faculty members alike.

Which leads to experiments like the one that Anna L. McLoon and her colleagues conducted on the Siena College campus this summer, as described in an essay on Inside Higher Ed Monday read by tens of thousands of readers. (Others are described here and here.)

Like many small, residential colleges, the 3,100-student Franciscan institution 150 miles north of New York City deeply values in-person learning and still plans to bring many if not most students back to its campus this fall. The college's current plan for fall calls for a mix of hybrid and remote learning, with classroom capacity limited to 50 percent of normal or students "seated at least three feet apart, whichever amounts to lower capacity."

Among other things, Siena says it has extended the time between classes to allow for cleaning of high-touch classroom areas and ease hallway congestion, and bought "technology required to provide live-streaming of classes" to allow "students to effectively participate remotely in classes that are being offered in person."

McLoon and a group of her colleagues in Siena's School of Science decided this summer to "see what it would feel like" to operate under the physically distanced conditions they'd encounter teaching on the Siena campus this fall. They tested three scenarios: an in-class meeting involving group work (since McLoon and some of her colleagues use a flipped classroom model that features significant interaction among students), a lecture in the college's one large lecture hall (which has 155 seats but can accommodate 28 given COVID-19 restrictions), and an outdoor class with group work. (Given the northern New York climate at Siena, outdoor classes may only be an early-fall possibility …)

The essay, which should be required reading for every professor being asked to teach in an in-person setting this fall and all administrators asking their instructors to do so, makes it clear that teaching and learning will be challenging for instructors and students alike this fall, no matter the format. (I explored some of these issues in a "Transforming Teaching and Learning" column in May.) Effectively involving both students who are physically in the classroom and those joining remotely via teleconferencing platform was difficult, the authors said.

"Those on Zoom could not hear many students in the room. And, in fact, everyone in the room, including the instructor, had trouble hearing students on Zoom," McLoon and her co-author, Sarah K. Berke, another biologist, wrote. And instructors couldn't move among clusters of students engaging in group work in the classroom without losing contact with those attending via Zoom, they said, suggesting that "a tablet is essential" for professors hoping to do anything but lecture to a mix of in-person and remote students.

The essay also provides clear evidence that most faculty members -- even as many of them express deep reservations about the wisdom of returning to the physical classroom -- are doing everything they can to ensure that if they do, they will do so as effectively as possible.

"In the face of a global pandemic, it feels as though we have no good choices as we prepare for the upcoming term," the Siena authors wrote. "Nonetheless, sound plans, informed by data, can help us all make the best of a bad situation. We hope that you can use our experience to improve your own."

On a related note, here's more guidance on how to engage students in active and experiential learning in the physically distanced classroom -- a series of webcasts from the Student Opportunity Center involving presenters from a mix of two-year and four-year public and private colleges.

***

The 14 universities in the Big Ten Conference collectively educate about 600,000 students, and they collaborate in many ways as well as compete intensely on playing fields and courts. Historically, though, their collaborations on teaching and learning, through a sister organization called the Big Ten Academic Alliance, have mostly focused on faculty development and a modest online course-sharing program around specialized language courses.

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Long on the organization's "wish list," says Keith Marshall, executive director of the academic alliance, has been a "more scalable" model of sharing online courses among Big Ten members. Provosts at the institutions have occasionally weighed the idea in the past, generating "no enthusiasm at all," says the alliance's chair, Lauren Robel, provost and executive vice president at Indiana University's flagship campus in Bloomington.

But as the Big Ten academic leaders began talking weekly (instead of the normal twice yearly) this spring to discuss their collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea gained traction as a way to "demonstrate that we care about their academic progress, to give them a sense of excitement about their futures, and so help them not feel completely swamped by the adversity they find themselves in," Robel says.

"The pandemic presented a moment where the provosts were more open to that idea," Marshall adds. "It has brought to the forefront the need to offer a robust array of online courses to help students make progress and finish their degrees, especially if online education is a little more central going forward and we're not as tethered to physical locations."

Participating Members,
Big Ten Course Sharing

  • Indiana University
  • University of Maryland at College Park
  • Michigan State University
  • University of Nebraska at Lincoln
  • Ohio State University
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Rutgers University at New Brunswick

This week, seven of the Big Ten's 14 members agreed to participate this fall in the Big Ten Academic Alliance Online Course Sharing Program, which will allow students at the institutions to take one of an array of available courses from their peer institutions at no additional charge. The courses cannot be used to fulfill students' minimum course requirements for full-time or financial aid status at their home institution, and there is "no guarantee" that the course credits will transfer to their home university, although that's the idea, Marshall says.

In its initial stage, at least, the courses are less about helping a student fill a requirement or finish his or her degree faster than about "giving you access to a great course you wouldn't normally have access to, do something you couldn't otherwise have done, when so many of the things you might normally have done" -- study abroad and the like -- "are shut down," says Robel.

Robel describes the creation of the course-sharing arrangement in a matter of weeks during a pandemic as an "act of hope and will," one that not all members of the Big Ten had the bandwidth to take on in this moment.

Whether and how this initial effort will develop into a deeper and wider system of online course sharing among some of the country's biggest and best universities will depend on many factors, including the extent to which more students at traditionally residential universities take courses online.

But at a time when many observers are wondering whether colleges and universities will respond to this remarkable moment by doing things they historically haven't, the Big Ten experiment offers a bit of evidence in the affirmative.

"This," Robel says, "was absolutely made possible by the pandemic."

***

As always, your feedback, critiques and ideas for future coverage are welcome. Please email me here or find me on Twitter @dougledIHE or @ihelearning. Stay safe and well.

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