Ashley He / Sun Staff Photographer

During a Faculty Senate meeting on March 11, faculty expressed concerns over the adequacy of Zoom to support their virtual lectures.

March 12, 2020

As Cornell Transitions to Online Classes, How do Professors Plan to Adapt?

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From small language courses, to large lectures and hands-on laboratory classes, instructors have been forced to quickly adapt and readjust their teaching plans for the rest of the semester as a result of the University’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The reaction includes an unprecedented move to virtual instruction as a precautionary measure against contagion — a process that is easier for some departments and classes than others.

“I have always advocated the use of the flipped classroom concept by posting instructional content online and then using the time in the classroom for interactive activities,” said Prof. Brenda Schertz, linguistics, in an interview with The Sun. “I will be spending the spring break staying in — making those videos for online instruction.”

Schertz, who teaches American Sign Language I and II, a program that just recently began in fall 2019, emphasized that in any kind of language course, “students would benefit from continued interaction with each other,” and so she “would need to set up some turn-taking protocols when all 17 students are in the ‘same virtual room.’”

Following Tuesday’s announcement, Cornell has made resources available through the Center of Teaching Innovation to help professors complete the transition of classes, a process that must be complete by the end of spring break on April 6.

One of the first steps suggested is for faculty to take a readiness quiz, which will help instructors  determine the feasibility of delivering course materials and assessments through Canvas or other online mediums.

The technology at the center of the transition of lectures online is Zoom — a cloud-based video conferencing tool that includes features such as polling, breakout rooms and a variety of audio options.

A basic meeting on the platform can host up to 300 participants, while a larger meeting option for up to 500 is also available. Even before the move to cancel classes, Cornell provided Zoom free of cost for all current staff, students and affiliates.

However, virtual instruction poses unique obstacles to laboratory classes, as students who have been working on semester-long lab experiments will not be able complete these projects virtually.

For example, students in BIOMG 2801: Laboratory in Genetics and Genomics have explored the “theoretical and practical aspects of biological experimentation using the new and exciting technology of CRISPR/Cas9,” according to course instructors Prof. Kristina Blake-Hodek, molecular biology and genetics, and Prof. Michael Goldberg, molecular biology and genetics. They told The Sun that it was “unfortunate” that students who have been working hard on interconnected experiments during the semester “will not be able with their own hands to push these projects past the goal posts.”

As a result, course staff will complete the experiments on their behalf and make the results available to students online. Goldberg and Blake-Hodek also added that the rest of the non-laboratory portions of the course will be transitioned to the virtual classroom, which should “suffice for the remainder of the semester to achieve the majority of the goals we envisioned at the outset.”

Similarly, on Wednesday morning, the staff for BIOG 1500: Investigative Biology Laboratory rewrote the syllabus of the course to make sure that students will still be able to complete all of their assignments and finish the course as planned, according to Prof. Mark Savary, director of the Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratories.

“It is very challenging to move a lab course with many hands-on activities and active learning components online in such short notice, but we are doing our best to maintain the quality of teaching, while adjusting to the new circumstances,” he said. “As the largest introductory biology course, we decided to move the lectures online immediately, and the lab sections will be online after the spring break.”

Physical education courses are also nearly impossible to transition to a virtual environment. In an email to students taking Cornell Outdoor Education classes, director Mark Holton wrote that “clearly, your outdoor education class can’t be conducted” online.

As a result, “all meetings of COE classes after break will be canceled.” However, students “will still receive a full PE credit, even if the class has not completed the full schedule,” he wrote.

Prof. Jennifer Birkeland, landscape architecture, will be helping the department make the transition to the new mode of teaching with the benefit of previous experience — in the past few months, she has met weekly through Skype with a group of students from five colleges around the globe to help them prepare for a design competition.

“Virtual instruction has its challenges, but also benefits — screen sharing and the ability to draw over students’ work is fairly seamless,” Birkeland told The Sun. “This is common practice in the profession of landscape architecture to collaborate with teams and clients remotely, so this is good training for our students transitioning into practice.”

Faculty members have raised concerns about the switch to virtual instruction. During the Faculty Senate meeting held Wednesday evening, Prof. David Delchamps, electrical and computer engineering, asked about the capability of IT services to handle traffic on the video conferencing platform once the University transitions online.

“Is the IT support for Zoom capable of handling the flood of activity that’s going to arise when we all have our scheduled Zoom Q&A sessions?,” asked Delchamps. “IT folks disagree on that, some say no.”

In response, Dean of Faculty Charles Van Loan assured the Senate that even though the load on Zoom is going to go up by “orders of magnitude”, the administration is looking into the matter and will be prepared.

Prof. Walker White, computer science, who teaches the project-based course Computer Science 3152:  Introduction to Game Design, told The Sun that he was holding a T.A. meeting on Tuesday night in which they would spend “the next 2 hours working on the processes that we will use for the rest of the semester.”

“I have several TAs that have experience developing games with remote teams. Our plan for this week is to train the students in these development processes,” he said, adding that they were working on moving the in-class discussion sections to Discord, a free voice and text chat commonly used by gamers.

According to Pollack’s email on Tuesday evening, Cornell’s Ithaca campus will remain open, and all faculty and staff should continue their regular work schedules.

The announcement was “an opportunity to develop fully interactive online learning environment for our classes” for Prof. Lisa Kaltenegger, astronomy, who said that “here in astronomy, we are already used to work with colleagues and telescopes from all over the world and from space, a lot of it online.”

However, she added that she completely understands that “this is an emotional time also for all our students, but we are committed to provide the same depth and scope of instructions as we would in class, so at least that does not have to be a worry on our student’s minds.”

It is still unclear how the COVID-19 outbreak will affect instruction in the Fall 2020 semester.

Prof. Bruce Monger, earth and atmospheric sciences, says he is not affected by the decision at the moment because he is only teaching an upper level 9-week intensive class that ends just before spring break this semester. However, he said that he might need to think about transitioning his popular Oceanography class in the fall if the coronavirus conditions do not change or worsen.

In that case I will probably video record my lectures in an empty Bailey Hall and distribute them via Canvas. I still need to sort out how best to do secure exam testing, but I have some time to sort that out before fall semester,” Monger said.

Girisha Arora ’20 contributed reporting.