Cornell is among one of the handful of universities offering hybrid instruction this semester. While the University has gone nearly a month with some in-person instruction, the decision to teach remotely or in person did not come easy to many professors.
At the beginning of the semester every professor had to weigh the educational benefits of teaching in person against the potential health risks of reporting to campus — with some finding it necessary to connect face to face with their students, while others opting for the safer route of teaching via Zoom. In the end, the majority of classes ended up being virtual — with over two thirds of classes being entirely remote.
“My goal is to deliver the best possible educational experience for the students along with the most valuable and satisfying use of my time [in the classroom]. Cornell students expect and deserve more [than Zoom],” said Chris Byrne, communication, who is currently teaching Communication 3010: Writing and Producing the Narrative for Digital Media.
The course teaches students how to write, edit and produce personal narratives in essay, podcast and short video documentary formats. Since students learn practical podcasting skills, Byrne says that it was important that students have in-person teaching experience.
“Everything worthwhile is a risk. I play hockey, I run on the railroad tracks, I go to Wegmans and Target and I eat cheese,” Byrne said on his decision to teach in person. “Of course, teaching in a classroom during a pandemic is risky, but I take the necessary precautions: Wash hands, wear a mask, don’t go if I am not feeling well and I trust that the students will as well.”
Danielle Eiseman, communication, came to a similar conclusion when considering her plans for the fall semester.
“I think that the main benefit of having in-person classes is having that [personal] connection between students and the professors,” Eiseman said, further adding that she believed these classes would help both students and faculty regain a sense of normalcy.
Eiseman is currently teaching Communication 3020: Science Writing for the Media — a class focused on teaching students how to write about scientific topics in digital formats — and Communication 4860: Risk Communication, a course that explores how individuals interpret and manage risk.
However, Byrne explained that even with in-person instruction, coronavirus restrictions can make it difficult to mimic a normal learning environment.
“The masks make it a little more difficult to hear the students, and they are at least 10 ft away, but I manage to have conversations in the class. It can’t just be a 75 minute lecture,” Byrne said.
Eiseman also agreed that the requirements of wearing face masks and social distancing restrictions have proved to be quite the barrier to her usual teaching style.
“Normally, I do a lot of active learning … in the past, I have created games [for the students] and we have [also] had some dancing in class,” Eiseman explained. “So it has been frustrating not being able to interact with my students the way I normally do.”
Because Eiseman felt too nervous to take the bus, she purchased an electric bicycle so that she could get to campus and continue teaching her students.
“Even though I am a bit scared, I think that the risk is worth it,” Eiseman said. “I really love my students and I’m doing this all for them.”
Technology has been an integral part of encouraging participation within the classroom. Eiseman uses a polling system where students can type answers into their phones, which then get displayed on a screen. She also uses an online visual collaboration tool called MURAL to keep people engaged in the course material.
“Technology has allowed me to embed a lot of flexibility within the course,” Eiseman said.
As some students may face problems with either access to internet or laptops, Eiseman decided to post annotated slides and lecture videos online so that students could access the course material and submit assignments asynchronously.
However, relying on technology has its downfalls. Eiseman said she found it difficult to manage both the online Zoom meeting and in-person lecture simultaneously, often needing a teaching assistant on hand to monitor the chat room for student questions online.
“It is [also] normal to have Zoom crashing at times. In such cases I just have to keep my patience, as there is nothing I can really do about it,” Eiseman said. “Luckily, my students are very understanding when such technical issues occur.”
Byrne also explained that there are some challenges that arise when a few students in his classes are only online. Out of the over 16 that are enrolled in his three classes, a third attend exclusively on Zoom.
“The biggest challenge I face teaching in person is balancing the additional tech elements while delivering the content. There are students on Zoom, cameras to operate, microphones to adjust, and it all needs to be recorded,” he said.
Prof. Mark Sarvary, biology, came to a different conclusion than Eiseman and Byrne. Sarvary teaches Biology 1500: Investigative Biology Laboratory, a class that introduces students to research by giving them experience in creating experiments and analyzing data.
Sarvary decided to teach the lab course, which hosts several hundred students, virtually this fall. Biology: 1500 had already transitioned to a completely virtual format in March 2020 and was offered online in Summer 2020, meaning much of the preparations had already been made.
“While redesigning the course for online teaching, we had to keep the challenges our students faced in mind,” Sarvary said. “This made us reconsider the course structure as well as the assessment system, as we obviously could no longer conduct in-person labs or practical exams.”
Despite being a lab-intensive course, Sarvary has found success in teaching his course virtually because many aspects of the lab — like experiment design, data analysis and project presentations — can be conducted over Zoom.
“Based on the surveys we collected from students who took the course in spring and over the summer, I believe that the transition of active learning from the physical laboratories to a virtual teaching environment has been quite successful,” Sarvary said.
The course was broken up into asynchronous lectures that students could watch on their own time and live, remote labs — with groups of students working on their assignments in breakout rooms, under the guidance of the lab instructors and undergraduate TAs. The final exam for the course was also made take-home.
Sarvary and his staff went to campus and shot 10 instructional videos for the students in the lab, making sure to maintain social distancing as well as sanitizing the lab surfaces and items used.
“The videos feature the use of laboratory equipment like microscopes as well as lab safety procedures, so that our students could get a good idea of what was happening in the lab even though they weren’t physically present there,” Sarvary said.
Students have also made use of datasets collected by students from previous semesters, in addition to applications like SimBio’s SimuText that seek to virtually replicate aspects of the lab environment.
According to Sarvary, having undergraduate TAs was instrumental to the success of the course. Because fellow students, he said, know their peers’ interests better than the course instructors, they can create effective icebreakers, such as playing popular music from a Spotify playlist and creating polls that ask students what their favorite movies are.
“It was really amazing to see how they [the undergraduate TAs] changed their mindset from an in-person setting to an online one, despite only having taken the class in-person,” Sarvary said. “I think they adapted even faster than we [the course instructors] did.”
Amiah Hybbert ’22 was one of the course’s TAs last spring, when the class was first forced to transition to remote learning.
“I would say the transition was pretty rough in my opinion because basically no one really knew what was going on at the time. [Cornell] actually went online right in the middle of when we were doing our experiments, so students weren’t able to finish them,” Hybbert said. “Everything was really jumbled.”
Hybbert’s responsibilities shifted from setting up labs and general bookkeeping to monitoring Zoom chats and moderating breakout rooms.
“I think I actually got a better teaching role online because I had to think about how I can teach these kids in a way where I can’t show them or do it,” she said.
While undergraduate TAs have been integral to the course’s success, these students often face the same obstacles that those they are teaching encounter.
“We must remember that UTAs are students as well, and can face challenges that can prevent them from teaching effectively online, such as a poor internet connection, lack of proper working spaces within their homes to conduct labs and office hours, or even no access to a personal computer,” Sarvary said. “We must understand their situations and provide support so that they can continue doing their best.”
As instruction nears the four week mark, both Eiseman and Byrnes are optimistic that classes will be able to proceed until Thanksgiving.
“If everybody is doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and they keep doing that, we might actually make it,” Eiseman said.