Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Empty classrooms in Goldwin Smith during the COVID-19 pandemic. These classrooms may be filled next semester as President Pollack announces in-person teaching for the fall.

April 7, 2021

As Cornell Prepares for In-Person Classes, Parts of Zoom Era Learning Might Stay

Print More

Following President Martha Pollack’s announcement that courses may return to in-person instruction this fall, some professors teaching large lecture classes say aspects of Zoom school, like virtual office hours and flexible grading practices, might be here to stay as the University transitions out of a year online.

Classes normally taught in person will return to that mode of instruction, Pollack wrote — marking a change for large-lecture courses, many of which couldn’t offer hybrid options during this academic year due to large class sizes.

Prof. Nicholas Sanders, policy analysis and management, said he feels nervous but excited about the prospect of teaching his 450-student introductory microeconomics course in person. 

While impressed by the motivation and dedication of his students last fall, Sanders said he felt stark differences in the energy of Zoom clases compared to the vibrance of live teaching.

“I love economics, and I love seeing people get interested in the ideas I find fascinating,” Sanders said. “There’s no substitute for that connection, and Zoom doesn’t do it justice, especially not in a class this large.” 

Prof. David Pizarro, psychology, who teaches the famous Introduction to Psychology class, usually to a packed Bailey Hall of over 700 students, also felt the drawbacks of online learning as his inbox began filling up faster than usual this fall.

“There were a ton more emails because students couldn’t just pop over and ask a question at the end of class,” Pizarro said. 

Prof. Bruce Monger, earth and atmospheric sciences, led his 1,000 student Introductory Oceanography course videos last semester, filming hours of lecture content over the summer. Monger said he found that asynchronous courses are more accessible to students who may not otherwise be able to fit the course into their schedule. 

While admitting that assigning asynchronous lectures made it easier on his end, Monger said asynchronous lectures could not replace the in-person energy and appeal that made his course what it was, teaching “how to start a climate change revolution” to a crowded auditorium.

To avoid the monotony of online lectures, Sanders said he started to experiment by incorporating live polling in his Zoom economics lectures — and he plans to keep this going when he’s back at the lectern. 

“The potentially asynchronous nature of the class made that a challenge,” Sanders said. “But I still liked how [live polling] increased class involvement. I hope to maintain some aspect of that in the future.”

Prof. Tom Hirschl, global development, who teaches Development Sociology 1101: Introduction to Sociology, a 300-person course, said he noticed students seemed less hesitant to participate in course discussions using the chat feature over Zoom.  

“Typing in a question in a chat has its advantages over raising your hand in class,” Hirschl said. 

Hirschl also said he believes that using a hybrid model, with some students accessing class online, may be useful next semester to avoid students attending class while ill.

Beyond the format of lecture content, some professors are carrying over their new coursework breakdown into the next in-person semester. 

Last fall, instead of the usual two prelims and a final, Monger held five online quizzes to smooth out course logistics and said he might continue this practice next fall. Monger said conducting in-person exams for 1,000 students takes a lot of work to organize, and online exams eliminated the hassle. 

Pizarro also gave students weekly online quizzes in his psychology course to replace the typical three in-person exams to help students avoid the stress of having a large exam while encouraging them to keep up with readings. 

While some professors were not yet sure of their plans for next fall, most said they were excited to step away from the Zoom screen and trusted the University to keep them safe. 

After a semester of describing chemical demonstrations to students over Zoom, Prof. Stephen Lee, chemistry, said he’s looking forward to returning to Baker 200.

“I’m very excited,” Lee said. “If Cornell allows students to sit next to each other fully vaccinated, then we can have the class in Baker [Laboratory], and that will allow us to do chemical demonstrations, which is part of the fun of Gen Chem.”

Guidance by the University will be key over the next few months, as professors shape their class plans for the fall around seating arrangements, building space and health measures like vaccinations and mask-wearing.

“The University has shown itself to be an amazing agent of public health, doing things that were thought improbable, if not impossible,” Hirschl said. “If they say there’s herd immunity and everyone has a vaccination card, I have no trouble with going back into class.”