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With support from Cornell staff, faculty are developing solutions that keep students connected to their coursework – and each other.

Faculty mobilize to provide virtual instruction

An interactive economics class will be held on Zoom, with breakout rooms where small groups of students can collaborate virtually.

A music performance class will be built around an original student composition, with individual elements posted online as the piece takes shape.

And students in a physics lab will conduct experiments with household items, aided by the array of sensors available on their phones and laptops.

These are among the innovative solutions faculty members are developing – in conversations with deans and department chairs, staff in the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) and, of course, each other – as they prepare for the shift to virtual learning April 6.

“The sudden switch from a face-to-face class to an online format is a big challenge for all of us,” said Julia Thom-Levy, vice provost for academic innovation and professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences. “For our students, the value of having in-person instruction and having peers around is enormous. Faculty are doing their best to offer technology options that can go a long way toward facilitating interaction.”

Those technology options also require a well-functioning infrastructure, and everything from laptops to cameras to Wi-Fi needs to work for hundreds of classes. Cornell Information Technology (CIT) staff at all levels are working hard to get faculty up and running.

CTI, CIT, Cornell University Library and others are collaborating to extend support at the college and department levels. eCornell’s expertise, resources and existing online materials are in place to support faculty as they move to remote instruction. Helping faculty prepare – whether they’re veteran users of educational technology or have yet to log into an online learning platform – has become the top priority for these units.

Robert Vanderlan, senior associate director of the Center for Teaching Innovation.

Efforts include webinars tailored to instructors’ online teaching experience, in-person presentations held last week in departments around campus, and one-on-one consultations focused on specific questions.

“We’re asking faculty to think about how they’re interacting with students and how students are interacting with each other in their current courses,” said Robert Vanderlan, CTI senior associate director. “Then think about what’s most valuable to the student learning and how best to translate that online.”

For example, a seminar would likely work best as a Zoom session, where students and an instructor can see each other and rapidly share ideas. For a course that relies more on lectures, recording talks ahead of time and posting them online, along with related exercises and virtual office hours, might be a better option. But whatever specific format instructors choose, enabling communication and community is key to success, Vanderlan said.

“Faculty have spent all semester building community in their face-to-face classrooms, but we can’t assume that will duplicate online – especially after the break,” he said. “We know that students succeed in online environments when they feel connected to the course, to the instructor and to the other students. And so creating discussion forums where they can talk to each other, or creating group work or other ways for them work together is going to be really important.”

That’s something Doug McKee, senior lecturer of economics in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), learned the first time he taught online – and something he now incorporates even in his in-person classes, where he always offers to help connect students with each other for studying or group projects.

“It really opened my eyes to the needs that students had for help with social networking,” said McKee, whose 130-student applied econometrics class will now take place via Zoom, with clickers for students to respond immediately to polls or questions, annotated slides, breakout rooms for group work and recorded lectures for those in different time zones. “Online we can replicate almost all of the best features of even a very interactive classroom.”

“People are putting a lot of thought into this and sharing that knowledge with the world.”

Robert Vanderlan

Cornell’s recent move to Canvas as its online teaching platform is making some preparations easier, Thom-Levy said. Many instructors have already been thinking about ways to incorporate its tools, such as Zoom for videoconferencing and Panopto for recording, into their teaching. The team that has been working with faculty members for the past year to familiarize them with Canvas is still active, providing another resource for this transition.

Less-traditional courses, such as performance or community-based classes, can be more challenging to replicate online, but faculty in similar fields at Cornell and around the world are drawing inspiration from each other, Vanderlan said.

“Every university is going through this, so disciplines are really stepping up in various ways,” he said. For example, a nationally broadcast Zoom session held last week focused on teaching dance online. “People are putting a lot of thought into this and sharing that knowledge with the world.”

Some instructors will use GoPro cameras in the field so students can follow their explorations; others will send students experimental data to analyze. Natasha Holmes, the Ann S. Bowers Assistant Professor in A&S, will help her physics students conduct open-ended, hands-on experiments using the materials around them.

Paul Merrill, senior lecturer in music and the Gussman Director of Jazz, will assign essays, performance reviews, video journaling and remote recording to many of the students in his performance classes. He will also instigate a collaborative composition, allowing student musicians to submit ideas by video, manuscript or audio to be assembled by the class and then recorded remotely as a capstone project.

“This kind of approach has been common in the recording process for some time,” he said.

Keeping students connected is good not only for learning, McKee said, but for their well-being.

“A remote class can be very in-person,” he said. “There’s all this talk about social distancing, and I think it would be better if we called it physical social distancing. Because I think we need a lot of virtual social contact, which is quite healthy and good, and we certainly have the tools right now to provide it.”

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Abby Butler