Getting Ready for Fall
Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a three-part series examining how WPI is reimagining its distinctive education amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Part 3: With equal parts vision and hard work, WPI faculty members are rethinking the “classroom.” Catch up on parts 1 and 2.
Most aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic have felt like uncharted territory for many universities, and delivering college courses off campus and online was no exception.
However, after intensive workshops, trainings, and an abundant sharing of ideas (in typical WPI fashion) on how to combine in-person, online, and hybrid elements to create an engaging college experience via TechFlex, WPI’s faculty and staff are well prepared for A-Term.
Bring in the Champs
Under TechFlex, the university will provide support for faculty members whether they teach from home, in person, or a combination of both. For those who plan on having online aspects in their classrooms in the fall, the Morgan Teaching & Learning Center appointed 18 online “faculty champions”—those who already had experience teaching online and using the technology required—to serve as contacts and community builders across campus this summer. Some are department-based; others are cross-cutting and assist in various departments.
Main roles these online faculty champions play:
- Promoting the sharing of knowledge, ideas, and best practices in online teaching across departments and disciplines.
- Providing enthusiasm and experience in their areas of expertise while also gathering best practices outside those areas to share with the campus community.
- Collaborating with other cross-cutting champions to create and promote a campus-wide virtual space to exchange expertise and resources, answer questions, and build community leading up to the new academic year (and beyond).
John Sullivan, professor of mechanical engineering, and an online faculty champion, is no stranger to helping his peers prepare to teach their classes with an online component, given that he has been helping WPI deliver online courses for more than a decade. His “Introduction to Engineering for Technical Managers” was the first online course developed jointly by WPI and Southern New Hampshire University.
Sullivan and Sarah Wodin-Schwartz, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, teamed up to talk with faculty members in their department about teaching for TechFlex.
“We actively talked with every faculty member," Sullivan says, "asking them how they planned on teaching this coming fall, given that some students might not be able to come to campus, and knowing their commitment to providing a quality education in any case.”
Sullivan and Wodin-Schwartz encouraged faculty to take the Morgan Teaching & Learning Center’s online pedagogy workshops to become familiar with what digital means in delivering course content, in the event they can’t teach in person.
“It opens their eyes to different options,” Sullivan says. “How do you know what you have planned will be effective [for students]? We’ve had tremendous endorsement from faculty so far.”
Based on the work and engagement online faculty champions have had with their peers, Sullivan and Wodin-Schwartz are confident faculty are ready to give students a rich, rewarding classroom experience.
“The faculty know they have these new ways to deliver their best to students so that they have a wonderful experience as well,” he says. “College is more than a course; it’s a coming of age. Faculty need to bond with students.”
Cueing Up the Creativity
Some faculty are taking things a step further and looking at how students both on and off campus will experience courses, and are entirely revamping their classroom spaces for students.
Destin Heilman, associate teaching professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is planning to present his fall courses with a homemade lightboard he built using acrylic glass and other lighting materials. Facing students from behind the lightboard, he has found an innovative way to keep students engaged as he teaches.
Lighting Up the Classroom
Have you ever want to set up your own lightboard, or ever wondered how a lightboard works? Destin Heilman, associate teaching professor of chemistry and biochemistry, shows you how it works here.
“There is growing evidence that online lectures that include the lecturer's face result in better student attention and learning outcomes—as compared to a whiteboard lecture with accompanying audio, or one that shows the lecturer’s back most of the time,” Heilman says.
Michelle Ephraim, Shakespeare scholar and associate professor of humanities and arts, is planning to teach her "Shakespeare in the Age of Elizabeth" class online in the fall, and intends to use her digital classroom as a space where her students can connect with Shakespearean actors and researchers across the globe. In D-Term, Ephraim was able to invite speculative fiction author Paul Tremblay to one of her seminars, and give students the chance to ask him questions about his upcoming novel.
“The students were very engaged,” Ephraim says about Tremblay’s visit. “They were thrilled about his enthusiasm for them and for their work."
Nancy Burnham, professor of physics, found a way to manage her “General Physics – Mechanics” class, the second largest class offered at WPI, which might exceed 500 students over several course sections this year. Instead of having students sit elbow-to-elbow in a traditional lecture hall this fall, they will follow lectures online and attend recitation sections ("conferences," in WPI lingo) on a weekly rotating pattern where half of the class will be in-person, and the other half will be remote, switching mid-week.
Whether students are in-person or remote, Burnham says students will have a robust learning experience, which includes watching videos she creates about the course, completing timed weekly quizzes on a sophisticated software platform, and developing college-level time management skills.
“Once the current COVID-scheduling challenge can be overcome, I'll feel good about all of the technical aspects of the course,” Burnham says. “My experience this fall, particularly with the software, might push me to keep the quiz aspect even after the COVID restrictions are lifted. I hope students will rise to the occasion of taking WPI's intense college courses.”