Classes that click: a semester to remember

By Leigh DeLozier | Emory Report | May 19, 2020

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“I was really impressed with my students’ resilience and their ability to roll with this transition, but also their need to maintain interpersonal connection – even if it’s only through the Zoom grid," says Christina E. Crawford, assistant professor of modern and contemporary architecture.

From taping class schedules to bedroom walls to keep time zones straight to creating whiteboard teaching surfaces on bookcases, Emory’s faculty, students and staff did whatever they could to make remote learning work during the second half of spring semester. Countless lessons – during class times and beyond – were learned along the way that many believe will serve them well when the Emory community returns to campus. 

Gathering student input

One of the first decisions faculty needed to make was whether to teach synchronously, asynchronously or a combination of the two. 

Mike Rogers, associate professor of mathematics and computer science at Oxford College, says one primary goal was to ensure that students had the best opportunity to learn. When he invited students from his Calculus I course to meet during spring break via Zoom to discuss ways they might carry the course forward, most participated.

“The trials and testing we did before and after the end of spring break rebuilt the trust we had established at the beginning of the course,” Rogers says. “We could meet their learning goals, the rules and logistics of assignments and assessments would be manageable, they wouldn’t have to stress out about meeting requirements. I appreciated the students’ help as we [Rogers and his co-teacher, Nicolas Petit] put together our new plans.”

Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science, surveyed her students to get a sense of their physical locations and internet access. That was important for Gillespie's students and others across campus, since some such as Esteban Ancona Garcia, a sophomore from Merida, Mexico, hadn’t studied at home in several years. 

Based on what she learned from her students and through department training, Gillespie decided to teach her classes synchronously and then provide lecture recordings for students who could not attend class.

Katherine Ostrom, senior lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese, opted for a different type of combination approach. She held shorter synchronous sessions during the original course time and make-up sessions later in the day (both of which were recorded). She also posted about half the day’s material in a video for students to watch at their convenience.

“It took a little extra time, but a nice side benefit was getting to work with a smaller group each time and devote the whole meeting to discussion,” she says.

Connecting beyond class

The remote environment led some students to reach out to professors for the first time.

“Many students had managed the first part of the semester on their own and not sought any personal help from me,” Rogers says. “During the initial transition I dealt with more students on an individual basis than normal. When two people come together committed to a shared goal – in this case, what the student needs to be able to learn the material – it is such a joy to listen to them, discuss possible solutions and feel the tension dissolve as you move from a problem to a solution you can both be happy with.”

Remote learning also gave faculty and students opportunities to learn more about each other than they might in a typical classroom, from seeing siblings or pets on screen to taking extra time to chat. 

“I would arrive to Zoom meetings a few minutes early to talk to others about how they were doing,” says Kevin Kim, a student in Nosayba El-Sayed’s “Introduction to Database Systems” class. “Catching up with professors and classmates made me realize what unique individuals all of us are and that not taking that first step in getting to know the people around you is an opportunity lost.” 

Goizueta Business School student Tate Stevenson agrees. “I have gained a greater appreciation for the value and need of community and belonging. Checking in on others and making an effort to remain connected and engaged is critical.”  

Students also took it upon themselves to connect outside class. For example, Sally Kim, who graduated with double majors in computer science and psychology, says one of her friends created weekly “Silent Disco” nights on Zoom so students could see their friends and meet new ones. 

“I was really impressed with my students’ resilience and their ability to roll with this transition, but also their need to maintain interpersonal connection – even if it’s only through the Zoom grid,” says Christina E. Crawford, assistant professor of modern and contemporary architecture in the Art History Department. “I lost Wi-Fi connection between our Zoom opening chitchat and delivering my first online lecture. I was offline for 10 minutes and when I came back they were still all there, asking me to give the lecture.” 

Factoring in fun

“One challenge was to maintain student engagement and motivation levels in an online setting while making sure classes stayed interactive and fun,” says El-Sayed, a computer science lecturer. “Another challenge was getting the students to turn on their webcams to create a more interactive class experience.”

To help meet those challenges, El-Sayed invited everyone to pick a Zoom background based on a theme for each lecture. Themes included Hogwarts School of Magic, baby photos of themselves, monuments from the cities where they currently resided, White Hall 206 (their classroom on campus) and graduation ceremonies.

“If students were shy or couldn’t turn on their cameras, they could change their Zoom avatar to match the theme,” El-Sayed says. 

“Seeing others in the lecture hall seemed surreal, but was funny in a way,” says Kevin Kim, who would change his virtual background in other classes as well. “In one class I changed my virtual background to a picture of a grocery store aisle. Many, including the professor, got a good laugh out of it. Some even changed their backgrounds to join me.”

Incorporating current events

While faculty often incorporate aspects of current events into their classes, the pandemic provided avenues for that across multiple subjects.

“I tried to lean into the crisis and use it to advance learning goals,” Gillespie says. “I was somewhat intentional about using examples from the crisis in lecture examples and test questions. There were times when I purposely didn’t talk about the crisis to avoid raising anxieties, but it sometimes provided excellent examples of the concepts we were studying in class.”

El-Sayed also found ways to connect her database systems course to COVID-19. A friend who is an epidemiologist told El-Sayed that scientists would benefit from a database system that consolidates information from multiple sources, enabling easier analysis. El-Sayed turned her friend’s observation into a class assignment, asking students to design a “schema” for a database system that could eventually be used by scientists analyzing the pandemic.

Looking to the future

“There are lots of ways to come together as a classroom community, and virtual does not have to mean cold or impersonal,” says Melissa Williams, Goizueta term chair and associate professor of organization and management. “This crisis drew attention to just how committed everyone at Emory is to taking care of those we’re responsible for. 

“Our medical colleagues stepped up patient care and faculty rose to the challenge of remote teaching – even the ones who didn’t necessarily consider themselves to be technically savvy. It’s clear that we are all committed to delivering a world-class education, even during a pandemic.” 

However, even the positives associated with remote learning don’t outweigh the belief by faculty and students that being together on campus is special. Kara Trotman, a biology and Spanish double major from Seattle, and Yael Cohen, a finance major from Costa Rica, both look forward to when they can learn face-to-face with their professors and fellow students. 

“When the pandemic is over, I will be appreciative every day for the opportunity to walk around campus with my friends, sit inside a classroom, run in Lullwater Preserve and attend club meetings in the business school or study groups at the library,” Cohen says. 

“We are all making it work online, but face-to-face learning is invaluable – a true gift, actually,” Crawford says. “The diverse scholarly community that grows inside the four physical walls of a classroom is one of the most memorable aspects of the college experience. I suspect that once we’re through this we’ll appreciate campus and classroom life more than ever.”