Flex@Pitt will keep options open for students and faculty


The buzz words around Pitt these days are Flex@Pitt. But what does that mean, other than we all have to stay pretty flexible during the fall semester? 

We’re beginning to get a clearer picture of what this teaching and learning approach will look like through presentations at Senate committee meetings, responses to student questions and various pieces of information on the Teaching and Learning Center website. But faculty still have many questions about how they will prepare for the multiple ways to provide instruction. A survey by Senate Council of faculty members found one of the top concerns about the fall semester was that the burden of producing combined online and in-person classes will overwhelm faculty.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in an interview after the Board of Trustees meeting today said that the question of extra compensation for faculty is being discussed within the provost office. He said just telling faculty they'll have to operate in a very flexible manner isn't enough. "If you're a faculty member trying to prepare, it's both going to be necessary to provide more detailed information. It's going to be necessary to provide access for faculty and obviously a lot of the implementation that's happening is at the school bar. That has to be supported as well. All I can tell you is the teams know that and they're working as hard as they can."

Joseph McCarthy, vice provost for Undergraduate Studies, summed up Flex@Pitt, during a town hall with students last week, as: “Pitt’s own unique take on how we can try to deliver the best possible educational experience to all of our students regardless of what their current personal situation is in the fall term.”

Class density will be reduced by about 50 percent, McCarthy said, but Pitt still wants to maintain an in-person connection between students and faculty.

“We recognize from talking with focus groups and engaging with students that discourse between students and between students and faculty members are really critical to the educational experience and being part of the community,” he said.

Flex@Pitt will allow students and instructors to be in class or remote, learning and teaching synchronously or asynchronously. And by preparing for all modes of teaching and learning, faculty and students will be able to more easily move to all online and back as the course of the pandemic changes. 

What does that all look like? Here are some likely scenarios:

  • Rotating cohort: In some larger classes, students will be split into groups with each group being in class with the professor at least once a week, while the other students participate virtually through new equipment being installed now.

  • Flipped classes: Professors can record lectures for students to watch whenever they want, and the classroom time will be for more interactive learning, such as working through homework and asking questions.

  • For professors who don’t feel comfortable in the classroom or have underlying health issues: Virtual teaching will allow them to have live interaction with students in the classroom or at home. Faculty should discuss their individual needs with their chairs, deans or regional campus presidents.

  • For students who decide not to return to campus or who become ill: Any student can choose not to return to campus if they don’t feel safe or have underlying health issues. These students will still be able to engage with instructors and classmates online using video conferencing technology.

  • For students in other time zones: Lectures and class interactions will be recorded for them to watch when it’s convenient for them.

“There's no one size fits all approach for everyone,” said Cynthia Golden, executive director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning.

There are two key components that Pitt hopes will help get everyone off on the right foot when the fall semester begins.

All classes will start online on Aug. 19, so instructors can let students know how the classes will be conducted and so students who can’t be on campus for whatever reason get to start on a level playing field with those who are here.

All classes should utilize the Canvas learning management system instead of Blackboard, Provost Ann Cudd said in an email to faculty on June 12. Top administrators have said Canvas is more adaptable to the new technology needed to run both in-person and online classes at the same time. The University extended its contract with Blackboard until the end of the year before the pandemic hit, but now instructors are being strongly encouraged to make the transition.

Golden and her team have been holding a variety of live training sessions on Canvas throughout the summer. These will continue into September and recordings are available. She encourages all faculty to use these resources to help prepare their syllabi and plan how they will present classes in different formats. There also is a separate Teaching Online @ Pitt course.

Among faculty who are on contracts, there is a concern about when they will prepare for their classes if they haven’t received a contract renewal yet. Golden said the training sessions are open to anyone, whether their contract has been renewed or not.

“If I were them, I wouldn’t be doing any work until I knew I was going to have a job,” said Senate President Chris Bonneau, a tenured professor of political science, at the June 9 Faculty Assembly meeting.

Faculty also are concerned about whether there will be enough time to install all the technology needed and if technology would be provided by Pitt for teaching from home. Bonneau said not all classrooms will be in use because of social distancing, but the timeline will still be tight.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.


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