Online teaching in engineering: Always have a contingency


“We want to provide the best quality we have,” when it comes to moving classes online, says Kenny Doty, online learning and technology services lead for the Swanson School of Engineering. But that comes with a big caveat: “We are not rebuilding your class as an online class. We are trying to get through the next four weeks and make sure everybody can see your slides” in PowerPoint, or faculty members’ video lectures and lab demonstrations, and whatever other online components they have developed in the last few weeks.

With online-only classes moving from a dozen to hundreds at the Swanson School, Doty and other members of the engineering tech team are swamped but not overwhelmed with the changes.

Hands-on lab work that students once performed themselves is shifting to video presentations from professors. Specialty engineering software with licenses to run only on lab computers is being “virtualized” by a colleague, Doty says, and he is working on methods to make files accessible that are normally housed only on Pitt computers, without the need for the use of VPN — virtual private networks that remotely use campus machines and can tax a campus-wide computer system.

He has been directing people to Microsoft Teams for collaborative work, among the five online platforms available (including the popular Zoom), since Teams allows more direct conversations and has file repositories in which groups can work together.

Until the campus closed to all but essential uses, he was still distributing hardware to engineering faculty — laptops with specialty engineering software, writing tablets and headsets and cameras if needed — but was concerned about getting equipment to faculty members’ homes.

Since normally Pitt purchases must be shipped to a Pitt address, on March 26 PantherExpress announced a new ship-to-home arrangement, but suspended the service on March 30 due to issues from shippers.

Overall, Doty is urging engineering faculty to make generous use of asynchronous resources, since students at home may not have good, constant or affordable Internet access.  

And be prepared to be flexible about how any class component is presented, he adds: “What we’ve been telling our faculty — always have a contingency plan.” It is still uncertain whether software used simultaneously in real time, such as Zoom and Teams, will handle every load, he notes.

Common and specialty needs

April Dukes, in charge of professional development for the Swanson School’s faculty (including graduate students and post-docs), says her recommendations for switching to online-only classes include “trying to keep the faculty as close as I can to what they’ve been offering” for in-person classes. Think: This is what I normally do; here is the tech that fits.

“We don’t want to start using four or five new technologies mid-semester,” Dukes says. And happily, she notes, the senior design courses are far enough along that they are finishing projects, rather than starting them, at this point in the semester.

However, Dukes says, “Engineering in the past few years has put forth a big push for active learning,” through peers working with peers on projects or answering questions together in class. Now such collaborations are using Zoom or similar software that allows breakout rooms for small-group work or discussions within a larger class meeting, and which can be used together synchronously or asynchronously.

To serve students with intermittent Internet access, in different world time zones, she suggests instructors upload videos using the University’s lecture-capturing software, Panopto (also known as Pitt Video), and add voiceovers to PowerPoint slide presentations. But she also is recommending some synchronous time for students to ask professors questions.

For her own class, which she has been teaching online for several years in the Department of Neuroscience in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, she has created a YouTube playlist of prepared answers and demonstrations for students.

Assignment and test design can be a challenge for online classes, since there is no live proctoring. Luckily, Dukes says, many engineering exams are designed more to test for the process of finding answers, which makes them harder to cheat on. But to prevent such temptations, faculty members can set time limits on tests and create multiple versions of the same test.

In online classes, it also must be clear to students from the very beginning how parts of group work will be attributed to each of them.

“The high level of math and problem solving that is involved in some courses will be a lot more challenging in the online space,” she allows, which may call for more one-on-one sessions between professors and students.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.