By SUSAN JONES
For Provost Ann Cudd, this period of disruption brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect time for students to “double down on their investment in education.”
“There couldn’t be a better time to do that than right now,” she said. “I’m really concerned when I hear that there are some students who are thinking of sitting it out. I think that would be a bad idea.”
It’s a perfect time to learn new things, Cudd said, and for the University, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about distance education.
“What works well; what doesn’t work well? How can we be innovative? We don’t have too much time in the next few weeks to be innovative, but the summer might be a real opportunity for innovation and for thinking more broadly about how best to engage students,” she said.
On March 27, Cudd announced that classes would remain online through the summer sessions, which start on May 4.
“I got a lot of feedback from people that they really needed to plan,” she said. “So if you’re a student and you’re going to move back to Pittsburgh for the summer, you need to plan, or if you’re a faculty member and you’re going to have to either teach a course online or in person, you need to plan.”
Given what we know now, it seemed the best decision to go ahead and make the commitment to online summer classes, she said.
“We are going to be ready for the fall,” Cudd said. “However, we are going to have to think very flexibly about how we plan for the fall semester, because the fact is, we don’t yet know what the course of the pandemic will be. But we will have a fall semester, and we will have thousands of eager bright students to teach.”
Making the move online
After one week of distance learning, Cudd said she thinks the online teaching is “going very well under the circumstances.”
“I’m incredibly inspired by the faculty’s efforts, and the effort of the supporting groups like Pitt IT and the Center for Teaching and Learning and the libraries, who have really helped the faculty to get up to speed, very quickly, with the technology and the planning for these last few weeks.”
More than 5,000 courses are now being taught remotely, and more than 1,400 faculty participated in workshops or remote office hour sessions through the Center for Teaching and Learning.
“Zoom is being used by literally thousands and thousands of students and professors who probably never heard of it three weeks ago,” Cudd said.
Classes are being taught both synchronously and asynchronously, Cudd said. “And I think we’re going to learn a lot about student preferences.”
Asynchronous classes don’t allow for as much interaction between professors and students, but synchronous teaching sometimes creates problems for students in different time zones or for those who don’t have adequate bandwidth.
She said Pitt IT has stepped up to make sure students have the necessary equipment, including giving away more than 60 laptops, plus cellphones and hotspots.
After the first week of online learning, Joe McCarthy, vice provost for Undergraduate Studies, checked on whether there were students who had not logged into the learning management system. He found about 300 who hadn’t and was able to reach out to all of them through Pathways.
“Right away, about half of them said, ‘Oh yeah, I guess I should log in.’ So that was great. The other half, he’s one by one getting in touch with them to see, do they have any problems, any issues and what can we do to help,” Cudd said.
“I think what’s really great and inspiring is that we’re trying not to leave anyone behind,” she said. “Now we’re down to less than 1 percent of students who have not been engaged, have not reached back to us since this. I think that’s a really good testimony to what we can do as a collective, as a community to make the best of this difficult situation.”
Whether the online classes are as rigorous as they would be in person is something that will need to be assessed, Cudd said, and she’s particularly concerned with lab classes. “That’s probably having to be done through virtual labs, demonstrations and maybe sets of data that they can get. I’m sure there are ways that you can make that rigorous, that wouldn’t be much the issue. The issue would be it’s a different kind of experience, less interactive with actual material.”
Anecdotally, she said, that her husband, Neal Becker, a senior lecturer in Economics, is teaching a sports economics class that lends itself well to being online, and “I know that in that course, basically the same assignments and the same activities are being done … synchronously.” Zoom allows breakout groups, so each group of students can do the lecture activity and then call on the professor as needed to help them.
The next challenge will be how to conduct final exams. Cynthia Golden, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, has been working on this problem and coaching instructors to find something different than timed, proctored exams. Golden spoke about this at length at the Faculty Assembly meeting on April 1.
Cudd said she has been spending her free time obsessively reading books about viruses and pandemics, but she’s stayed away from the Hollywood movies on those subjects.
“The pandemic is a bad thing, but what is the best course of action during the pandemic, well it’s to stay inside, wash your hands a lot, and read good books,” she said.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-648-4294.
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