The challenges of the socially distanced class; Big Ten Universities Share Online Courses

Even as more colleges announce their intention to offer virtually all classes this fall, many remain committed to at least some in-person classes – and delivering them in safe and efficient classrooms for students and members. faculty.

Which leads to experiments like the one Anna L. McLoon and her colleagues conducted on the Siena College campus this summer, as described in an essay on Inside higher education Monday read by tens of thousands of readers. (Others are described here and here.)

Like many small residential colleges, the Franciscan institution of 3,100 students 150 miles north of New York City deeply values ​​face-to-face learning and still plans to bring many, if not most, students back to its campus this fall. The college’s current plan for fall calls for a mix of blended and distance learning, with classroom capacity limited to 50% of normal, or students “sitting at least three feet apart, whichever is lower “.

Among other things, Siena says she has extended the time between classes to allow cleaning of high-traffic classroom areas and reduce hallway congestion, and has purchased “the technology needed to provide live streaming of the lessons.” to enable “students to participate effectively remotely in courses that are offered in person.

McLoon and a group of his colleagues at the Siena School of Science decided this summer to “see what it would be like” to operate under the conditions of physical distancing they would encounter while teaching on the Siena campus this fall. They tested three scenarios: a classroom reunion involving group work (since McLoon and some of his colleagues use an inverted classroom model that features meaningful interaction between students), a lecture in the college’s large conference room ( which has 155 places but can accommodate 28 given COVID-19 restrictions) and an outdoor class with group work. (Considering the climate from northern New York to Siena, outdoor classes may only be a possibility in early fall…)

The essay, which should be required reading for every professor invited to teach in person this fall and for all administrators asking their instructors to do so, makes it clear that teaching and learning will be difficult for instructors and teachers alike. students this fall. , whatever the format. (I explored some of these questions in a “Transforming Teaching and Learning” column in May.) Effectively engage both students who are physically in class and those who join remotely via a platform teleconferencing was difficult, the authors said.

“Those on Zoom couldn’t hear many students in the room. And, in fact, everyone in the room, including the instructor, had a hard time hearing the students on Zoom,” McLoon and his co- author, Sarah K. Berke, another biologist, wrote. And instructors couldn’t move among groups of students participating in class group work without losing touch with those attending through Zoom, they said, suggesting that “a tablet is essential” for them. professors hoping to do more than lectures to a mix of person and distance students.

The essay also provides clear evidence that most faculty members – though many express deep reservations about the wisdom of returning to the physical classroom – are doing all they can to s. ‘ensure that if they do, they will do it as efficiently as possible.

“Faced with a global pandemic, it feels like we don’t have good choices as we prepare for the next term,” the authors of Siena wrote. “Nonetheless, strong, data-informed plans can help us make the most of a bad situation. We hope you can use our experience to improve yours.”

On a related note, here is more advice on how to engage students in active, experiential learning in the physically distant classroom – a Student Opportunity Center webcast series involving presenters from a mix of two and four years. public and private colleges.


The 14 universities in the Big Ten Conference collectively train approximately 600,000 students, and they collaborate in many ways and compete intensely on the playing fields and courts. Historically, however, their collaborations on teaching and learning, through a sister organization called the Big Ten Academic Alliance, have primarily focused on faculty development and a modest online course sharing program around specialized language courses.

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Long on the organization’s “wish list,” said Keith Marshall, executive director of the academic alliance, has been a “more scalable” model of online course sharing among Big Ten members. Rectors of institutions have sometimes weighed the idea in the past, generating “no enthusiasm at all,” said alliance president Lauren Robel, president and executive vice president of the flagship campus of Indiana University in Bloomington.

But as Big Ten university leaders began speaking weekly (instead of normally twice a year) this spring to discuss their collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea has gained traction as a means to “demonstrate that we care about their academic progress, to give them a sense of enthusiasm for their future and thus help them not to feel completely overwhelmed by the adversity in which they find themselves”, explains Robel.

“The pandemic presented a time when the provosts were more open to this idea,” adds Marshall. “This brought to the fore the need to offer a wide range of online courses to help students progress and complete their degrees, especially if online education is a bit more central in the future and we are not so tied to physical locations. “

Participating members,
Big Ten Course Sharing

  • Indiana University
  • University of Maryland at College Park
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Nebraska at Lincoln
  • Ohio State University
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Rutgers University in New Brunswick

This week, seven of the 14 Big Ten members agreed to participate this fall in the Big Ten Academic Alliance online course sharing program, which will allow students at institutions to take any of the courses available at their peer institutions at no additional cost. . . Courses cannot be used to meet students’ minimum requirements for financial aid or full-time status at their home institution, and there is “no guarantee” that course credits will be transferred to their home university, although that’s the idea, Marshall says. .

In its initial phase, at least, the courses are less about helping a student complete a requirement or complete their degree faster than “giving you access to a great course that you wouldn’t normally have access to, do something about it. that you could “I did not do otherwise, when so many things you could have done normally” – study abroad and the like – “are closed,” says Robel.

Robel describes the creation of the lesson-sharing agreement in a matter of weeks during a pandemic as an “act of hope and will,” an act that not all members of the Big Ten had the bandwidth to undertake in this regard. moment.

Whether and how this initial effort will turn into a deeper and broader system of online course sharing between some of the biggest and best universities in the country will depend on many factors, including the extent to which more students traditional residential universities take courses online.

But at a time when many observers wonder whether colleges and universities will respond to this remarkable moment by doing things they haven’t done historically, the Big Ten experiment offers some evidence in favor of the affirmative.

“This,” says Robel, “was absolutely made possible by the pandemic”.


As always, your comments, critiques, and ideas for future coverage are welcome. Please email me here or find me on Twitter @dougledIHE Where @ihelearning. Stay safe and well.

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