On teaching at home
A scholastic view of life during the pandemic
In the last few weeks of the Spring Semester, The Polytechnic met with professors across three schools to learn what the transition looked like department to department. What we found, broadly speaking, was that the Computer Science and ITWS departments seemed to have transitioned most easily, while studio and lab-type courses faced the brunt of the switch to online classes.
Professor Wes Turner, who leads the Rensselaer Center for Open Source, told us he felt the transition went smoothly as the class already was using Mattermost—an open-source Slack alternative—to communicate. He added that while the transition wasn’t ideal, it accurately emulated how people work on open-source projects outside of college. Professor Richard Plotka of the Information Technology and Web Science department mentioned that for Senior Capstone projects, students in his classes used Zoom or Webex to communicate with clients, but he also utilized Discord and Slack to talk with his students.
Economics professor Sarah Parrales discussed her use of technology and her tips for staying productive online with The Polytechnic. She found Webex live streaming to be “tedious for everyone,” and decided to post videos on Mediasite for students to watch on their own. During normal class times, Parrales used Webex to review material with students, answer questions, and add whatever else she felt was necessary during those sessions as a way to preserve some sort of normalcy.
The stark disparity between life at home and the usual campus environment came up in the conversation with biology professor Laura Christian. Christian and her husband, who is also an RPI professor, have a kindergartner and a one year-old at home, so she has found working from home to be “extremely difficult.” While talking with The Poly about how she facilitates teaching from home, she talked a bit about WebEx workshops, but ultimately conceded that she “had to figure out a lot on [her] own.”
Christian told The Poly that because of her two children, both of whom are under the age of 6, there was less time to meet with students one-on-one, so she changed the format of her Advanced Biochemistry lab. Fridays—when there would otherwise be a general lab meeting—became a time for students to meet with Christian to ask questions. The timing of her Introduction to Cell Biology class had to change as well; she looked after her children while her husband taught during the day, and the roles switched as she held her Cell Bio lectures at 8 pm.
For her Advanced Biochemistry lab, Christian decided to change the lab into a “computational modelling-based lab,” using ideas gathered from collaboration with faculty across the country to facilitate this switch. She explained that computational methods are not her field of expertise, so she was “only one step ahead” of the students who were also figuring out how to use the appropriate tools to analyze the hypotheses they had developed earlier in the semester.
When asked about the Arch, which starts May 26, the professors The Poly talked to offered some guidance. Parrales advised rising juniors to go into the program with an open mind and treat it as a learning opportunity, maintaining that professors will uphold the usual rigor and high standards for their students. Plotka recommended students establish a routine, saying: “set yourself a schedule… set a discipline: get up in the morning, get dressed as normal.”
When discussing the Arch and the difficulties that come with distance learning, Professor Campbell, Department Head of Science and Technology Studies, told students to ask themselves how they can make “constraints a seedbed for creativity,” remarking that “constraints can sometimes enable very creative thinking.” Turner advised students to reach out if any problems arise, as professors can’t know about a problem unless they hear about it. Turner also shared his key to productivity at home: the knowledge that if he doesn’t get something done, it hurts the education the students receive.
Since the change to distance learning, Parrales mentioned that attendance for office hours was lower than usual, while Campbell told The Poly that she has seen an increase in appointments with her graduate students. Campbell described having been “deluged in email every day” since the change, comparing answering emails to drinking out of a firehose: “I can’t keep up with it.”
Campbell was not alone in seeing a large increase in emails since the transition to teaching online—Parrales and Hameed also noted a similar trend. Hameed described the amount of emails as “non-stop,” telling The Poly that, since he stays up late, he finds himself answering emails into the early morning.
When asked about how to stay productive at home, Parrales recommended going outside and getting exercise. She told The Poly that she uses exercise as a way to break up her day, and noted that it was a welcome change from “running around everywhere” to get to appointments. Parrales said the best part about working from home is not feeling as rushed as usual, adding that she’s able to eat more healthily since she is no longer “always on the go.”
Both Campbell and Plotka mentioned that not commuting has its advantages. Campbell mentioned the benefit of a decrease in fossil fuel consumption, and reflected on the time she’s been able to spend with her daughter, baking and gardening together, now that they are both working at home together. Christian also appreciated the extra time she had to spend with her children, and the “removal of stress” that came without having to drive to work.
As far as exams go, Plotka mentioned that he changed his final exam to a take-home format. Hameed described the discussion around exams as “a can of worms” saying that it’s the hardest aspect of the transition because of the challenges to making a fair exam and preventing people from cheating. He felt it wouldn’t be fair to students to require a straight two-hour time-block when he can’t have that at his house, so he gave students a longer time frame to take their exams.
When sharing what she felt was the worst part of teaching at home, Parrales told us that altering all her course plans and format for classes took a lot of time, which has “taken away from other aspects” of her career, but she acknowledged the need for prioritizing student learning.
Campbell mentioned how “studios are just harder to emulate online,” and how some Design, Innovation, and Society professors sent out kits to students so they could do projects at home. She told us how the mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning created a bigger time commitment for both students and professors alike, and how professors had to use their creativity to maintain engaging material in studio courses, which are hands-on and project-based. “Everything takes a time and a half now,” Campbell said.
Christian found herself packing her schedule as much as possible and identifying the times of the day in which she works best. She also found herself staying up late every night to “have a little time to, you know, sit down and pet a cat” while winding down.
Hameed felt that the worst part of online teaching was not being able to interact with students and gauge where the class was. When The Poly asked Plotka about the worst part of distance learning, he spoke in a similar vein: “I’m not with the students. I enjoy being with the students in class!” Campbell lamented the loss of the workshop feel for her Drugs in History class, stressing the importance of collaborative writing as a skill, one that cannot be replicated online. Like Hameed, Campbell also found that it was harder to get a feel for how students were comprehending class material.
These professors all had takeaways from online teaching that they felt they would use in the fall—online or not. Plotka said he would make one-on-one office hour help more available and Campbell told us how she would apply “new tricks” learned to “the way that we present information,” and “visually portray our ideas.” Turner is working to figure out a way to bring the feel of remote collaboration in RCOS to the Fall Semester.
Teaching and taking classes online is a learning experience for professors and students alike. Instead of “critiquing what’s wrong with online education,” Campbell countered that “it’s still education” and “we should be studying how people learn online.”