Distance learning: With campuses closed, professors grapple with how to teach their courses online

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  • Michael Knapp, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talks about strategies for remote learning during a walk through the Integrated Sciences Building on Friday, prior to students leaving campus. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A chemistry class taught by Nathan Schnarr meets in a lecture hall of the Integrated Sciences Building on Friday, March 13.

  • Michael Knapp, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talks about strategies for remote learning during an interview in the Integrated Sciences Building on Friday, March 13, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Visiting scholar and teaching assistant Fatemeh Shafiei leads a chemistry lab in the Integrated Sciences Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Friday, March 13.

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst students work in the chemistry lab of the Integrated Sciences Building at the Amherst on Friday, prior to students leaving campus. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst sophomore Katie Reardon works on a reduction in the chemistry lab of the Integrated Sciences Building. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michael Knapp, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talks about strategies for remote learning during an interview in the Integrated Sciences Building on Friday, March 13, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, talks about teaching his 60 students remotely during an interview in his usual classroom at Barrett Hall. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, talks about teaching his 60 students remotely during an interview in his usual classroom at Barrett Hall on Friday, March 13, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hampshire College senior Luis Guevara works on his project on Friday morning, March 13, 2020, in the Studio Arts Building at UMass. Guevara, who is from New York City, said he had until Sunday to finish his piece that would have been for his thesis show. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst junior Skylar Roach, left, and Hampshire College senior Luis Guevara work on their projects on Friday morning, March 13, 2020, in the Studio Arts Building at UMass. Guevara, who is from New York City, said he had until Sunday to finish his piece that would have been for his thesis show. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hampshire College senior Luis Guevara works on a project on Friday morning in the Studio Arts Building at UMass. He said he had until Sunday to finish. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Carolina Aragon, assistant professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talks about teaching her students remotely in the coming weeks. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Carolina Aragon, assistant professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talks about teaching her students remotely in the coming weeks. Photographed in her office in the John Olver Design Building on Friday, March 13, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2020 4:30:19 PM
Modified: 3/27/2020 4:30:08 PM

To keep students and the greater public safe from the growing COVID-19 pandemic, each of the five colleges in Western Massachusetts (Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, Smith and the University of Massachusetts Amherst) has decided to close their campuses to students for an extended period of time and transition to online learning.

The decisions not only affect thousands of pupils, many of whom are leaving university for the final time, but also the area’s professors — who simultaneously have to say farewell to students while they race to adapt their lessons for the internet. Online classes are not new, but for professors at schools that canceled in-person classes for the rest of the semester such as Amherst College and UMass Amherst, they may take some getting used to.

“When the classroom as such, architecturally, doesn’t exist anymore … then you have to figure out ways to reinvent it, to build it through your imagination and through alternative resources,” said Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. “And that is the task we have right now before us. To create a sense of closeness in a time where closeness is at peril.”

Creating communityfrom a distance

Though he has taught online in the past for other institutions, Stavans sees mandated online class as a challenge. To teach, Stavans and his students primarily use Zoom video conferencing software at scheduled class times, like many professors across the five colleges. Students in Stavans’ classes also continue to use an online website where they’ve been able to access videos and readings, upload papers and receive feedback.

The Zoom software can be used on phones, tablets and computers and allows Stavans to see his students and vice versa, with a chat room running for questions as he’s teaching. Stavans can even create smaller groups of students for group discussions. But instruction through a computer screen, he said, loses much of the benefits of a physical classroom, a normally “isolated place where people can put their attention, where they concentrate, where they build a community.” To this end, Stavans is putting in more energy to create a community over the internet.

For a student in Stavans’ classes, the same reading or watching must be completed before a scheduled class like it always is. To help students in different time zones who may not be able to make it to an online class, there are more physical assignments due, he said. With online teaching, Stavans said there’s also a possibility that professors may not be as available as they would normally be in person.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of jazzy improvisation that will take place,” he said, adding later that he wants to add more humor to lighten his classes. “It’s unclear exactly how it’s going to happen.”

When the school community was notified of its campus’ closing, Stavans said there was a “sense of despair, sadness — a sense of grief from the students was immediate, and also from the rest of us.”

He said he believed that the school made the correct choice.

Stavans said there’s an element of therapy in his classes as students synthesize class information as well as a rapidly changing and pandemic-stricken society. But professors are also dealing with this change — and everyone will have to find ways to stay engaged, he said.

“One should say that a time of crisis is a time of opportunity … Maybe this is an opportunity that will teach us how to be more resourceful,” Stavans said. “I have no doubt that coming back to the classroom after this, whenever that happens, is going to make us more mature.”

This semester, Stavans is teaching a class on telenovelas, the making of dictionaries and a Shakespeare class he teaches at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, which he said will be conducted online as well.

A virtual chemistry lab

Before UMass announced the cancellation of in-person classes for the entire semester, Michael Knapp, associate professor of chemistry at UMass, said he’s used online learning in the past as an innovation fellow at the college, where he and other faculty were trained on technological tools for education.

Knapp said students already use online tools to access materials and professors have taught chemistry online during the summers. As Knapp put it: “We’ve been doing things halfway online anyway.”

“The trick is to not just let technology add on to what you’re currently doing,” Knapp said. “You want technology to make things better.”

The day before spring break, Knapp said some students in his chemistry class had skipped the physical lecture and called in via Zoom teleconferencing. Knapp said he will break students into groups over the internet, which will give students the chance to interact and be a part of a community, Knapp said. With Zoom, Knapp and his students can share their screens, and Knapp can also take attendance.

An online open-sourced textbook allows students to annotate confusing passages and Knapp to respond. But laboratory experiments are a more challenging endeavor, though an online catalog of virtual lab experiments will be available for teachers to give to students. Knapp also floated the idea of having graduate students record themselves doing experiments — but that was before the University canceled graduate classes. He said students can use shared data from experiments to write their lab reports.

But with online labs, Knapp said, students lose out on the dexterity aspect of a physical experiment — that is, physically pouring agents and twisting stoppers. One creative way around this, Knapp said, is to have some students do experiments at home, like baking cookies, and write up formal reports upon their scientific observations.

“There is a lot of science there because there’s a lot of chemical reactions in the baking process,” Knapp said.

‘Creative resiliency’

Carolina Aragón, assistant professor of landscape architecture at UMass, said on Friday that she has a small budget so that students in her material experiments class can buy resources so they can create their projects at home. Aragón said students will be able to show their projects over Zoom teleconferencing for feedback.

“I am used to plan B, C, D and E,” Aragón said. “In a way, I don’t feel too phased by it … this is where the creative resiliency comes in.”

Before classes were canceled, Hampshire College student Luis Guevara was sculpting his final senior project, known as a Division III project at Hampshire, in the studio arts building where he uses the school’s large kiln. Guevara said he planned on working there until the building is closed.

“It’s a weird time for all of us,” Guevara said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.

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