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How COVID-19 is Affecting Education: An Interview with a LetPub Editor

 

Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

June 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has swept across the globe in the past several months. With social distancing guidelines and lockdown measures still in effect as of this writing, COVID-19 continues to complicate the way we work, socialize, and learn.

Since March, many students in the United States have been learning online. While the thought of mandatory online education has received mixed reactions, both educators and students are still adjusting to the new normal. To gain some insight into this topic, we sat down with one of LetPub’s manuscript editors, who is also an associate professor at a university in the state of California. With the interest of anonymity, “JT” gives us a glimpse into how academia is adapting to this pandemic.

LetPub: Thank you for meeting with us to discuss this important topic. Would you mind providing us with some information on your academic background?

JT: I am a tenured associate professor in the school of engineering as part of the California state university system. My undergraduate and graduate training is in chemistry, and then I worked in imaging before settling into an engineering department. I have been in many different kinds of academic settings including a small and rural liberal arts college, a large state school, and a wealthy/private Ivy League institution. I have 12 people on payroll—four post-docs, a technician, and seven graduate students—with seven federal grants, so I am very research active.

LetPub: What courses are you currently offering or taught this past semester?

JT: In terms of teaching, I teach one senior design course. I also teach one graduate course on hierarchical assemblies and metamaterials as well as courses on chemical principles in engineering. I have also taught graduate courses on optics.

LetPub: Sounds like quite the variety. Were you required to transition to online teaching for all courses as a result of COVID-19?

JT: My university did transition to online teaching for all courses. I was teaching two courses in the winter, and the virus was starting to pick up by the end of those courses. By the time we got to finals, courses were 100% online. I am actually not teaching in the fall, so I will not be back into the classroom until the winter of 2021.

LetPub: Hopefully the virus will be controlled by that time. Were some courses easier to teach in an online setting than others?

JT: Yes, some courses were easier. For graduate courses, I tend to find less interaction with graduate students than undergraduates. Graduate students tend to ask fewer questions. Graduate courses also involve a lot of student projects, and so that is relatively easy. A project might be that they propose a grant, or they work in groups of 3 or 4 and make a pitch to the rest of the class. Those activities are fairly easy to facilitate. One of my courses is strictly laboratory, and so it is really impossible. I really hope that we are open by the time this comes back.

LetPub: You mentioned that labs are impossible. I imagine the lack of physical materials (and students!) makes this a tricky subject.

JT: The good news is, at least in engineering, we have computational models. People can use computational models to understand different features of nanotechnology. There are limitations, like how that translates to subjects like organic chemistry or molecular biology. There is software on everything, and it has value, but it is just not the same. I do not see how you could possibly keep the laboratories closed forever. They may have to be staggered and we may have to do shifts, but you cannot get a degree in chemistry without knowing how to do a Diels–Alder reaction. For the time being, I think everyone is doing a pretty good job in terms of using some simulation software to keep their students busy. But that is just how it’s being looked at—let’s just keep them busy.

LetPub: It sounds like educators are doing the best with what they have. Apart from labs, what are some of the main difficulties of online teaching? How did you adjust to them?

JT: I think it is the body language. There is a lot of communication in body language, and it is difficult for them to see my hands. It is difficult for them to see the subtleties in my eye. It is difficult for me to see who is paying attention and for me to ask students questions. I use my hands a lot when I teach, so I try to stay zoomed out and move my hands, but it is difficult.

LetPub: Do you think students are satisfied with this experience?

JT: I do not think that most students are happy with the online experience. I think it kind of falls down into graduate/undergraduate. I think that graduate students are perhaps more satisfied than the undergraduates, but I am sensing pretty broad disinterest in doing online learning in an extended way, at least when students are paying the university tuition.

LetPub: If that is the case, what has student engagement been like since the transition to online teaching?

JT: This pandemic is such a big deal that everyone is so distracted. I reminded everybody: Try to get 3–5 things done every day. Make a list. Tell yourself what you are going to do, and then simply do it, because the current situation has removed all of the oxygen out of the room, so-to-speak. In other words, the situation has affected our excitement, but it is more that it is a shock that everything is all coronavirus all the time, at least it was in late March and April.

LetPub: I see. Have you been using any special tactics to foster online engagement?

JT: In terms of student engagement, I try to make students keep their video on. I call on students so that they stay on their toes, but there has been a problem in terms of academic integrity. Our administration has been discussing how serious of a problem it is. It is really hard to get around this issue, and it is exhausting to have to come up with a new final, new exam, new everything. When you post your materials online, they are available. In the past, for my finals, they turn it in, but I never hand it back out. I feel that ways of developing better security is a key element.

I think the solution is to acknowledge the academic integrity element of the situation and to talk to students. I think that a lot of students will do the right thing when you ask them to.

LetPub
: It is unfortunate to hear that this has been a catalyst for academic dishonesty. In contrast, is there a benefit to “socially distant” teaching?

JT: Honestly, I feel like when I give a non-stop lecture, the experience is better. For example, I have done a few invited lectures. In those, I felt like the lecture was more paced and the timing was easier. Online lecturing is similar, where I have given the talk dozens of times. It is almost a stage performance at this point, and I feel like my stage performance whenever I do not have people in front of me is better. I feel like the benefit of “socially distant” teaching is perhaps that I feel more at ease when it is a set lecture. Of course, that is different than good teaching, right? To me, good teaching starts and stops and gets people involved. It is different than necessarily a lecture, but I feel like when I go back and look at the recordings, they are some of the best talks I have ever given.

LetPub: So, you are recording all your talks?

JT: Yes! One great benefit is that you can record them. In fact, one year I videotaped all my lectures, and the students loved it. In the course evaluation, they always brought up how they appreciated the videotaped lectures because they could go back and watch them before the exam. If distance teaching were to go on indefinitely, I would record all my lectures.

I think this is almost like a flipped classroom design. Probably the best way is you have them watch your great lecture, and then you use the other amount of time to discuss and work through problems. It is easier on the faculty to have these recorded lectures, but I do not think the students appreciate it as much because they can’t stop and ask a question. Overall, I do not think online teaching is as good as traditional teaching. However, the technical quality has gotten a lot better. I have been largely impressed with Zoom, but it is just the subtleties of human communication that are missing.

LetPub: What about the universities? How is your university helping professors and students acclimate to the new learning environment?

JT: It all happened so quickly. They gave us all Zoom access. I had used Zoom before. We had recently transitioned to a new learning management system, so we were ready to begin online courses immediately.

LetPub: It sounds like the transition went smoothly, but how can universities work to improve the online learning experience for students?

JT: It is going to be hard to put the genie back in the bottle. The entire situation is very difficult for higher education for a variety of reasons. Universities are concerned because students are not going to pay the tuition, especially out-of-state tuition, to watch online lectures. Adding value is going to be through more one-on-one time with faculty. I think there will have to be more office hours so students have time to access the professor.

LetPub: Very true. Although uncertain, what does the Fall semester look like at your institution?

JT: We are still pushing to be mostly open. We are just not ready to make that decision yet. Even in the depths of this situation, we still had 5,000 students who were living on campus, and now these students are being tested once a month. As more and more people return to campus, everybody will be tested once a month, ostensibly to identify an outbreak before it gets too bad. Since plans change so quickly, it is hard to make plans too far in advance. The good news is we know we can basically flip a switch and within three days go to online education.

LetPub: Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for educators adjusting to their new reality?

JT: You must acknowledge the situation. To simply push ahead with business as usual is somewhat foolish, in my opinion. I think you must acknowledge that these are really hard times. They are hard for the student, difficult for the professor, and we all have to do our best.

The other thing is good communication. Simplicity. Definitely record your lectures so students can go back and watch them. I think those are the big pictures. I think it is too soon to tell how long the virus will stay, but I think there will be more of an online presence in higher education than there was before the coronavirus.


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