A new analysis by The Daily Campus showed that only 19% of all Storrs undergraduate courses are being taught fully in person this year. In the fall semester of 2019, that number was 98%.
For the fall 2020 semester, the most common modality of teaching is distance learning, in which a student never comes to the classroom but still has a set online meeting time. 47% of classes will be taught in the distance learning format for the fall 2020 semester.
Thomas Abbott is a professor of biology at UConn, and one of the instructors for BIOL 1107: Principles of Biology I. This course is one of the largest courses at the university, with more than 700 students currently enrolled at the Storrs campus. It’s also a lab course. This semester, Principles of Biology is offered in the distance learning format.
Given the number of people taking Principles of Biology, Abbott explained, it was impossible to have it in person. But given the lab aspect of the course, it was also difficult to transition it to online.
“It’s been very difficult to try to create a similar experience. So we made a lot more analysis kind of labs, where you give students data that they might have collected had they been in person. Then you ask them to address what they see in the data.”
Principles of Biology is one of 68 BIOL classes occurring in the distance learning format. There are 2,091 Storrs undergraduate courses occurring in the distance learning format this semester.
Abbott explained that one of the hardest parts of his transition to online teaching was the inability to physically see and interact with students. He explained that was an important part of his lecturing.
“For example, if I’m lecturing, I might say to the class ‘hey, do you guys get this?’ And then I can see head nods, I can see faces. Whereas if I say that now, I can’t see anybody.”
John O’Donnell, a professor of printmaking, echoed this concern.
“The most difficult part of teaching online is losing the community that emerges when several people are working in a shared physical space. I miss conversations and in-person demonstrations.”
O’Donnell is teaching one class entirely online, a format that 17% of classes are being taught in for the fall 2020 semester. The online format is similar to the distance learning format, except that students do not have a set meeting time for the class. He’s also teaching two classes in the hybrid format.
The nature of the fall 2020 semester has allowed these more nontraditional class formats to be explored. For the hybrid model, students come in for some instruction as well as receiving some instruction online. Other professors have decided to have their courses split in-person, a format in which the class is broken up into different sessions with different sessions going to in-person instruction on different days.
Monica Bock is one of the professors who has moved a class to split in-person. Bock is a professor of ceramics, a subject that requires equipment and supplies the average college student does not regularly have access to. However, Bock said she encountered problems even switching to split in-person.
“We realized 1) the capacity limits on the building would too drastically reduce access to studio practice and 2) our students might be impacted by quarantine so regularly that they might not be able to take advantage even of the limited access,” Bock said.
So, for the lower level course Bock is teaching, she switched the format to distance learning.
“For many other studio classes, including our Foundations Studio for all incoming students, we’ve figured out how to manage with distance learning, by scaling projects to home/dorm spaces and accessible materials, and meeting on Zoom or WebEx. It’s not ideal but the ideas are the same, and lots of learning can happen through sharing images remotely,” Bock said.
For the fall 2019 semester, 0.5% of classes were taught in a hybrid format, and the split in-person format wasn’t in use for any standard classes. This semester, hybrid and split in-person classes make up a collective 18% of courses.
Despite the challenges, professors expressed that there were some positives to being online.
“Attempting to translate studio experiences to an online format is absolutely exhausting and at times defeating, but I look at these challenges as opportunities for growth. As I translate my knowledge into new media formats, I have to re-learn things in a novel way, which helps me further understand what it is I am doing and teaching,” O’Donnell said. “It has reminded me that learning new things is difficult and this experience is equally challenging for students. This is a new way of learning and it isn’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it is just different.”
Abbot also expressed that while he may have some frustrations with being online, he’s trying to see it as an opportunity.
“People don’t like change. To the nth degree, we resist change. Well, now we’ve been pushed to change—a little bit of a nudge. Let’s see what happens with that nudge. This may go to some really good places educationally that we haven’t thought about before.”
Spencer Walker is a seventh-semester natural resource economics major. He made contributions to the data collection and analysis in this article. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.