As spring semester approaches, WU professors must decide between hosting classes online, in-person or hybrid

| Staff Reporter

Professors across Washington University were required to declare by Nov. 6 whether they will conduct their classes online, hybrid or in-person for the spring 2021 semester.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

This fall, individual schools within the University have planned around their different needs. The College of Arts & Sciences, for example, has conducted around 30% of their classes in a hybrid format, Jen Smith, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, said. The priority was given to classes that require a particular modality to conduct the course.

One limitation is classroom availability: Smith said that there is room for 15% to 25% of normal class capacity in a socially distanced format. This semester, the College of Arts and Sciences did have slightly more classroom capacity than they used, but not by much—Smith said that any increase in in-person classes “won’t be dramatic. It won’t be more than half in-person..

Conversations between faculty and students have informed the decision-making process for the spring. Kathleen Finneran, a senior writer in residence at the University, for example, will be conducting all of her classes online in the spring because of personal health concerns, in addition to the risk of exposing family members to COVID-19. However, the level of discourse in her MFA nonfiction writing class “exceeds the level of discourse that often happened in person in the classroom,” she said.

While her undergraduate class occasionally has more difficulty generating a fluid dialogue, Finneran has made use of resources like the Canvas discussion board. The spring 2020 semester, she said, was a trial-by-fire situation in terms of learning to use Canvas, but during the summer she had access to Canvas training opportunities. Thus, she said she’ll go into the spring 2021 semester with new tools to make her class more engaging, even with the online format.

“I [feel] a greater ease on the Canvas website, it’s different functions and potential that it presents for presenting material and organizing material,” Finneran said. “Also, having small group discussions and breakout rooms is really helpful, not just in terms of discussing material but also in terms of creating opportunities for the students in class to get to know each other better.”

Chemistry Lecturer Maria de la Cruz spent the summer preparing virtual labs for her students, who attend hybrid and online class. Before school started, de la Cruz found graduate student volunteers to be her actors as she filmed the experiments. She said she has to split one section into two—her hybrid students come in socially distanced to the lab while her online students learn the technique from YouTube videos. And she’s also adapted her grading scheme: While there is no performance grade, she asks questions that pertain to the techniques demonstrated in the lab.

McKelvey School of Engineering, in contrast, made an effort to offer in-person learning, because many engineering classes require a hands-on approach. They left it to the professors to determine what the label of ‘hybrid’ meant. However, one of the hardest parts of this semester for many professors was conducting classes with mixed modalities, sometimes with just one or two online students and the rest of the class in person.

Lecturer Jeff Krampf has one remote student in his Mechanical Engineering & Design course, and he has to give her similar activities to the rest of the class. However, while planning assignments, he has to keep in mind that the online student doesn’t have the tools—which include hammers, drills and soldering irons—to build any physical structures. He has to record a video for the virtual student and then teach it in class.

“To some extent, some of it takes a long time,” Krampf said. “And it’s sort of exhausting. But at the same time, I know from the students perspective, it is much harder for them to go through it. So it’s worth it to make it as good as it can be.” He will continue teaching his class in a hybrid format next semester, changing a few things with his material to assign projects that are more feasible for remote students.

The Olin School of Business has been making an effort to conduct classes with at least some type of in-person element for most classes. They have developed the high-flex model, which means that the instructor is delivering class to some synchronous students in the class, but there are other students on a screen connected through Zoom.

The high-flex course also uses engagement moderators, who help encourage interaction with remote students, monitor the chat and make sure that the online students are communicating with the in-person students. This allows more classes within Olin to be conducted with an in-person element; around 65% of classes are currently being conducted as hybrid, compared to about 33% of classes within the School of Arts and Sciences.

The new technology has posed challenges to staff, who conducted “dry runs” in their classrooms before the school year started.

“Everybody’s working harder, but everybody is happy to work harder—this is such a big challenge and such an unusual circumstance,” Professor of Finance and Vice Dean for Education Ohad Kadan said.

Even when professors make the choice to conduct class in-person, anticipating students’ desires can be difficult. Professors who have taught hybrid classes with an optional in-person portion said that students actually prefer to connect online instead of physically attending class. And that, Smith said, has been hard.

“For me, the biggest challenge is trying to get faculty to choose more in person for the spring,” she said. “They’re telling me, why should I do this when nobody is showing up?”

Looking past the spring semester, Smith said that uncertainty around the timeline for a Covid vaccine limited future planning, but expressed hope that the University’s classroom experience could begin to return to normal by the fall.

“I’m holding out hope for at least enough vaccine coverage that we’ll be able to re-densify the campus a bit for the fall,” she said.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.