Teaching COVID-19: The making of a 1000-person class

| Senior Scene Editor

As Krista Milich prepared for her class on the coronavirus, she didn’t know how many students would enroll. She heard that 10 students might join, maybe even 100.

But shortly after registration opened, enrollment numbers soared by almost 100 per day. Without any seating restrictions, the Anthropology department had generously capped the class at 999 seats. Still, by the time registration closed, the class had even exceeded that number, with 1,251 students enrolled in the two-credit, three-week virtual class about all things coronavirus—the most in Washington University history, according to Milich.

Milich, who is an assistant professor of Biological Anthropology, agreed to teach “The Pandemic: Science and Society” just one month before the course began. That same day, she started sending out emails to biologists, counselors, visual artists and psychologists across the country, asking them if they would virtually stop by the class.

Courtesy of Krista Milich

Krista Milich works on the COVID-19 course from home with her dog, Anvil Head.

When the class finally began on August 17, she had nearly 30 speakers lined up––about two for every two-hour class period. She secured people like Phoenix (Kerrie) Linter, a COVID-19 counselor at St. Louis nonprofit organization Safe Connections, Joshua Sharfstein, a professor in Public Health at Johns Hopkins and Ed Yong, a science journalist at The Atlantic.

“Being able to bring in people as often as you want is something that you can’t do in person, but you can do virtually,” Milich says. “So you should be, in my opinion, optimizing what you can do virtually, rather than trying to recreate what you do in person.”

Nurzhan Kanatzhanov, a senior majoring in Computer Science, said he had never taken a class with so many speakers, especially ones from such “diverse backgrounds,” he said, “with Ph.D.s in immunology, Ph.D.s in public health and medical professionals who work for the government in Maryland.”

Milich designed the class so that students could see all of the different sides of the coronavirus.

“I’m not an expert in all of these things,” Milich said. “So I had lawyers talk and economists talk, and I don’t know anything about those areas. It’s best for the people who know it well to be the ones that are talking about it and available to answer questions about it.”

Milich used the speakers to weave the class through a number of topics. They discussed the science behind the virus—its structure, infectivity and how it relates to other viruses. But they also discussed its social impact, like how disabled people and incarcerated persons have been affected by the virus.

“We needed to equip our students with public health knowledge about COVID-19 to help keep our campus community healthy and safe during the fall semester,” said Feng Sheng Hu, the dean of faculty of Arts & Sciences, who first thought of the course. “There is an enormous amount of information in the news media on COVID-19, and I thought it’s important to help our undergrads digest this information with the guidance of leading experts.”

In this time of isolation, creating a sense of community was also important for Milich—even after the class’ enrollment had ballooned. She made it interactive, with a communications component, where students created four infographics to share publicly on their social media pages or with their local communities. They participated in discussion boards and submitted a question for each guest lecturer.

From Monday to Friday, Milich worked all day long on the class—outside of morning walks with her dog, Anvil Head. She would answer student emails, coordinate with the speakers, meet with her staff and design quiz questions. That didn’t even include the classroom portion, where Milich had to manage Zoom webinar calls with over 1,200 students asking hundreds of questions by the hour.

“It’s a crazy situation to be on a call where you have 1,000 people,” Milich says. “…You’re trying to maintain eye contact with the speaker, listen and follow along, nod your head, give positive feedback, all of those things, while also keeping track of those hundreds of questions and pulling them together into themes so that you can ask the speaker [questions] whenever they get done talking.”

As hundreds of students joined each day during registration, Milich had to increase her own support as well. She created a staff of 16 graduate students, four Anthropology faculty assistants, two Arts & Sciences Instructional Specialists and a communications team to help run the class. Even answering emails, she learned, constituted a “full-time job.”

Although the class ended on September 4, Milich’s work is not finished. The goal of the course was to educate—and that doesn’t stop with University students. Each lecture was recorded and posted publicly on the Arts & Sciences website.

“I think that given that we put all this effort into making this information accessible,” Milich says, “we should share it as widely as we can.”

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