Facing challenges of remote instruction, 5C faculty and students get creative

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The transition to Zoom and other remote learning tools hasn’t always been straightforward. (Anna Horne and Jasper Davidoff • The Student Life)

With one week of remote classes under their belts, 5C professors and students are coming to terms with the challenges that online formats pose to teaching and learning and celebrating what small victories they can find.

Many courses have transitioned to the web conferencing service Zoom to conduct class meetings, attempting to recreate experiences similar to traditional in-person lecture classes. 

“My professors haven’t made very dramatic changes to how courses are being taught, or to the course load,” Emily Radner SC ’23 said. “I’d say it’s about the same as before we went online.” 

Zoom, though, is presenting some hurdles as faculty learn the intricacies of the platform. New challenges like virtually raised hands, muting and unmuting, sharing screens and dividing into breakout rooms mean presenting content and facilitating discussion sometimes takes a back seat to making sure everyone can see, hear and speak.

As instructors began reorganizing their classes for distance learning, Claremont McKenna College advised its faculty to keep teaching goals realistic and reset their expectations for student participation.

“It is unlikely for most of you that you can transplant what you do in the class or in the office to a virtual format with no change at all,” the CMC Dean of the Faculty’s office said online. “You will need to reflect on how to change what you do in function of the new medium.”

With students spread out across time zones, countries and continents, some professors eschewed Zoom altogether, opting to record lectures for students to watch on their own time instead of mandating attendance to live classes. 

Pomona College art history professor George Gorse said a combination of recorded lectures and Sakai discussions allowed him to get through more material without necessarily losing the quality of student contributions.

So far it seems to work very well,” Gorse said in an email. “It is strange not seeing the students and auditors, but I am satisfied with the presentations so far.”

Some faculty are exploring new ways to keep students engaged in real time.

An Introduction to Media Studies class at Pitzer College used the website Netflix Party, which allows friends to remotely synchronize viewing on the streaming video service, to watch and discuss course films.

“That was funky,” Sage McBee PZ ’22 said via message. “It seems that most traditional learning … [doesn’t] really fit into Zoom’s capabilities, so novel wacky stuff and prerecorded lectures/slides are 100 percent the way to go.”

Others have dispensed with class meetings altogether, as certain disciplines, especially the arts, find the in-person experience impossible to replicate remotely.

“We can’t meet and do what we do. There’s no such thing as a virtual ensemble,” Pomona music professor Donna Di Grazia said. “To have everybody Zoom in, all at one time, well, that doesn’t work because there are delays and all sorts of things. So we are done. We can’t do what we do in those classes at all.” 

Music classes present a variety of logistical and technical issues for remote instruction, Di Grazia explained, including the audibility of certain sound frequencies digitally. In addition, about half of students taking private lessons at Pomona normally borrow instruments from the department.

“We have done everything we can to get students — at our cost, at the music department’s cost — get students instruments where they are. Of course, that’s not always possible,” Di Grazia said. “One example is our pianos.” 

“The other issue with lessons is being able to practice wherever you are,” Di Grazia continued. “So when you’re at school, you have the practice rooms and what have you, you can be by yourself doing your thing. Homes, residences, whatever they are, aren’t usually very conducive to that kind of work. So those are big problems, but everybody’s trying.” 

Visual arts classes are also proving tricky to adapt online.

“The hands-on component is definitely the most challenging. I think what a lot of my courses have changed to is they’ve become more design-driven,” Pitzer ceramics professor Timothy Berg said. “We do a lot of theory, they do reading anyway, and some writing. They’ll also be doing … drawings, sketches, design, designing the work that they would make if they had access to the materials.”

Berg, who this semester is teaching beginning wheel-throwing and “The Ceramic Object and Food,” is generating ideas to suit students’ new learning environments and give them a range of options depending on their capabilities.

“One assignment I am excited about … and I have done with other classes that I gave to my wheel-throwing class is to try and forage some clay in their local environments,” Berg said. “I wouldn’t normally do it in this class, and I think it’s kind of a great opportunity for them to see that this material that we’re using is all around them in various shapes and forms.” 

“This is interesting because some of them live in New York or other places where they’re actually not even allowed to leave their residences,” he continued. “So what I gave to those students was a different option, which was an online glaze course, that’s about 12 hours of instruction in learning how glazes work, and all the kind of theory and practical information you need as a foundation to understand and use glazes.” 

Berg emphasized the need to be flexible and accommodating in revising course expectations.

“I was very upfront with [my students] … I said, basically, some assignments are no longer possible, some expectations are no longer reasonable, and some objectives are no longer valuable,” he said. “We need to adapt and foster intellectual engagement and social connection and personal accommodation.” 

Scripps College art professor Ken Gonzales-Day is also revising aspects of his photography courses, including eliminating the darkroom portion of class. Instead, he’s having them take pictures with digital cameras and smartphones.

“This week we looked at the first fully digital images, and I can say, they were really pretty amazing because they provided a unique view of their lives under COVID-19,” Gonzales-Day said via email. 

Some professors are giving students more leeway than usual to decide how to accomplish class objectives.

Valerie Townsend, Pomona’s physical education coordinator, wrote in an email to students that they were still expected to get 120 minutes of exercise a week, even if that meant deviating from the original activities in the courses they were enrolled in.

“Although you are not on campus, you are expected to work with your professor and maintain communication regarding your classwork,” Townsend said. “We are hopeful that these opportunities are helpful to you, and will allow you the flexibility needed to continue with your PE course in order to earn the credit.”

Some physical education courses, though, are attempting to stick as closely to the subject matter as possible. 

Serenity Wade’s HM ’21 archery class at CMC, for example, is having students respond over emails to archery videos on YouTube.

“That class was probably most affected by the go home situation,” Wade said via message.

Ultimately, despite their best efforts, professors say they can’t teach their courses as comprehensively online as in person.

“Photo allows us to think visually, and there is no reason we can’t do that wherever they are. I could teach a digital photography course online if I had to, but there is no way to completely replace the experience of working in a physical darkroom,” Gonzales-Day said.

Di Grazia echoed this sentiment.

“What we do is not just transferable to an online format. And what all of you do, what students do, is also not really transferable to an online format,” she said. “The important thing about teaching at Pomona, or Scripps, or Harvey Mudd [College] or CMC or Pitzer is the relationship between faculty and students.”

“I know my colleagues — and I’m not just talking about the music department — we really believe in that relationship,” Di Grazia continued. “And there’s nothing, no online anything, that can replace a one-on-one, face-to-face, in-person experience.”

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