Externships, thesis defenses pose new challenges, Urban tells committee


Members of the Educational Policies Committee are looking into ways to make sure Pitt students are receiving a quality education despite the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic forcing Pitt to use remote learning. 

The spread of the virus caused the University on March 11 to annnounce a switch to remote learning effective March 23 and to close its buildings to the public. In the initial announcement, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher made clear that the University remained open to faculty, staff and students, even though many were encouraged to work at home.

Then on March 18, the University announced that as of March 20 nearly all of the shared facilities, such as libraries, recreational facilities, computer labs, study areas and group spaces, that are currently available to University faculty, staff and students would be closed.

Nathan Urban, vice provost for graduate studies, told the committee on March 16 that Pitt has a balancing act to maintain, especially when it comes to graduate students. 

There may be difficulties with graduate students involved in externships and clinical dissertations, who have to safely meet their educational needs, Urban said.  

So far, the clinical psychology program is trying to figure out how to support thesis defenses and other graduate student requirements with public components, Urban said. At the meeting, he said he had been working with the University Library System to potentially house these events, but the new announcement on Wednesday would seem to eliminate that idea.

Students who work in lab environments have approached Urban to find alternatives to public transportation, which students said could potentially make them more susceptible to the virus. To combat this, Urban said he’s working to alter University parking space rules to accommodate these concerns.

On March 18, Parking Services said it is committed to making campus parking available to as many faculty and staff members as possible who are required to work onsite through the end of the spring semester. The announcement also applies to graduate students and postdocs conducting essential research onsite. To request parking for this time period, email parking@bc.pitt.edu. Find more details on the Parking Services website.

Finally, Urban is working to create a formalized process for the Pitt community to end programs because of coronavirus concerns.

Joseph McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies, said he had been considering modifying enrollment dates to allow more time for students to speak with their advisors. However, he ultimately decided not to since a large number of students had already met with their advisors before spring break and there’s plenty of advising appointments scheduled during the rest of the semester.

McCarthy said the University also has been weighing three decisions to make up for the week faculty and students are taking off to transition to online learning.

  1. Adding an extra week to the end of the semester.

  2. Setting an equivalent effort standard where students and faculty try to do the equivalent of five weeks of work in the limited four weeks left in the semester.

  3. Requesting a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education for a temporary change in Pitt’s academic year.

Out of the three, McCarthy said he’s hoping the waiver option will be approved. 

Additionally, there’s some support for changing from letter grades to pass/fail grades for students’ courses. However, McCarthy said he was opposed to making this a blanket change due to a variety of courses and course requirements across the University community.

Finally, Urban and McCarthy said they are concerned about students seeking accreditation from the Bar or other professions that require licensing. Urban said he would be speaking about this to University officials this week.

John Stoner, chair of the committee, also was concerned with how recording laws would work in an online class situation considering Pennsylvania is a two-party consent state. 

The Center for Teaching and Learning on its website spells out this guidance, per University policy, for recording classes with student participation: “In order to facilitate the free exchange of ideas during lectures, if a faculty member intends to record their lecture with student participation, they must advise the students, via e-mail and at the beginning of the lecture, that the lecture, including their participation, is being recorded. Students should not be required to participate in the recorded conversation and should be encouraged to ask questions off-line.  Further, the recorded lecture may be used by the faculty member and the registered students only for internal class purposes and only during the term in which the course is being offered.”

Geovette Washington, chief legal officer, told Senate Council on March 19 that the University is developing a script for professors to read before any class that is going to be recorded.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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