In-person classes right for some faculty, but many opting out

professor in front of masked students in class


When Provost Ann Cudd announced on Sept. 9 that professors could move to in-person instruction as of Sept. 14 if they had approval from their dean, there wasn’t a stampede of people returning to campus, and Cudd said this week that’s just fine.

“We thought that at this point it would be safe, but still something that an instructor could either choose to do or not to do — to move into in-person in Elevated Risk status,” Cudd said. “And my thinking is that that would happen kind of gradually until we get to Guarded. If we get to guarded, that will be fantastic. Then we can expect that basically all the classes that have a classroom assignment, there will be the opportunity for a student to be in class, if they wish.”

When the operational postures were announced in June, the Elevated Risk level allowed for only a small number of classes to be in-person, such as labs that would not work effectively online. Pitt changed its Elevated level guidance in early September to say, “An in-person engagement option can also be provided when there is a definable benefit to in-person instruction and the dean or regional campus president or their designee grants permission via teaching implementation plans.”

Faculty members are moving “deliberately” about going back to the classroom, said Cudd, who has only heard anecdotally about those making the move and doesn’t have hard numbers yet. She said Dean Kathleen Blee of the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences told her there’s been a “trickle” of people requesting permission to teach in-person.

For those considering it, Cudd said, “They can probably find a way to go in and try (the Flex@Pitt technology) out, which is something that I would certainly encourage.” In addition, the Center for Teaching and Learning is offering several in-person Flex@Pitt training sessions over the next month.

In another move to gradually increase in-person educational opportunities, the Office of the Provost has announced that students enrolled in classes that have assigned rooms but that are not currently offering an in-person experience will soon be able use their assigned  classrooms to attend their remote class.

“It will give students a place to focus their learning without having to avoid participating in class, as may be the case, for example, in the library or similar spaces that necessitate quiet,” said Joseph McCarthy, vice provost for Undergraduate Studies.

Logistics, including access and cleaning procedures, are being finalized. The provost’s office plans to communicate details next week with associate deans, who will contact their faculty and students.

In the meantime, the University Times reached out to faculty members to see whether they planned to return to the classroom at this point. We got a variety of responses about why they are or are not making a change.

Jay Sukits, clinical assistant professor of Business Administration, Katz Graduate School of Business

Sukits is letting his students vote weekly about returning to the classroom, and so far, they have voted to learn from home, by a large majority.

“I’m going to let my students call the shots on this,” Sukits said. “They’re the ones paying tuition. They’re the customers … and I feel like I am smart enough to protect myself.”

This fall, he is teaching all sections of Advanced Corporate Finance and one section each of Capital Markets and Financial Institutions and Markets.

Given his age and a chronic condition, he said, “I am at a higher risk for COVID-19 infection.” But he told his finance faculty group head and his dean, “I am willing to go back into the classroom. My focus is on what my students want to do.”

After 20 years on the Pitt faculty, he says, he certainly prefers to be in the classroom. “I tell my students to consider all the classes like a business meeting. You’ve got to participate. The personal interaction you have in a classroom is extremely valuable.”

But today he adds: “Get used to this. Get used to meetings in Zoom,” when you graduate to the business world of the 2020s, where businesses may decide this new remote way of working is saving them a lot of expenditures for office rent. “The students are getting really good practice at this.”

Overall, he concludes, “I’m very pleased with the way the situation has unfolded, because I’ve let the students make the decision.” And if a strong majority eventually switch their votes and choose to learn in person? “We’d immediately be right back into the classroom,” he says.

Lance Davidson, professor of Bioengineering, Swanson School of Engineering

Davidson began teaching in person at the first opportunity, after classrooms opened up on Sept. 14. It was important for his 90 sophomore students in their first introductory bioengineering course, Davidson said, to begin learning together.

“This is an initial point for our undergraduates to develop a sense of their career choice,” he explained. “By the time they are seniors they are a very cohesive group … they are working in teams just like real engineers. This course is one of their first experiences with their cohort.”

The two-semester course, Cell Biology for Bioengineers, covers such areas as immunology, including an introduction to RNA viruses like COVID-19.

On Zoom, “the challenge is engaging students, having students engage with each other in building teams,” he said. After just his first in-person class this fall, he felt, “it was tremendous to see them come out. They were about as happy as you can imagine seeing undergraduates nowadays.” The decision to teach in-person, he said, was also about “giving back students a bit of agency over their education. I feel like with Zoom you really take away some of that.”

About two thirds of the students have stayed remote so far, he reports. “I think they are taking a wait-and-see attitude. I can’t blame them.” However, “all the noses were covered,” he reports. “I felt very safe, and whatever risk there was, I had worked to mitigate it. I am used to mitigating risk in my research,” which has included everything from keeping track of weekly radiation exposure in a nuclear lab to using lasers, high voltages, toxic chemicals and human blood in his lab today.

“Holy cow, so many advantages” to in-person classes, he added. “Reading their body language — there are so many forms of communication Zoom just doesn’t catch (since) all but a small handful have their videos turned off.” Question-and-answer sessions in person are frictionless as well, he said.

While there were many technological glitches with Flex@Pitt on his first day, he is pressing ahead with in-person classes.

“Why do we have this University?” he said. “Why do we have in-person interactions? Why don’t we just mail out materials and they can learn it themselves?” Getting back to in-person classes remains “a very strong impulse.”

Melinda Ciccocioppo, lecturer, Department of Psychology, Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences

Ciccopioppo said neither of the classes that she teaches can move to in-person, because they don’t have a classroom assigned at this point.

The Intro to Psychology course has about 400 students and was planned for online very early, “because there was no hall large enough,” she said.

Her 35-person Psychology of Gender class had a classroom assigned at the beginning of the semester that was designed to hold 70 students. “I was honestly never really planning on being in the classroom,” she said. “We have a lot of class discussions, I do a lot of small group work, and I just couldn’t figure out how that was going to work with all of us wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart, especially in what would be a giant room.”

She uses breakout rooms in Zoom for small group discussions, “so that they’re not screaming at each other from 6 feet away. I can answer their questions easier, because I can hear them a lot better in Zoom.

She also said she couldn’t envision a class where some students were in the room and some were online and they needed to interact with each other. She told the class early on that she would be remaining remote even in the Guarded status, and if they wanted to “go into the classroom and be in our Zoom class in the classroom, go for it, but I’m not going to be there.”

Pitt’s move to allow more in-person classes under the Elevated level has Ciccopioppo concerned that “students have been given some false expectations about how many classes, they’re going to have in person and what that experience is going to be like. And my concern with that is that when that doesn’t happen — when there are instructors like myself who say, actually, for my type of a course, we can do this better online than we can with the safety restrictions in person — that students are going to be disappointed and are going to blame their instructors for that, and it’s going to come out in faculty evaluations.”

She said in the spring she has three classes with varying enrollment sizes. “The small class I have to have an in-person component for everyone at the same time; the medium class I’ll have to do a rotating cohort, and then the large class I’ll have to do online,” she said. “That’s just insane.

“I would feel so much better if it was just, look, it’s going to be online, and we’re just going to deal with it, and hopefully be able to go back to in-person next fall.”

Douglas Landsittel, professor, Department of Biomedical Informatics, School of Medicine

Landsittel’s been completely teaching online and plans to do so in the spring.

He’s teaching a course in the Institute for Clinical Research Education, which favors online classes unless instructors indicated they wanted to do otherwise.

“The lectures and class activities, in my opinion, can all be done equally or even more effectively in the online setting as in the classroom for this particular class,” Landsittel said. “Attendance has also generally been higher than usual without the travel to class issues that normally lead to a few missed classes here and there.”

Landsittel said he fully supports the online format to help slow the spread of the pandemic.

Allyn Bove, assistant professor, Physical Therapy, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences

Bove has been holding in-person labs for her doctor of physical therapy Anatomy class since the beginning of the semester, but not without a lot of effort.

For the clinical labs, students are split into three groups in separate rooms. Flex@Pitt equipment is installed in one of the rooms, where the lead instructor can lead a Zoom session that the other two rooms tune into. There are instructors in the other rooms to help give live feedback.

For the gross anatomy (cadaver) labs, Bove said what would normally be handled in two, two-hours sessions a week, is now four, one-hour sessions with different groups in the lab each time. “We created some instructional videos that they watch before they come to lab, so that they’re coming to lab really prepared and knowing kind of what they’re doing that day,” she said.

In addition, all the lectures were created this summer and are remote and asynchronous. “Then we have synchronous sessions where we review the material, answer questions,” she said. “We use Top Hat a lot, so we’ll put some kind of quiz questions in there and have the students log in and they answer those live during the synchronous session. We’ll have some slides preloaded to help explain the concepts that we think are probably going to be the ones that pop up as being the most challenging to learn asynchronously.”

Bove said she's needed “400 percent more in prep time, conservatively," to teach in-person and remotely. "I literally spent the entire summer getting ready for this.” She said the other challenge was finding enough PPE to get through the semester. They have it now, but it took a long time to procure.

The biggest drawback for students has been that they can only connect with their small lab groups and not all their peers in this first-year graduate course.

She plans to continue in the same mode next semester. Her department is telling everyone to assume the University is still in the Elevated posture in the spring.

Jeremy Weber, associate professor, Graduate School of Public and International Policy

Weber plans to go back to in-person classes as soon as he can get permission from his dean.

Returning from a stint with the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Weber is teaching his first classes with a remote component this fall. A poll of his students in both Qualitative Methods and in Energy and Environmental Policy classes showed “there were a lot of people enthusiastic” about learning inside the classroom; their only concern was getting there with reduced bus capacity in this socially distanced world.

But Weber also thought teaching in the traditional manner “was a good default — that’s the normal way we teach our classes.” It helps, he says, that his are smaller classes where his aim is to “provoke reflection and discussion.” He sees Flex@Pitt as “very well set up for that. It seemed pretty simple, although I may say something different the first time I teach from it” inside a classroom.

While some students might prefer the convenience of online learning, he said, it’s impossible to turn off your video and pretend to be present when the class is in person. Being in the classroom, he concluded, is “a commitment mechanism.”

Victoria Grieve, instructor, School of Pharmacy

Grieve is happy to stick with remote learning for the two classes she is coordinating and teaching this fall: LGBTQ Health Care in her school and Game Design in the School of Computing and Information, with a co-teacher.

Why stay remote?

“Whenever we were in the summer,” Grieve says, “I didn’t have any faith in the University leadership’s ability to assess or contain or do contact tracing or anything like that” concerning the pandemic. Staying online, “I knew that everybody would be safe, myself included.” Plus, she felt, if she spent the summer trying to rework her courses for remote teaching only, “I could do a better job.”

The LGBTQ class was an easy transition, she says, since it involves making presentations and holding discussions. And while the game design class had to be re-cast without its unit on tabletop, analog games, it also was able to hold three times the number of students compared to the in-person version. Adding in more digital game theory “seems like a trade-off none of the students are too upset by,” she said.

“I really like this space,” she adds, since teaching online only improves her work-life balance. “I’m in better shape than when we were teaching in person. There are positives to the change that people are maybe overlooking.”

Neepa Majumdar, associate professor of Film & Media Studies, Department of English, Dietrich School

The classrooms Majumdar was assigned for this semester are equipped with the Flex@Pitt Zoom technology, but she there’s a major flaw she feels at not been given attention.

“If you are the professor teaching remotely, and there are students physically present in the room as well as students who are also joining in remotely … they did not get a system that included a camera that would face the students who were actually physically present in the room,” Majumdar said. “That means that when I teach remotely to students who are sitting in the classroom, I cannot see those students. I can only see the students who are Zooming it. …. Anybody who's taught would know that the system is completely flawed.”

Because of this, she included a statement in the class syllabus that even if the class can go in person, she would be remaining remote, and “for you to be in the classroom in person is not going to be a great experience because, I will not be able to see you. If you raise your hand, I won’t see you.”

Majumdar records her lectures, “because I don’t see why students should passively sit and watch me lecture in real time,” and then she holds a one-hour synchronous Zoom session that’s entirely discussion based. She also does breakout groups so students can get to know each other.

“In some ways, I will say the discussion is better now,” she said. “Because they’re all doing, we’re all doing, more work. We’re doing more assignments; I’m doing so much more work creating materials for them. But the end result is I feel like they come to class so much better prepared to talk. I’ve been pretty happy, though I’m exhausted.”

Tyler Bickford, associate professor of English, Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences

Bickford doesn’t plan to hold in-person classes.

“I think it does a disservice to the students who have stayed home or are committed to taking classes remotely, whose decision is an important contribution to public health, and it would not be fair to give them a partial or second-best experience of the class,” Bickford said. “I think my online classes are going well and would be harmed by trying to teach to in-person and remote students simultaneously.”

Bickford added that he was concerned that the decision to allow for more in-person classes on campus could have harmful effects on teaching evaluations. 

“I think this decision unfairly places the blame for not moving in-person on individual faculty, and I’m worried that this will show up in student course evaluations and other teaching measures,” Bickford said. “I also think this change undermines trust in the Flex@Pitt model by changing the meaning of Elevated Risk after the risk postures had been communicated for months as a consistent and trustworthy framework for basing operations on public health priorities and not pressure to offer in-person classes. 

“I was critical all summer of the Flex@Pitt model because it seemed to be rushing irresponsibly to in-person classes, but staying in Elevated at the start of the term helped reassure me that the medical team were making responsible decisions. This feels like we now no longer know what the administration is basing their decisions on, or what the risk postures will mean going forward.” 

Kathryn Elizabeth Gardner, lecturer, Department of Biological Sciences, Dietrich School

Gardner teaches two sections of Foundations of Biology 1. Because of the number of students in the courses, roughly 295 per section, the course has been designated for remote instruction regardless of campus posture, she said. 

She doesn’t have a classroom assigned to her, she added, and she’ll be teaching remotely for the rest of the term. 

“The positive of this is that I can now focus all attention on teaching as effectively as possible in a remote context without disruption to that model.”

Mackey Friedman, assistant professor, Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, Pitt Public Health

Friedman said he is teaching the master’s level Emergence and Global Spread of COVID-19 class. More than 50 students are taking the class, he said, and he plans to continue holding the classes remotely. 

“The only alternative I can see being reasonable, as far as risk, would be to host it in-person in a large outdoor amphitheater,” Friedman said.  “But, of course, the logistics of that are also difficult to manage.”

Susan Jones, Donovan Harrell and Marty Levine are writers for the University Times. 


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