Bracing for seismic impact of remote learning, faculty turn to DLINQ

By RAIN JI

How can you take part in a lab experiment virtually? Will you be able to direct a show using Zoom? Are class discussions going to look the same? 

After the frenzy of packing, waving goodbyes and booking flights subsided earlier this month, questions related to how classes would continue remotely began to emerge, especially for those taking classes in different time zones or in places with compromised internet connections.  

On March 10, President Laurie Patton announced that classes would resume remotely after spring break. In her email, Patton pointed to the Office of Digital Learning & Inquiry (DLINQ) as an important resource for faculty as the college transitions to remote instructions. DLINQ is a subset of the provost’s office, staffed by 10 members in Vermont and at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Its mission is to look for ways to advance incorporating the digital in the advancement of student lives and education — previous projects include the annual Digital Detox.

Amy Collier, associate provost for digital learning, told The Campus that the office has worked with around 100 faculty members across the college and in Monterey, which has also suspended in-person classes, since the announcement. Many faculty members on the Vermont campus took advantage of drop-in sessions, and around 30 faculty members scheduled individual meetings with the office. 

“A typical session with a faculty member involves talking through the types of activities they usually do in class, the learning outcomes for those activities — what they expect students will know or be able to do as an outcome of the activities,” Collier said. “Then, we talk about how we might meet those learning outcomes using the available technology tools.”

Beyond this type of support, the office also launched a series of workshops on topics including “Screencasting 101 with Panopto,” “Using Zoom for Synchronous Learning Activities,” and “Managing Quizzes & Assessments in Canvas.”  

During these meetings, the office actively encouraged faculty to plan asynchronous interactions with students to get around hurdles such as time differences. On the other hand, College Provost Jeff Cason and Dean of Faculty Sujata Moorti also emphasized the importance of “scheduling synchronous course meetings” in a March 16 email to faculty. 

DLINQ has encouraged faculty to use a variety of online tools, including the now-ubiquitous conferencing platform Zoom for live video calls and Panopto for posted lectures.

COURTESY PHOTO
The Wilson Media Lab, where the DLINQ office is located.

Starting March 30, Tao You ’22.5, a math major, might take classes from Beijing, which is 12 hours ahead of EDT. He said he estimates most of his classes will be taught synchronously. 

“I don’t think STEM will be affected as much as humanities. The only compromise for STEM [classes] is that we can’t ask questions during lectures,” he said. “But for discussion-heavy humanities and social sciences, asynchronous teaching will be a different story — I think the quality will be severely curtailed.” 

To get a better sense of how ready students feel about remote instruction, Cason and Moorti sent out an email to all students on March 23 asking students to provide feedback on the challenges they might face, including issues related to internet accessibility.  

Students at the institute have been learning remotely since March 17. Michael Carboy MIIS ’20, who studies environmental policy and corporate sustainability, is in the institute’s master’s program. 

Carboy is not a fan of remote learning, and said his “Northeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Policy” class is affected most significantly by the remote changes. On an average, in-person day, the class debates declassified government documents in detail. Now, the professor mostly lectures, and students can comment via the chat bar.

Lack of in-class dialogue with other students, garbled online audio, limitations on being able to have multiple screens displaying different things and the general inability to get up, walk to the whiteboard, and mark up things are all major detriments to the currently necessary on-line arrangements,” he said.

From MAC to MacBook

Alex Draper, professor of theatre and the department chair, said that the Theatre Department is brainstorming ideas for moving forward with colleagues around the country. The department is investigating how much synchronous teaching can occur without overwhelming people’s schedules and is trying to figure out how much professors can alter the arcs of their classes, Draper said.

Despite the inherent difficulties, Draper is optimistic. “There is room for creative experimentation and who knows what unforeseen gifts will come of that,” he said.

Specifically speaking, for studio classes such as “Acting I: Beginning Acting,” Draper said he is trying to “to recalibrate course content in a way that folds in practices that are already happening remotely (auditions, self-taping, online rehearsing, one-on-one monologue coaching, character research).” 

There is room for creative experimentation and who knows what unforeseen gifts will come of that.”

— Alex Draper

For classes that culminate in a show, such as this spring’s planned performance of “Julius Caesar,” the department hopes to continue rehearsals and is looking for ways to present to the public virtually.

“Since we can’t block a show virtually, I think it makes sense to focus on what we can do,” said Assistant Stage Manager Devon Hunt ’23. “We should work on other related things to fill in the gaps and still make this a complete class as best as we can in these given circumstances.” 

The transition to online learning will also affect STEM students who take classes with a lab component. Lucia Snyderman ’23, a student in Chemistry 103, is worried about how the lab portion of class will transfer online. She and many other lab students are still waiting on further clarification about what to expect.

“I do not think that virtual labs will create the same learning experience as conducting in-person labs,” she said. “The fact is it’s just not the same as holding the real tools in your hand and setting up the experiment and observing the reaction first-hand.” 

Echoing this sentiment, Chemistry 104 student Amaya David ’23 said, “the lab component of chemistry really helps with the application of different processes so I’m afraid that it will be more difficult for me to retain information without a tangible lab [component].” 

I am worried about classes that are moving to more recorded lectures since then there’s less interaction with other students and the professor.”

— Tim Hua

Glen Ernstrom, professor of biology & neuroscience, teaches “Cell Biology and Genetics,” a class with three hours of lab each week this term. He told The Campus he is aware of how remote learning may affect some of his students, and is constantly reconsidering how to best teach the class without adding stress for his students. He remains hopeful that he and his students will be able to find the best way as they move forward, even though mistakes might be inevitable.

The transition has also made some first-year Febs wonder how they might take full advantage of their First Year Seminars. The program’s goal is to “use intensive engagement between professors and students to facilitate the transition from high school to college,” according to the program’s website. It is currently unclear how that “intensive engagement” might be replicated remotely.

“I am worried about classes that are moving to more recorded lectures since then there’s less interaction with other students and the professor,” said Tim Hua ’23.5, whose First Year Seminar is called “Cities in Crisis.”

The First Year Seminar department met on March 20 to discuss options going forward, but could not be reached for comment by press time.