Silicon lining: Pandemic-era digital tools open new learning opportunities

By Catherine McLaughlin

Sarah Fagan
Without the financial burden of travel and lodging, departments have been able to remotely host speakers who might previously have fallen outside of their budgets.

With costs reduced and the logistics of travel and other barriers removed by the ubiquity of pandemic-era video conferencing, Middlebury professors have been able to provide more opportunities for students — expanding collaboration across and within Middlebury institutions.

Collaborations between Middlebury’s schools

With the C.V. Starr Schools Abroad unable to offer in-person instruction or host students this year, several faculty members from the schools are teaching online courses through the college and Middlebury Institute in Monterey (MIIS) — including some in English. 

The online format helps enrich and diversify the educational opportunities available to all Middlebury students, not just the ones who study abroad, according to Claudio Gonzalez-Chiaromonte, director of the schools abroad in Argentina and Uruguay. He taught a course in Spanish about the history of U.S.-Latin American relations. 

Gonzales-Chiaromonte notes that internationally specific topics may not always be best taught by domestic professors. “Perhaps the best professor in Russian environmental politics is not in the U.S. [but] somewhere in Russia,” Gonzalez-Chiaromonte said. 

The prevalence of remote teaching this year has given faculty abroad greater access to the network of schools. Middlebury students were also able to take remote classes at MIIS during the spring semester, indicating a new level of interconnectedness among global Middlebury resource pools.

“It will take a while until all of us can really understand the doors this opens,” Gonzalez-Chiaramonte said.

Fewer fees bring higher-profile speakers 

Because all visiting speakers appeared before students remotely this year, funds formerly allocated to travel and lodging could be redirected to inviting higher-profile, higher-cost speakers, such as Angela Davis and Trevor Noah

Professors were also able to offer students a chance to learn from speakers who would not have been able to come to campus during a normal semester. 

Gary Winslett, professor of Political Science and faculty fellow at the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs, arranged for the center to virtually host several European scholars. For example, Matteo Faini, who works for the Italian Presidency of the Council of Ministers, spoke to students about the politics of spying and its place in international relations in September. In April, Paul van Hooft, a senior strategic analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, will give a lecture on U.S.-Europe relations post-Trump.

 “Normally, it would be too expensive and time-consuming for visiting scholars to come from Europe,” Winslett said. 

The sphere of academia expands online

Virtual opportunities also allowed professors to maintain channels of communication with the world of academia. 

Middlebury participates in the Creating Connections Consortium (C3), a program designed to offer historically underrepresented groups in academia an opportunity to present their research. 

With a small grant from C3, the Political Science Department was able to bring two speakers during the fall to virtually present and receive feedback about their research. In years past, C3 fellows came to the college to teach and complete dissertations. This year, both Covid-19-related logistical challenges and budget shortfalls prevented that. Instead, C3 participants connected with Middlebury faculty virtually.

“This was actually a win-win situation,” Professor of Political Science Matthew Dickinson said. “It’s an opportunity for them to get feedback from political scientists, get paid and demonstrate their job skills. But it’s also a chance for us as a college community to hear from individuals doing research who we might not otherwise be able to bring on campus because of the cost of lodging and airplanes and all that.” 

Dickinson also runs a weekly politics luncheon that discusses current events and occasionally features presentations from students and other professors. Previously, townspeople often attended the meetings alongside students and other faculty. Since going remote, Dickinson said alumni participation has become quite popular. 

“We get to expose people to more diverse viewpoints,” Dickinson said. “But I don’t get to bring in bagels anymore.”

Looking ahead, virtual tools may not disappear

Still, all three professors said virtual talks cannot replace in-person engagement. 

“I think the ease of doing things virtually can be a drawback,” Dickinson said. “You forget that your audience of students are sitting in their rooms hour after hour after hour. That’s not why you come to a college — to sit in your dorm room.” 

He also added that another pitfall of virtual talkswas its impact on student’s ability to participate. Particularly, it made student protest of certain speakers difficult. 

At a debate last fall hosted by the Alexander Hamilton Forum called “1619 or 1776: Was America Founded on Slavery?” student protesters changed their Zoom backgrounds to posters objecting to the event’s titular question. Several students attempted to turn their video on to hold protest signs and were removed from the video conference. Events sponsored by the forum have since been hosted as webinars where participant cameras are not enabled.

“I believe that nothing replaces the direct classroom experience, in particular for the little chats you have with students before and after the class,” Gonzalez-Chiaramonte said. In South America, he added, it is very common to have coffee or wine with a group of students after class. 

The role of virtual platforms in a post-lockdown Middlebury remains murky. 

“I could see maybe snapping halfway back to how it was,” Winslett said. “People paying for travel budgets might start saying, ‘Do you need to go to that conference? Do we really need to reimburse your hotel and flight when you could do it virtually?’” 

Gonzalez-Chiaramonte sees that upcoming transition as an opportunity. “We are really going through a threshold here,” he said. “It’s an infinite horizon.” 

He believes that, with time, the community will hybridize in-person and virtual academic worlds, capturing the benefits of both.

“The college needs to find some ideal combination of these resources,” he said. “They have been here, sitting in the world, waiting for somebody to exploit them.”