Many Penn State students who logged into LionPATH on Monday were surprised to learn some of their classes, even smaller ones, would be taught remotely in the fall.
Their professors, however, saw the change coming months in advance.
Professors of large lecture classes have mixed feelings about teaching classes remotely, but many feel it’s their best option.
Some faculty members, like associate teaching professor of economics Jadrian Wooten, had no choice but to move their classes online.
Wooten will teach ECON 315 and 102, which have 150 and 700 students, respectively.
The university has stated that any class with 250 students or more will be moved online, but in the economics department, any class with 50 or more students will be taught remotely, according to Wooten.
Social distancing requirements dictate that no class with more than 130 students will be able to be taught fully in-person, according to associate teaching professor of chemistry Joseph Houck. This is because the largest classroom on campus, Thomas 100, has a capacity of roughly 130 people when social distancing measures are put in place.
However, some larger classes may be able to continue in person by holding classes with only a fraction of the students present at a time, and the rest of the students watching via Zoom. Associate teaching professor of sociology and criminology Tim Robicheaux said he was provided the option to hold one of his classes with only 50 of his 150 students in the classroom at any given time.
Many students have complained that the university’s approach to returning to campus has been confusing and opaque, and according to Wooten and Robicheax, many professors agree.
Wooten said throughout the process of learning what a return to in-person instruction will look like, faculty members have “kind of gotten mixed stories of which classes are going to be online and which aren’t.”
Wooten added that he has received no communication from the university besides what has been made available to the public.
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On some occasions, Wooten said, “even what has been made public has not actually been given to us,” and he had to find information about next semester for himself on Penn State’s website.
Houck said university administrators have left most decisions about remote learning up to individual departments and faculty members, and that some departments received more information than others.
Robicheaux has access to slightly more information than other professors because he serves on the University Faculty Senate. He said he has received information in “chunks,” and “sometimes the chunks seem contradictory.”
However, the professors all said they sympathize with the administration, since they have an “extremely challenging” job.
“I would not want to be in [administrators’] shoes, because no matter what they choose, it’s not going to be the right thing,” Robicheaux said. He said he wishes “there was more communication” between Penn State leaders and faculty members.
Wooten and Robicheaux also said the university could have done more to manage students’ expectations.
Although students recently discovered the preliminary plans for their classes’ mode of instruction, Wooten said departments have known for much longer, and he feels “really bad” for students who registered for classes assuming the room number listed in LionPATH was accurate.
Wooten’s ECON 102 class was listed in LionPATH as taking place in-person as recently as June 24.
Furthermore, although professors always had the option to hold their classes remotely, Robicheaux said he feels university administrators did not accurately convey to the student body that many of their classes would be moved online.
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“Students were given the message that, ‘If you want to go to class, go to class,’” Robicheaux said. “If every faculty member says ‘I want to go online,’ and every student says ‘I want to be in person,’ that’s impossible.”
Many professors did choose to move their classes online, including Robicheaux, who has a weakened immune system due to having Hodgkin's Lymphoma several years ago. Robicheaux said there are only “a couple of people” in his department who plan to teach in person.
However, Robicheaux, Wooten and Houck all said they feel capable of teaching their classes remotely.
Houck said his class, CHEM 110, will be taught “as close to an on-campus, in-person class as possible.”
Houck said he feels prepared to teach the class online, although he doesn’t think the online version is “as fun” or “as engaging.”
All three professors said they plan to hold their classes synchronously, but without an attendance requirement and with enough flexibility that students can miss the class if necessary.
The professors also said they are all still exploring the best way to teach their classes, and Wooten said the uncertainty of next semester is causing some faculty members to hold back on planning.
“A lot of faculty really haven’t started thinking about what their fall classes will look like, just because we don’t want to spend a bunch of time getting ready for one version, then all of a sudden it switches to something completely different,” Wooten said.
Professors are also looking for ways to make their online classes more closely imitate the college experience students were expecting.
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Wooten and Houck both said they are considering using guided study groups where students interact with each other over Zoom. Houck also said he is planning to have an open Zoom meeting all day, every day where students can come in and out to talk with each other about the class.
Houck also said he’s planning to lead voluntary workshops in the evenings where students can go over the course material, although he is not sure whether those will be online.
First year lab courses in the chemistry department will be held online, but will also have a voluntary face-to-face component, according to Houck.
Robicheaux said he takes issue with the “messaging” students received about the quality of online classes.
“I feel that students have been told that in-classroom is the best, and anything... different from that is not the right thing,” Robicheaux said. “Even if that’s true, that’s not the message to give people when a lot of classes are going online.”
Robicheaux is one of more than 1,000 Penn State employees who signed an open letter to Penn State administrators about concerns over how the university has handled the reopening process.
“I think students should know that we care about them a lot,” Robicheaux said. “That many people who’ve chosen to teach online do so because they say, ‘I am worried about my students, and I feel like it is my responsibility… to teach online.’”