Professor of Chemistry Steven Baldwin is a 50-year veteran at Duke whose teaching style depends on in-person lectures. Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Roizen was already used to making video recordings for her classes.
Those two represent the wide range of professors that had to learn how to teach their courses virtually. While some had previous experience with online instruction, others started from scratch after nearly half a century of teaching. Behind the scenes, professors had to put in many hours of work to deliver what students see on their screens at home.
Thus, although there have been bumps along the way, many Duke professors have been successful moving their classes online.
When Duke announced that classes would go virtual after an extended spring break, Baldwin knew the decision was the right one, but worried about how the transition would go.
“It was a little bit, I wouldn’t want to say terrifying, but it was angst-provoking,” he said. “I was pretty much at ground zero.”
During his 50 years at Duke, Baldwin has developed a particular method of teaching that relies heavily on interaction between teachers and students. Instead of planning out his entire 75-minute organic chemistry lecture, he explained, he comes to class equipped with a list of talking points and goes from there, treating the class like a conversation.
In person, he’s able to explain a concept, read the room and tell if the class understood what he said or not. If they didn’t, then he can spend more time on it. His flexible teaching style allows him to let the students set the pace of the class, he said.
But now Baldwin doesn’t have the luxury of a puzzled face to tell him when to back up and explain differently. He’s translated the in-class conversation, as best he can, into slide decks and uses Zoom to prerecord his lectures. With 200 students scattered around the world, he said synchronous classes weren’t a practical option.
Baldwin was grateful for the extra week of spring break.
The Thursday before classes resumed, he had a series of “aha” moments. The first was discovering how to import molecular structures into test questions on Sakai assessments. Since organic chemistry relies heavily on identifying structures and molecules, he wouldn’t have been able to properly give exams without them.
The next big moment was when he finally sat down to try recording a Zoom meeting with himself. For him, this was a trial run for presenting lecture material.
“It worked like a champ,” he said. “And so I thought, ‘I can do this!’ And that was great.”
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For Roizen, online teaching was already part of her repertoire. She uses a preassembled recording kit from Duke Learning Innovation to record 15-minute video lectures for her students.
While asynchronous teaching severely limits the interaction students can have with the professor and among themselves, Roizen said it has its benefits. Her students can access the videos as many times as they need, stop and pause to take notes, and even engage in small quizzes that she’s built into the lessons. And because there are no student voices or faces in her videos, she doesn’t have to worry about violating the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act if she reuses them in another semester.
Roizen has also found the conversations with students and advisees to be more focused and planned with the barrier of a computer screen.
“You have to be more intentional about how you reach out to people,” she said.
Even with her experience in online teaching, it’s difficult to know what students need when she can’t see their faces in a classroom. Like Baldwin, she relies on confused faces and raised hands to guide her teaching.
“How do you compensate for that?” she said of the lack of student feedback. “We, honestly, as professors need you to give it to us because otherwise we're just operating in our own heads, right?
It’s still a work in progress, Roizen said. Through a combination of mini-quizzes and surveys on Sakai, she’s been able to information about what resources students had access to and what they think of her videos.
Was the content useful to them? Did she move too quickly or too slowly?
Both Baldwin and Roizen praised the University and its Keep Teaching team for providing clear and consistent information to the faculty.
“I can’t imagine it being any better,” Baldwin said.
When he ran into technical difficulties, all it took was a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org and 20 minutes after he had the answer. The only downside he could find was that there were so many solutions and resources that it was almost overwhelming.
After Duke announced it would suspend in-person classes and extend spring break, faculty received a data dump of resources for how to make the transition. Roizen said it was impressive that the University rolled out all the information at once, as opposed to disseminating it a little bit at a time.
“And it was clearly information that people had thought about,” she said.
For Baldwin, there was one silver lining in the move to online classes: he discovered Piazza, an online forum where students can ask questions and engage in discussion.
Senior Brandon Bui, one of Baldwin’s teaching assistants, suggested they use the site to streamline all the students’ questions. It’s been a huge success, and they’ve answered 100 questions in just two weeks, Bui wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
Now, instead of getting four emails asking the same question, Baldwin can answer that question once on Piazza for the entire class to see. He said he hardly gets emails anymore.
Bui hasn’t yet found his own silver lining in going online, he wrote. He’s happy that students can continue learning without endangering the community, but he’d much rather have in-person interactions with people.
Bui and Baldwin decided to not move discussion sections online. Instead, Bui monitors the Piazza page and hopefully will start offering office hours via Zoom.
For him, it doesn’t quite feel like an adequate substitution.
“Engaging with students during my weekly discussion sections was a highlight of each week, and I haven’t found anything to replace it,” Bui wrote. “I’m reluctantly optimistic that teaching on Zoom will help to satisfy the gap.”
Even with all the resources they’re providing, Baldwin and Roizen still worry about equity and are concerned that some of their students might suffer more than others.
“Some people, I think, are in supportive environments,” Baldwin said. “But not everyone has the same opportunities and background as everyone else, and I do worry about that.”