To Zoom or not to Zoom? Professors weigh safety concerns, personal preferences in decisions about class format

<p>An in-person Economics 101 class taught in the Griffith Film Theater taught during the fall 2020 semester.</p>

An in-person Economics 101 class taught in the Griffith Film Theater taught during the fall 2020 semester.

In-person classes are popular among students, with most filling quickly during registration. Many Duke professors have mixed feelings about teaching face-to-face during a pandemic. 

Since the fall semester, the proportion of Duke’s classes with in-person components increased from 15 to 20%, according to data provided by Executive Vice Provost Jennifer Francis. 

The decision to teach in-person means weighing personal and student safety against the pedagogical benefits of in-person learning, professors said. 

Sherryl Broverman, professor of the practice in biology and global health, emphasized that all faculty were able to make their own decision. “All of Trinity [College of Arts and Sciences] made it very, very clear ... that this was complete faculty choice.”

Other professors echoed this sentiment. “I have some colleagues that want to teach in-person sort of at all costs, and some people that were quite happy to teach online,” said Jed Atkins, chair of the classical studies department. 

“People’s sense of their own risk based on their age and stage in life … made a huge impact,” Atkins continued.

Mark Wiesner, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering, explained that his department also attempted to prioritize professors’ preferences.

“The first steps involved really polling students, polling faculty, finding out which courses were, just based on preference, candidates for a full-contact or a hybrid course,” Wiesner said.

Despite this emphasis on individual choice, departments employed different strategies to decide which courses to offer online or in-person.

“The Global Health Institute … made it the default option to put all courses online, and you had to petition to do an in-person,” Broverman said. “A lot of schools of public health were doing that.”

Broverman’s work in global health and concern about the virus ultimately led to her decision to teach her classes online both semesters. 

Wiesner expressed that classes with an important hands-on component were prioritized for an in-person teaching format, citing design classes as an example.

For typically hands-on classes that couldn’t be taught in-person, a central challenge was reimagining any interactive components in a virtual format.

“We needed to develop a whole body of material—we had people going in, performing labs, filming them … how do you set that up so you can have a meaningful experience in the lab?" Wiesner said.

During the fall semester, both Atkins and Broverman directed FOCUS program clusters, which normally involve small in-person seminars and weekly dinners with classmates and professors. 

Atkins, who directs the Visions of Freedom cluster, said that the decision to host the program in-person was an easy one. “I think for my colleagues and I, really, it was pretty easy … I consulted with them and they all immediately got back and said that they wanted to teach in person,” he explained.

Broverman, on the other hand, cited the safety of her colleagues as a central factor in the decision to move the global health FOCUS program to a completely online format.

“I work with colleagues that are higher risk, and even though you can reduce risk, it’s not zero, unless you’re staying home,” Broverman said.

Broverman also pointed out that in-person learning during a pandemic may not always be superior to Zoom classes. 

“At some level, there’s sort of more intimacy having everyone on the screen. I’m trying to imagine 18 people in a big room scattered eight feet apart, and how hard that is to really build community,” she said.

Atkins echoed this point, acknowledging the limitations of this year’s classroom experience. “I’ve never taught with a mask on before,” he said, “and I couldn’t use a lot of the tricks in my toolkit because I couldn’t move students around.” 

Ultimately, however, Atkins believes that the community generated by an in-person classroom experience was necessary to discuss the sometimes-controversial concepts of Visions of Freedom courses. 

Wiesner and Broverman expressed their appreciation for new technologies that allow them to make Zoom classes more engaging. 

“In my class, we often watch a movie, and normally people would be watching and spending half their time on Facebook—it’d be a very passive thing. And on Zoom, the chat was incredibly active … even when we’re all in person, I’m going to have to set up some kind of online chat platform so that we can have that interactive dialogue in real time,” Broverman said.

Wiesner pointed to Zoom’s usefulness in meeting with students. “I can imagine just how much easier it will be for students to set up personal meetings with me, so I fully anticipate incorporating some of these online experiences into normal teaching.” 

Atkins agreed. “I've always had those appointments, but one thing that was nice is that I could come home and have dinner with my family and then have some evening slots.”

Atkins, Broverman and Wiesner all said that they very much look forward to returning to a more normal classroom experience as soon as it is safe to do so. 

“I don't think it's a hundred percent guaranteed that everything's going to be face to face in the fall, but I think we're moving really fast in that direction,” Broverman said. “I'm very excited that we can put this behind us and, at some point, I will be teaching the history of the COVID-19 pandemic, and not living through it.”


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