Caution and connection in in-person classes during COVID-19

September 17, 2020
Written By:
Nicole Casal Moore
2020 Herek Clack Class. Image credit: Joseph Xu

2020 Herek Clack Class. Image credit: Joseph Xu

In this challenging, socially distant semester when masks are required on campus, Armin Troesch didn’t like the idea of hiding his face from his students during in-person classes. So the professor of naval architecture and marine engineering had his portrait printed on a t-shirt.

Armin Troesch. Image credit: Lisa Kisabeth

Armin Troesch. Image credit: Lisa Kisabeth

“I felt that the students were under significant stress and tried to provide a sense of normalcy,” said Troesch, who is the ABS Professor of Marine and Offshore Design Performance. “The idea is not original. Doctors and nurses in Boston’s ICUs took to wearing badges showing their faces so their patients could have a more human experience under very difficult circumstances.”

Troesch’s small gesture is one of many indications that goodwill and hope endure even as the University of Michigan community navigates a semester like no other in history. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fall classes are being delivered in a mix of remote, in-person and hybrid formats, and instructors and students must be prepared for format shifts at any point.

The university administration has been criticized for its approach to reopening, including by the U-M Faculty Senate and the Graduate Employees Organization, the latter of which ended its strike Sept. 16. Among GEO’s concerns are the health and safety of those teaching in-person.

Amid all of these challenges, many speak to a strong sense of community in classrooms, even spanning the gap between physical and virtual.

‘We are all looking out for each other’

Lissa MacVean, a lecturer III in civil and environmental engineering, has been holding the in-person component of her two graduate courses outside under the warm September sun. Some of the roughly 20 students in each course come to North Campus, and others log in remotely.

“The in-person students advocate for their remote counterparts, reminding classmates to ask questions into their mics, so that everyone can hear,” MacVean said. “There is a sense that we are all looking out for each other, which is really positive.”

Meeting in person helped establish the class dynamic, she added.

“Even behind their masks, it’s nice to see the students’ expressions and earnest concentration.”

Max Moore, a fifth-year student working on his master’s in ecohydrology, appreciates MacVean’s approach.

Max Moore. Image credit: Joseph Xu

Max Moore. Image credit: Joseph Xu

“Having outdoor lectures is exciting,” Moore said. “I feel much more comfortable in regards to COVID, but also because I would have loved to have outdoor lectures during a normal school year. The outdoor lectures are probably a little harder on my note-taking abilities—ants included in this struggle—but better for me mentally, compared to the remote option.”

Across the street in the FXB Building, George Halow, professor of practice in aerospace engineering surveyed his students before the start of the semester. More than 85% said they wanted to take his Systems Engineering Leadership course in person. So each class, 20 students come to the physical classroom and up to seven more attend remotely. The course has lab components that he tailored so they could be done in person or virtually.

“I couldn’t be more proud of my students,” Halow said. “They take the screening test before entering the building, they wear full face coverings throughout the lecture, they keep safe distance, and they dutifully wipe their contact surfaces down before and after class, for both their safety and for the safety of those who come afterward.

“People miss human contact, and being in person just enhances the educational and social experience.”

‘Struggles to juggle within a single class period’

While Halow’s perspective represents a best case scenario, logistics can make successful hybrid instruction difficult.

“With COVID, everything has to change or be reproduced in a new format so that it’s available online as well as in person,” MacVean said. “That affects the format of lectures, assignments and exams, for example.”

2020 Lissa MacVean Class. Image credit: Joseph Xu

2020 Lissa MacVean Class. Image credit: Joseph Xu

The College of Engineering supported faculty members with training for delivering these materials, and many classrooms are equipped for this. But each course has unique needs and circumstances.

“There are struggles to juggle within a single class period,” said Ron Larson, the A.H. White Distinguished University Professor of Chemical Engineering and the George Granger Brown Professor of Chemical Engineering.

“There are issues of making sure the projection of material works both remotely and in class, and of course I have to teach through a mask with students masked, so communication is more difficult. And I need to repeat questions from those in class so the remote students can hear them. Each of these things is not too hard to manage, but managing them all at the same time can be challenging, along with all the COVID limitations.”

He tried an all-remote course the second week of class, then surveyed his 45 students to see how they were feeling about his approach. Turns out most of them preferred the all-remote because the sound quality was better, there were fewer technical glitches, and Larson could focus on a single audience. He decided to teach every other class online-only. He’ll survey students again.

Kody Whisnant, a first-year chemical engineering Ph.D. student, appreciates Larson’s flexibility, and while he is among those who prefer in-person, he sees value in virtual.

“Going to class in person helps me to focus more on the material being presented,” Whisnant said “Attending virtually is convenient, but I found sitting at my desk for my courses does more easily allow me to get distracted.

“I do feel virtual classes offered some other benefits including having lecture material being recorded, allowing me to go back and review something I maybe did not understand the first time.”

A ‘new sense of gratitude’

There are no perfect solutions this semester. But Herek Clack, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, believes the best we can do is offer choice.

2020 Herek Clack Class. Image credit: Joseph Xu

2020 Herek Clack Class. Image credit: Joseph Xu

“I think the greatest strength, from the student perspective, is the multiple ways students can participate at will,” Clack said.

The students he’s checked in with in his hybrid undergraduate Thermodynamics and the Environment course have been “remarkably upbeat” so far, which is heartening.

“While there are lots of students online, for the instructor it is inescapably demoralizing to look out and see so few students present, especially when in a normal year certain parts of the lecture would elicit laughs or asides that help build rapport with the students,” he said.

MacVean, too, is still working through getting to know students who “politely attend lectures on mute,” she said. But she’s hopeful.

“After experiencing the strange spring and summer, and hearing from students about the challenges they are facing—family members who are essential workers, internships being revoked, jobs completely uncertain—and reading about the sky-high rates of depression among college-age people, I feel less guarded in my classes as an instructor,” she said. “My perception is that my students are meeting me with the same willingness to make a connection and new sense of gratitude for the things we used to take for granted.”