Professor Julie Pollock teaches a class to in-person and remote students

Faculty transform their classes for a hybrid learning environment

September 14, 2020

University News

The fall semester is well underway. Arriving to that point has involved much learning and creativity by faculty, many of whom have had to reimagine courses they have taught for decades in light of the pandemic.  

“Faculty are bringing super creative and energetic approaches to this semester,” said Andrew Bell, technology consultant for pedagogy and scholarship in the Faculty Hub. “The collective effort of our faculty over the summer and now that the fall semester is underway has been great. We had enormous turnout for our professional development this summer, and the time investment that faculty made was really tremendous.”

Law professor Jessica Erickson, who is teaching two sections of “Civil Procedure” and also serves as associate dean for faculty development, said she read just about everything she could get her hands on related to remote and hybrid learning over the summer. While her goal was to assist with training other faculty, she said she ended up training herself at the same time.

“I basically had a big toolbox I could implement in my own courses,” said Erickson, who is teaching in-person and does not have remote students.

With most faculty relying on Zoom to teach remote students, Saif Mehkari in the Robins School of Business, has set up with multiple cameras covering his classroom, whiteboard, and projector. He livestreams all these camera views to his remote students, who can then choose what they see, when they want to see it.

“Giving students the ability to see multiple views of the classroom helps them feel more present and involved in the class,” said Mehkari. 

Mehkari and other faculty also have added to their teaching loads to accommodate students who aren’t able to attend class in person and are in a different time zone. Many are teaching extra classes outside of normal hours or recording extra sessions.

Faculty also have to consider how students get to know each other. Face coverings and physical distancing hinder how students interact. That’s why Erickson has implemented optional review sessions via Zoom to work through problems. She asks each group to choose roles based on icebreaker-type questions typically seen at a networking event.

“Building in something simple like choosing a group moderator based on who lives furthest from Richmond or whose undergrad school had the most letters allows them to get to know each other a little bit personally in addition to focusing on their academics,” Erickson said.

Faculty have noted the challenges of face coverings. Psychology professor Kelly Lambert has several small group research classes with students she already knew. For her larger, more traditional classes, she is teaching in person, but she started the semester with a Zoom class.

“I wanted to see everyone’s maskless faces on the first day of classes, and I knew the students needed to clearly hear the plans for the class,” Lambert said. “After experiencing the blended classes, communicating with masks in person is challenging — certainly an adventure!”

Todd Lookingbill is using a jetpack mobile hotspot for his Environmental Studies senior seminar. The device enables him to incorporate remote students while teaching at an outdoor classroom along the new eco-corridor.

“We are using the jetpacks in two different ways. One is to allow us to go outside to have reading discussions in areas of campus like the eco-corridor that do not have Wi-Fi coverage,” Lookingbill said. “The other is to allow our remote students to participate in outdoor lab exercises.”

For some of the exercises, the remote students collect data around their homes. But for other exercises that require more sophisticated equipment, remote students buddy up with someone in the class who carries a tablet around. This allows the remote students to “see and hear everything going on, and participate virtually as much as possible,” he said.

Whether the classroom is in-person, remote, hybrid, or outdoors, “The success of the classroom is very much a group effort with many, many offices across campus contributing in a variety of ways,” Mehkari said.

Mehkari said Information Services and Facilities continue to do an amazing job working to ensure technology and space work with the requirements of faculty and students. The unusual spaces can even inspire.

“My classroom in the concourse of the Robins Center surrounded by screens and microphones feels like I am at a post-game press conference,” said Jeff Carlson in the Business School. “It was wonderful to see students back in the classroom and as always, I really enjoyed our first class discussion! I am looking forward to the rest of the academic year.” 

“Ultimately, we’re here for the students,” Mehkari said. “There is a lot of dedication to figuring out what’s best for the students.”

Kelling Donald, a professor of chemistry and associate dean in A&S, is not teaching this semester, but he’s witnessed the amazing efforts of faculty from the administrative side of things. “All of the faculty have done heroic things to be able to be up and running remotely and in person, synchronously and asynchronously. It is extraordinary,” Donald said.