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Some professors are worried a second consecutive online semester this fall would affect students’ abilities to learn. Credit: Kylie Cooper

Following Penn's May announcement of four possible fall semester formats, many professors are concerned by the possibility of having an entirely online semester.

While virtual-only instruction is only one of the University's outlined plans, some professors are worried a second consecutive online semester would continue to affect students’ abilities to learn. 

“People just aren't motivated to sit through synchronous lectures or watching videos,” Annenberg Professor Yphtach Lelkes said. Lelkes will teach COMM 522 Introduction to Communication Research in the fall and said he is an advocate of a form of active learning. 

Learning from home has been difficult for many students, Lelkes said, as not all students have access to the internet in their homes or have a quiet place to watch class lectures.

For many professors, including Department of Anthropology Chair Katherine Moore, an entirely online semester would impact the way in which they teach.

Chemistry professor Ivan Dmochowski, who will be teaching CHEM 101 General Chemistry I in the fall, said he believes online learning could work next semester if it is necessary.

Dmochowski said he believes that with more experience teaching virtually, professors will be able to provide higher quality videos and more interactive lectures. He said by creating lecture videos that are available to view before class, students are able to attend class with prepared questions and use live, virtual classes as discussion seminars. 

Beyond concerns of coursework and teaching, health and in-person collaboration are among professors' other top considerations.

Moore said that while many faculty fall into at-risk groups for contracting COVID-19, it is impossible to "know by looking" which professors have different conditions.

For Lelkes, the possibility of teaching on-campus would present a potential issue with for his child, who is currently being watched by her grandparents. Lelkes said if he were to return to teach on campus in the fall, he would have to put his child in school full-time to avoid posing a health risk to her grandparents' health. 

Many departments on campus have been taking action and preparing for all possible fall semester outcomes. Faculty at the Penn Museum is working under the Research Resumption Strategy Master Plan, for example, which includes rules about touching, using keyboards, touching doorknobs, and having names on each person's seat. 

Classical Studies Professor James Ker, who will be teaching GREK 540 The Greek Text: Language and Style in the fall, said he thinks working with peers is essential for the student experience. If classes are taught remotely, Ker said he will promote collaboration by creating close groups of students who work together, which he believes will help students retain course information more easily. 

Dmochowski said he liked an instruction idea presented by Yale Labs, which promotes housing setups for small groups of students that would act as units, or essentially a “family.” Each group would be medically tested for the coronavirus together, since all samples would most likely be similar, and if one of the samples was not clean, the group as a whole would have to take safety precautions.  

“Everyone's gonna need time to prepare. Whether it's preparing in class or preparing people mentally for what the challenges are ahead, or what the semesters [going to] look like,” Dmochowski said. “We will need to make adjustments [in] lots of different areas."