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Credit: Alana Kelly

As the University plans a return to widespread in-person instruction in fall 2021, Penn professors look forward to taking with them the lessons they learned from virtual instruction.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the ways in which professors teach, as they have been forced to adapt to virtual lesson plans and forgo any form of hands-on learning. Many, however, have found some of the changes to be positive — from small group discussions to pre-recorded lectures — and plan to employ them when the University resumes in-person classes.

Siddharth Deliwala, who directs the Electrical and Systems Engineering Lab Programs, said he has found that in-person classes and labs built "a sense of community that online learning cannot replace." Yet he found positives that arose from the University shipping students parts kits so they could conduct lab experiments on their own. 

Deeming the education model a success that enabled students to explore ideas outside of the lab and be more creative, Deliwala said the ESE Department will offer the parts kits to students so that they can continue tinkering in their homes even when labs resume in person.

Physics and Astronomy professor Eugene Mele also said he will modify the way he teaches classes in person, continuing strategies he developed during the pandemic. 

In the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, Mele, along with other PHYS 150: "Principles I" professors, sent recorded lectures to students and used class time for active learning activities. He said the switch has been an effective strategy and will continue next fall, regardless of whether classes are in person or online.

Some professors, like Mathematics and ESE professor Robert Ghrist, changed their examination policies.

"It would be foolish not to take advantage of all the data that we’ve gotten [after nearly three semesters of online learning]," Ghrist said.

Instead of holding two midterm exams and a final exam, Ghrist and fellow professors gave more frequent, shorter quizzes. Ghrist said he has found the frequent quiz model to be a success and he hopes to use them when in-person learning returns. 

He also said that he plans to continue using prerecorded lectures, similar to Mele, as the lectures contain animations that help students visualize multidimensional problems, which were always a struggle to replicate on a blackboard. Ghrist also emphasized that this eliminates the need for costly textbooks.

History and Sociology of Science lecturer Meghan Crnic also prerecorded her lectures and used class time for small discussion groups via Zoom breakout rooms, which helped her facilitate small discussions. She said she is working to integrate similar discussions in person.

Like Crnic, History and Sociology of Science professor Beth Linker tried to use class time as a way for students to interact with one another as opposed to just listening to her speak. She hopes that she can similarly use class time as a means for student discussion when the University returns to in-person learning.

While Linker expressed some concern that potential gathering restrictions, including mask wearing and social distancing, could create barriers to conversation in her usual seminar style, she said that she is looking forward to seeing students' faces in person again. Crnic agreed, and said she is looking forward to returning to teaching students in-person.

“I really miss the energy that being in a classroom full of students brings," Crnic said. "Frankly, since I’m planning to be fully vaccinated by that time, I’m ready for it.”