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03-11-20-meyerson-empty-classroom-sukhmani-kaur
An empty classroom in Meyerson Hall on March 11, 2020. Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Despite Penn's decision to resume an in-person semester, some professors are teaching virtually this fall due to health concerns and departmental decisions.  

Professors who are teaching virtually are adding more hybrid opportunities for student support, such as additional online office hours and in-person recitations. After having adapted their instruction methods for the last year and a half, many of these professors said those changes are here to stay — at least for now.

Immediately upon learning of the University's plans for in-person classes in April, Statistics and Data Science professor Paul Shaman said he got permission from his department chair to teach his classes virtually due to personal COVID-19-related health concerns. 

Faculty members who qualify for an exemption from in-person teaching this fall can request a medical accommodation through the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs, and instructors who need an exemption for non-medical reasons, such as an at-risk family member, can request an accommodation from a department chair or dean. Still, more than 225 instructors are petitioning the University for the ability to make their own choices regarding class formats, even as administrators remain firm on their commitment to provide an in-person experience this fall. 

Shaman is teaching one undergraduate course – "Forecasting Methods for Management," cross-listed as STAT 435, STAT 711, and STAT 535 — and one graduate level course — STAT 520: "Applied Econometrics I" — virtually. The cross-listed course has a maximum enrollment of 130 students, while the in-person class would have been capped at 75 students.

Shaman said he actually has more contact with students now than he did during in-person classes before the pandemic. 

"I'm giving separate office hours for the two classes, whereas when I was on campus, I would have one set of office hours and students from both classes would come," he explained. 

Shaman said his classes are synchronous but recordings are made available to students afterward — which, he said, means that students can access them multiple times if they want to review or attend a class they would otherwise miss. 

​​”It's very, very convenient,” Shaman said. “As long as the students are accepting of it, that's fine. I will add that some students have told me that they prefer online; it gives them more flexibility.”

Shaman is not alone in seeing benefits for virtual instruction. 

Deirdre Martinez, the director of the semester-long Penn in Washington Program, has found ways to incorporate pandemic-inspired virtual instruction into her in-person course this fall, PSCI 398: "The Future of Conservatism and the GOP." Martinez said she is co-teaching the course with Evan McMullin, a 2011 Wharton MBA alumnus, who uses Zoom to tune into classes from Utah.

“Of course, [there’s] great value to being in a room together. But we're taking what we learned from when we did have to pivot to remote learning," Martinez said. "I think we can really enrich the learning experience with it." 

Using Zoom in the classroom has made it possible to invite more guest speakers than ever before, Martinez said. Similar to other professors, Martinez added that the technologies that academics have now become familiar with will be a positive tool in the future. 

“I don't know what the post-COVID-19 world is really going to look like,” Martinez said. “But I do think, in this case, you would never have been able to get dozens of the most important people talking about and thinking about the future of the Republican Party to talk to the students in one class on campus. We do that all the time in D.C., because they're physically there.”  

Other instructors were told by their respective departments and school administrators to teach online this semester.  

Organic Chemistry lecturer Alyssa Bohen is teaching two courses, CHEM 244 and CHEM 249, with an in-person lab component and an online asynchronous lecture. She said the accessibility of online lectures is helpful, and wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the recordings can be an asset with difficult topics because students can rewatch them. 

Bohen added that while students have appreciated the online lectures, they seem excited to get back to in-person lab work. 

For statistics professor Warren Ewens, the decision to teach online was made by “higher-ups" in the Wharton School, he said. As a result, Ewens is teaching STAT 111: "Introductory Statistics" asynchronously this semester with in-person recitations and two virtual sections that each have about 150 students.

About 10 other courses across the College, Penn Nursing, and the Wharton School have also been online since the beginning of the semester.

Ewens believes the reason for the University's decision to keep his class virtual may have been partly due to the large class size, which could cause some students in the back of the lecture to struggle to hear him speaking through a mask. Ewens said he’s heard that some professors have been struggling with projecting and being heard through masks.

Some students have also recently told the DP they've experienced COVID-19-related struggles in classes, like soft-spoken professors wearing two masks and a recitation being held online with poor connection, even though they overall said they're enjoying in-person learning. 

Like Shaman, Ewens believes the recorded format is more convenient and that the lectures end up being shorter and more concise, but he added that there’s “definitely something lacking” when it comes to forming closer connections with students and answering their questions in class. In-person instruction is also less scripted and influenced more by the questions students ask, he said, comparing virtual instruction to a TV performance. 

“You miss the interaction with the students,” Ewens said, adding that it can be difficult to gauge students' understanding of the material in a remote setting.

“With an in-person class, if you're trying to explain some point, and you look at the faces of the students in the class, you can usually tell whether they understood that point if their faces light up, or something like that," Ewens said. "Of course, that's not possible in a recorded lecture."

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