On a lunch hour in late October, as an early snowfall accumulates outside, nearly 75 Carroll School faculty log onto a Zoom call to talk about how “hopscotching” in a pandemic has been going. That’s the hybrid learning model in which professors teach their classes in person, but students alternate between in-person and virtual attendance to reduce classroom occupancies.
The Zoom conversation picks up quickly. One by one, faculty chime in with the tricks each has come up with for juggling the many technologies involved when teaching two audiences at once—simultaneously attending to students watching online and those seated in desks in front of them.
Juan Montes, associate professor of the practice (Management & Organization), describes how he lugs a large monitor to each class meeting along with his laptop, so he can see the faces of his remote students clearly even as he lectures to the other half of the class in person. Mary Ellen Carter, an associate professor of Accounting, swears by her iPad for simulating a whiteboard; the app she uses projects her notations in real time online as well as on the actual whiteboard behind her—and saves what she’s written as PDFs for students who miss class entirely or need a refresh later.
“It’s taken a bit of training,” says George Wyner, associate professor of the practice of Information Systems, who bought a wide-angle webcam so he can move more freely as he teaches. “I’ve got a little checklist ready. I’m trying to be like the pit stop in the Indy 500.” Associate Professor of Finance Jon Reuter says he’s grateful to have half of his students in attendance. “Otherwise, I feel like I’m talking to myself for 75 minutes.”
From students’ perspective, though, the college classroom has actually looked pretty familiar this fall. Despite all the talk about online and remote learning, in-person classes are still a core fixture of the academic experience at Boston College and the Carroll School. Thanks to small class sizes, 40 percent of the Carroll School’s undergraduate courses have been held fully in-person this fall—albeit with strict seating charts and mask mandates. Another third adopted the hybrid “hopscotching” approach that the professors were discussing, alternating between in-person and virtual class meetings to reduce classroom occupancies. In other words, the vast majority of Carroll School students have spent at least half of their class time engaging face-to-face with their professors and peers (appropriately spaced, of course).
That said, “in-person” and “remote” class categorizations have proven fluid over the course of the term. Even fully in-person classes are hosted virtually for students required to quarantine due to COVID exposure, as well as those with special health and learning accommodations. And, because the University has allowed students to decide whether or not they will finish the term on campus after Thanksgiving break, all-in-person classes will adopt a hybrid model in the final weeks of fall. Final exams will also be administered remotely.
In the meantime, the Carroll School faculty has been gathering regularly (and virtually) to assess and reassess the classroom strategies—sharing ideas about such matters as how to help recreate the sense of community that is a hallmark of student life at Boston College. They’ve been making changes and adjustments at record speed.
Indeed, The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that colleges’ transition to digital learning “happened remarkably quickly, especially for an industry that’s often described as so deliberative as to be hidebound.” Much of the responsibility for that rapid shift fell on faculty, tasked with learning to teach their courses in entirely new ways. As their Zoom calls revealed, faculty members have mastered all kinds of new maneuvers, like logging into Zoom from multiple devices at the start of every class. Splitting laptop screens to see remote students and lecture notes at the same time. Balancing attention between the raised hands in the room and the questions that pop up in the virtual chat. And keeping in mind that, for all the challenges this semester has created for educators, the students are stressed, too.
Professors recognize that it’s harder for students to make new friends in a hybrid class environment, where only half the class meets at a time and even group projects are constrained by social distancing. Most use Zoom’s “breakout rooms” in class to enable interactive activities remotely. At least one professor hosts virtual social hours outside of class so students can get to know each other better.
Rachel Spooner, an associate professor of the practice in Business Law, has been giving more pep talks. “It’s cheesy, but I think it helps,” she says. And Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs Ethan Sullivan has reminded faculty that if the semester’s stresses are causing some students to fall behind academically, “it’s likely not just isolated to your class.” In such cases, Sullivan encourages faculty to refer students to his office for the holistic support they need.
At the same time, many faculty report seeing positive outcomes in their classes despite the disruptions. Several professors teaching remotely remarked that students’ academic performance this term has been equal to or exceeded that of students in past semesters.
Some even speculated whether the new strategies that an online class format demands—from pre-recorded lectures to in-depth discussion boards—has led to deeper student learning. For graduate students in particular, who are soon to return to a more digitized workplace than they’ve known, the new challenges of staying focused, communicating effectively, and delivering on deadlines in a remote environment are critical preparation for their future careers.
“I’m in awe of our faculty’s efforts and how successful this has been,” John and Linda Powers Family Dean Andy Boynton said during the faculty Zoom session on teaching in late October. “We have to think about our students as individuals, and the commitment from faculty throughout the semester has been outstanding.” The dean added in an interview, “Everything we’ve done hasn’t been perfect, and I don’t know what perfect would be, in these times. But we’ve been improving the academic experience at every step along the way.”