Professor of the Practice of Economics Can Erbil created his own lightboard to help illustrate important concepts.
Emily Prud’hommeaux had a plan. During spring break, the Gianinno Family Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor of Computer Science had followed the spread of COVID-19 and emailed with colleagues. It was impossible to predict exactly how the pandemic would affect Boston College, of course, but Prud’hommeaux understood that there could be a need to bring her classes online.
So when Prud’hommeaux, who had never before taught online, returned to campus on March 9, she began preparations for the shift by delivering her Computer Science II lectures on the video-conferencing platform Zoom. As it turned out, Prud’hommeaux’s concerns proved prescient—BC, like colleges and universities around the country, halted in-person teaching two days later and then, on March 19, shifted completely to remote learning. There may be nothing that can replace the quality and intimacy of the in-class learning experience, but Prud’hommeaux has been heartened by the level of instruction that can be achieved online.
“We can do something different,” she said. “We can adapt. And maybe there are some things that we can learn from this experience.” In addition to Zoom instruction, Prud’hommeaux is now offering virtual evening office hours for students in faraway time zones, and is collaborating with students on coding projects via Atom, an open-source editor.
Prud’hommeaux is just one of the more than 800 full-time faculty members who are now providing classes to BC students who have been scattered around the globe.
“It's been great to hear reports of deep and sustained engagement with course material these past few weeks,” said Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley. “I enjoy knowing that the wonderful spirit of the Boston College classroom—marked by curiosity, rigor, and openness—is echoing around the nation and across the world, helping bring some light into a dark time for so many.”
VIDEO: A glimpse of Boston College online by Senior Creative Producer John Walsh; additional cinematography by Alex Orav & John Dunn '20, for University Communications.
To help hundreds of faculty members, with varying degrees of technological know-how, successfully bring their classes online, BC’s Center for Teaching Excellence, Center for Digital Innovation in Learning, and Information Technology Services all worked together, ensuring that professors from across the University are able to deliver top-quality online instruction.
“We wouldn’t have been able to make the leap without two things: an existing foundation of good technology and teaching practices, and the fantastic partnership of these three groups. And, of course, our great faculty really made it all happen” said Vice President for Information Technology Michael Bourque.
CTE and CDIL offered training sessions on Zoom and other online tools for each department at BC, and led hundreds of one-on-one training sessions with professors in the ramp up to the March 19 move online. Their work centered on helping faculty to build on teaching structures they already had in place, revisit their goals given the new classroom environment, and focus on maintaining a human connection in the digital space.
Now that the courses are up and running, the CTE and CDIL continue to offer support sessions for issues ranging from grading to giving online exams. The shift was rapid, but teaching often has to adapt to a changing world, said Stacy Grooters, the interim director of CTE. “Frankly this is what teaching is always about,” she said. “You figure out the context in which you're teaching and you have to meet the challenges where they are.”
Brainstorming with instructors about how to keep students engaged in a Zoom environment was paramount, said Bryan Blakeley, executive director of CDIL. "One big thing we had to figure out early on was what kind of options did we need to make available to faculty in terms of technology that would both nudge them towards the interactive pedagogies that they might use in the classroom, but would also allow them to replicate some of the practices that they were counting on, like exams," he said.
“It's been great to hear reports of deep and sustained engagement with course material these past few weeks. I enjoy knowing that the wonderful spirit of the Boston College classroom—marked by curiosity, rigor, and openness—is echoing around the nation and across the world, helping bring some light into a dark time for so many.”
Effective and meaningful instruction is taking many different forms during this extraordinary semester. Lab-science instructors have created high-quality virtual experiences for STEM students, while professors of service-learning courses are asking students to grapple with fundamental questions of service amid the global coronavirus crisis.
For Can Erbil—a professor of the practice in economics who was already offering an online graduate-level course at the Woods College of Advancing Studies—the new reality has meant rethinking his entire approach to teaching the intro-level class Principles of Economics.
To start, he designed the course to be asynchronous, meaning that his 255 students, who are spread around the world, from China to Brazil, can access class materials at any time that’s convenient. Erbil records voiceovers for his lecture slides; creates supplemental short videos featuring a special homemade lightboard he uses to explain important concepts; and holds virtual office hours. Students must complete weekly problem sets and news analysis assignments, as well as participate in discussion forums—all online. They are also working on a project focused on income inequality in their own zip codes, in partnership with Opportunity Insights at Harvard University.
To top it all off, Erbil works to inject a little fun into the course, sharing a song of the week—which he kicked off with “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. “This is a situation that you cannot change,” Erbil said. “This is an external shock and we're experiencing it all together. So given the circumstances, I am trying to find out what else I can do to make the best of it.”
“Frankly, this is what teaching is always about. You figure out the context in which you're teaching and you have to meet the challenges where they are.”
Personal interaction is also important for the English Department’s Christopher Boucher, who created discussion boards where students in each of his three spring courses can talk about the transition. Boucher also leaves time at the beginning of his classes to ask students how they’re doing and is actively “making room for those conversations and being flexible because students are facing pragmatic challenges and practical challenges—and also this is unprecedented for all of us,” he said.
Boucher records his Zoom lectures and uses advanced features on the platform to foster discussion, such as creating breakout rooms where he can split his class up into small groups and rotate through their conversations. He also employs a function that allows students to raise their hands with questions. And he usually logs into Zoom sessions with both an iPad and a laptop so that he can give the lecture on one screen and draw on the platform’s virtual whiteboard on the second shared screen.
In another touch that draws on the strengths of online learning, Boucher created robust tours on Google Earth to augment discussion in his one-credit course, Walking Infinite Jest, which examines David Foster Wallace’s seminal 1996 novel Infinite Jest. The book is set in Enfield, Massachusetts, a fictional stand-in for Brighton, and Boucher and his students have traditionally walked to its important physical locations to read passages aloud. Now they use impressive online tools to do so virtually.
“It's really amazing the way that BC and other schools just were able to pivot and find a way forward,” Boucher said. “That said, I'll be thrilled to be back on campus. We talk about it a lot at BC, but the campus culture supercharges the classroom, and I think I'm going to be really aware of that when we're back.”
Courtney Hollands | Boston College Magazine | April 2020