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Randolph professors find innovative ways to connect online and in-person students

It’s a typical day for Karin Warren, the Herzog Family Professor of Environmental Studies. Sporting a colorful mask, she stands in front of a small group of students, who sit in chairs that have been carefully marked to ensure the proper social distance. On the wall, a screen shows the faces of the rest of her class, those who chose to take the course virtually.

“The hybrid classroom experience is a team effort, and we all work together to make sure each person is heard,” said Riley Lorson ’21, one of Warren’s online students. “I’ve found comfort in my professors’ kindness and consideration. Most have frequently asked for our opinion and feedback and listened when we needed help. Being heard and having a voice in how the classroom is operating has really made a difference.”

This semester, Randolph professors were able to choose the method of instruction they were most comfortable with, be it in-person, online, or a mix of the two. Most who chose in-person instruction also opted to teach in a dual-delivery format, where online and in-person students attend class at the same time.

“I appreciate that we were trusted to make that determination for ourselves,” Warren said. “I was able to return because I am not in a high-risk group and didn’t have other constraints on being in-person that some colleagues do. I knew many students were eager to get back into the classroom in person, and so was I. I was optimistic that we could make it work both in terms of safety and with remote classmates joining us.”

Both online and virtual students have been logging into Zoom during classes. Online students use the chat feature to speak or ask questions, and in-person classmates alert professors when a new comment is posted.

Mitchell Doss '21 and other in-person students connect with their virtual classmates during one of Warren's classes.

Mitchell Doss ’21 and other in-person students connect with their virtual classmates during one of Warren’s classes.

Warren has loved seeing that cooperation.

“I’ve been impressed with the Randolph spirit exhibited by students,” she said. “They can join break-out rooms with remote classmates, work on joint discussion boards together, help me monitor the chat, and alert me when the webcam needs to be realigned. I’m grateful for the generosity of our students in supporting each other in this way.”

All of her courses this semester are dual delivery, including a senior seminar and a lab. It took some time to adjust to teaching both groups of students at the same time, but she said it was worth it to be in the classroom after nearly 11 months away.

“It’s wonderful to have students back, to see how responsibly they are taking COVID-19 precautions, and how much they value being here in person,” Warren said. “Under the masks you know the smiles are there, because we feel joyful to be on campus together again.”

Joining forces

Lab partners

Tyler Campbell ’21 partners with an online student for a physics lab.

For Peter Sheldon, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Physics & Engineering, it was an advanced lab that presented a particular challenge this spring. The intensive class is often cited as one of the harder courses students take on campus, Sheldon said.

It’s not possible for students to complete the labs at home on their own, and it isn’t useful to send them the data to analyze after the fact. So Sheldon partnered in-person students with their virtual counterparts to complete each lab together.

“They need to be engaged in the data-taking and problem-solving process at home,” Sheldon said. “In an advanced lab course, they have to understand the experiments, not just the results of the experiments. I told the in-person students it is incumbent upon them to make sure somebody at home is always with them when they are doing the lab. It’s putting more weight on the shoulders of the students on campus, to some extent. But if they have somebody with them, even if it’s not in person, they can talk about how to do the lab.”

Some of the groups have joined forces to work in the lab at the same time, at Sheldon’s recommendation.

“It helps to have another lab member there in the flesh to help out with anything physical, like making sure you’re using the correct equipment and doing the process correctly,” said Tyler Campbell ’21, who is on campus this semester.

While it’s an unusual set-up, on-campus students are committed to making it work.

“Helping our off-campus classmates is a vital part of what it means to be part of the Randolph community,” Campbell added.

‘We’re all in this together’

This semester, Gordon Steffey, the Barbara Boyle Lemon ’57 and William J. Lemon Professor of Religion and Philosophy, is teaching two courses in Houston Memorial Chapel, which allows for adequate spacing among students. In addition to projecting the session onto a screen, he also uses a live white board so online students can see what he’s writing in real time.

Gordon Steffey teaches students in Houston Memorial Chapel this spring.

“It makes it feel like we’re all in there together,” Steffey said.

He is also holding one class a week entirely online.

“The difficulty with teaching in person is that all of the usual indicators of student engagement are hidden from you, thanks to the masks,” he said. “If I encountered some of these students on the sidewalk, I wouldn’t recognize them because I can’t see their faces. The alternative Fridays online give us an opportunity to see each other.”

Outside of class, Steffey and his students have been using an instructional annotation tool for readings. It produces a sidebar where they can highlight and annotate text together.

“It allows us to think together over the text and to interact with and respond to it, and one another, all in the same online space,” he said. “Our multi-level interactions become part of the text. It’s a useful thing to have for those who aren’t in the classroom with us.”

Hannah O’Berry ’21, one of his virtual students, has appreciated everything Steffey and the Randolph faculty have done to keep off-campus students engaged. All of her professors have been accessible and accommodating, and they’re taking extra steps to ensure the well-being of their students.

“They’re trying to make this difficult time more inclusive,” O’Berry said. “That’s what I really appreciate about our professors.”

‘We picked up right where we left off’

On the first day of classes, biology professor Amanda Rumore was so busy getting ready, it took a moment for the importance of the situation to sink in.

“I was running around the lab to get everything set up,” she said. “Then class started, and I suddenly realized it was the most people I had been in a room with in 10-and-a-half months. It hit me: I can’t believe I’m standing here in a room with actual people. It’s been so exciting.”

Rumore is teaching two courses, as well as a senior seminar, virtually. Her Developmental Biology Lab is in person for on-campus students. Because of the nature of the labs, she was able to send materials and equipment to those taking it online.

“We shipped them two microscopes. And every week or two, they get a mailer with the materials for completing one or two weeks of labs,” Rumore said. “Everything we do in this lab uses safe materials, so I didn’t have to adjust too much for at-home science.”

Rumore holds class via Zoom, so she can do the labs with both groups of students at the same time. The entire class logs in, and the session is projected onto the wall so students can see each other and hear their respective questions.

The lab includes many of the students she had last spring, before the pandemic hit.

“It’s so nice to see so many of them again,” she said. “It felt like we picked up right where we left off.”


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