How UMBC is experimenting with virtual learning during the pandemic

Abu, 21, a senior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is one of millions of college students forced to experience many, most or all classes online in a fall term that has become a gigantic national experiment in remote higher education.

The coronavirus pandemic, which rocked colleges in March, is threatening to extend these extraordinary restrictions on face-to-face classes into next spring. Results so far suggest the enforced distance could take an increasingly steep toll on students who yearn for personal connections and are fatigued with the videoconferencing routine some mock as “Zoom U.” There are also stubborn inequities between rich and poor in access to Internet service and study space for those stuck at home.

Yet faculty and students have grown accustomed to the technology and pace of online learning, and many are figuring out how to maximize class participation and find value in a strange situation.

“At first, obviously, with everything going virtual, it was weird,” said Abu, who lives on campus in Catonsville. “But once you get used to it, it’s not that bad.”

This fall some of his classes are fully online, others partly. Abu and his two chemistry lab partners take turns with the hands-on sessions. The two who are not physically present on a given day will stay in touch virtually through chat strings or video. “It’s obviously much cooler when you’re inside the lab,” Abu said.

That doesn’t mean the remote classwork is worthless. He appreciates professors who can crack jokes, elicit discussion and keep sessions lively. “I’ve had more fun this semester than I have had in a long, long time,” he said.

Faculty and administrators say remote teaching has improved markedly since the public health crisis caused sudden campus evacuations seven months ago. There might even be innovations of lasting value, a reminder that the old ways of teaching weren’t always so great.

For instance, online chats during large classes are giving instructors real-time comments and questions from students they might never have gotten in a lecture hall. The combination of online and in-person teaching can be powerful, said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC. “Hybrid will be the name of the game in so many ways.”

To a skeptic who wonders whether a remote student can learn much from a lab, Hrabowski said: “That’s so 20th century. We have to begin understanding there are different ways of grasping concepts.”

But Nelanne Bolima, 18, a first-year student, feels keenly the limitations of studying at home in Burtonsville, Md. “I learn best in a classroom when I can ask questions, interact with people and do things hands-on,” she said.

Across the country, there are signs that remote education leaves some students feeling disconnected.

The National Survey of Student Engagement, based at Indiana University, has found this fall that 46 percent of students in mostly remote or hybrid courses give high marks for the quality of their interactions with faculty. By contrast, the survey shows, 60 percent of those with mostly in-person classes give high marks on that measure.

There was a similar gap when the two groups of students rated their interactions with peers. The mostly in-person students were also more likely to report a feeling of belonging to their school community.

Those are preliminary findings based on responses from about 44,000 students at 110 four-year colleges and universities, according to survey director Alexander C. McCormick. He called the pattern “worrisome” but said it should not be read as an indictment of online education in general. What matters, McCormick said, is the degree of support faculty get as they switch teaching methods — and their own willingness to reimagine classes.

Schools, he said, “need to take seriously the time investment required to design such experiences.”

Joshua Kim, director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth College, said he is hearing of significant progress around the country. “There’s real high-quality learning,” Kim said. “It’s not perfect, and there’s lots of variation. We still have a long way to go.”

Long before the pandemic, remote teaching and learning had become a major part of higher education.

Online master’s programs in business, health and other fields are commonplace. One third of all undergraduates in fall 2018 had at least one course that was not taught in person, according to federal data, and more than 1 in 8 studied exclusively through online and other remote methods. For older students, including parents and those with jobs, online courses are especially useful to fit schoolwork into their schedules.

What sets this year apart is the widespread use of remote instruction for college students younger than 25 who, if they had a choice, would take classes in person.

“I don’t feel as connected to my teachers,” said Nyla Howell, 18, a first-year student at UMBC. “It is awkward. It’s different than being in person. A lot of staring at your screen all day.” Howell, who lives in a dormitory, spoke on an outdoor bench near a library that in ordinary times would be a bustling campus crossroads. But on this mid-October weekday, there were no crowds with backpacks scurrying to and from class.

Interviews with UMBC students and faculty show how a mostly remote semester has unfolded at a public university with about 13,500 students. More than 10,200 are studying fully online this fall, compared to 92 a year ago before the pandemic. Residence halls are filled only to one third of capacity. Testing since August has found relatively few cases of the coronavirus.

Located just outside the Baltimore Beltway and northwest of Interstate 95, the university has a decorated chess team, significant programs in science and engineering and a reputation for strong undergraduate teaching. UMBC burst unexpectedly into the national spotlight in 2018 when its 16th-seeded Retrievers beat No. 1 University of Virginia in perhaps the most shocking upset ever for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Like other colleges and universities, UMBC scrambled in the spring to finish the school year remotely when the pandemic surged. Faculty had scant time to figure out online lessons and videoconferencing. The result was a salvage operation. Credits were earned with or without letter grades. Students graduated (with virtual ceremonies). Nearly everyone tried to make the best of a tough situation.

Steven M. Caruso, a principal lecturer in biology, recalled that when the pandemic shut down his labs in the spring, he recycled data from old experiments. He asked students to analyze the numbers and talk about them. “It was not horrible,” he said. “But it was not great.”

Over the summer, Caruso and hundreds of other faculty members went back to school themselves to learn how to make online education more compelling. Partly that meant a skills update in education and video platforms such as Blackboard and Webex. But mainly it meant thinking about how to design a remote experience with as much participation — and as little boredom — as possible.

Short video “chunks” of professorial explanation are in; longish lectures are out. Sometimes it’s good to be synchronous (or live), but other times asynchronous lessons work better.

For a virology class this fall, Caruso asked students to mail him some soil samples to be used in a remote lab. Students now work in small groups online, observing and analyzing experiments Caruso’s teaching assistants are performing with the samples. The personal connection has lured students into the scientific process, he said. “Hopefully they feel a little more ownership.”

The pace is intense. “It’s like you’re a brand new professor again,” Caruso said. “Not only do you have to relearn everything, with the technology, but also you’ve got to reinvent everything.”

Amy M. Froide, chair of the history department, does not consider herself a technology whiz. Her classes operate best in person as Socratic-style discussions, she said. But she has found virtue in videoconferencing.

“We’ve all discovered the chat function,” Froide said. It gives those who might be a little shy another way to speak up. Suddenly, those students were saying “pretty significant, profound things,” Froide said. “I was really shocked by that. This is something that wouldn’t have happened if we’d been together in the regular format.”

The Washington Post observed one of Froide’s seminars, an analysis of gender issues in the 18th and early 19th centuries that unfolded simultaneously through oral discussion and short notes on a chat feed.

“Is it possible to be both feminist and anti-feminist simultaneously?” one student wrote.

“I was calling them problematic feminists,” another wrote in reply.

“Yes, that’s a good way of thinking about it!” the first agreed.

Tara Carpenter, a senior lecturer who teaches introductory chemistry to hundreds of students, said a crucial issue has emerged with remote exams: academic integrity. She has tinkered with the pacing and format of quizzes and tests to prevent students from getting an unfair advantage through the Internet.

In a video she shared with The Post, Carpenter told students she detected some cheating on the first exam. She warned them to avoid the temptation to use online help forums as an illicit shortcut to the answer. “Posting questions to have someone else answer them is 100 percent cheating,” she said. “I’m watching for it, and I will report it.”

To help students keep up, Carpenter holds online workshops she calls “Chem Chats” and sends them a video pep talk at least once a week that recaps the schedule and upcoming assignments and deadlines. Some faculty might dismiss this as “hand-holding,” she said, “but my philosophy is: I teach 18-year-olds, and they need it.”

In Engineering 101, two instructors led hundreds of students one day this month in a live online lesson on estimations. E.F. Charles LaBerge, a professor of the practice, and Jamie Gurganus, associate director of engineering education initiatives, called it Fermi Friday in honor of famed physicist Enrico Fermi.

The instructors played Elton John’s “Rocket Man” while students spent 10 minutes trying to figure out whether a stack of quarters stretching from the Earth to the Moon could finance a space venture. For the rest of the hour, LaBerge shared his screen to explain techniques for graphing and analyzing data using curves and steadily more complex calculations.

At one point, a student who was apparently unaware that his microphone was live made a vulgar remark that disrupted the proceedings. But the class forged ahead. While LaBerge spoke to the whole group, Gurganus fielded written rapid-fire questions that popped up in the chat.

Gurganus lamented, in a telephone interview, that many engineering students aren’t able these days to put their hands onto physical tools in a lab or classroom to build stuff and solve problems. Engineers aren’t machinists, she said, but they do need to understand how things work.

“It’s a psychological connection by physically touching something and seeing what it looks like,” Gurganus said. “Building the robot, putting the screw into the shaft — that aspect, they don’t have that.”

Bolima, the student from Burtonsville, is in this engineering course. She is eager to explore the campus, socialize, join a dance team. But she can’t do much of that yet. For her, the remote routine is numbing. “Wake up, school, study, go to bed,” she said. “Every day just feels the same.”

Bolima said she is fairly satisfied with her classes, although she wonders about an instructor who seems to be teaching straight from a textbook. “You can hear him flipping the textbook pages during lectures,” she said. “He doesn’t really elaborate, give me any new ways to understand the information.” She turns to YouTube in that situation for help.

She expects the coming spring to be more of the same. UMBC has indicated that online instruction is likely to remain predominant in the next semester. But Bolima said she plans to stay enrolled. Her overall rating of the remote college experience: “Five out of 10. Not terrible, not great.”

Tola Abu, the senior majoring in chemistry, sees it differently. He, too, misses extracurricular activities, such as shared meals with the cooking club, Chew-MBC. He had thought in the spring about leaving school for a while. Now he is energized for the final push to graduation.

On a one to 10 scale, he rates the fall semester highly. “With these circumstances,” he said, “I’d give them an eight or a nine.”

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