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To teach in-person or not: How these University of Minnesota Duluth educators weighed their choice

Campus reopening plans gave faculty and students at UMD the autonomy to opt out of face-to-face instruction.

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A single chair sits at each work station at the Solon Campus Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth to ensure students practice physical distancing. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
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DULUTH — Like many of her colleagues, Rebecca Katz Harwood, an associate professor of musical theater and dance at the University of Minnesota Duluth, considered teaching all of her classes online this fall.

But after weighing various factors, including her own risk levels and her students' desires to have a face-to-face component, she decided to incorporate small groups of rotating in-person sessions into her three studio classes.

"Because the university has been, I think, pretty responsive in terms of their flexibility I feel prepared to at least make the attempt," Katz Harwood said. "There is a lot that we as faculty still cannot control in terms of the behavior of the community and the behavior of our students."

The decision to welcome students back to campus this fall was paired with giving faculty members the choice to opt out of teaching in-person classes. Those teaching a course with an in-person component must provide alternative options for students who request it.

Paul Bates, assistant professor of biology, also opted to teach partially in person. The main course he teaches is a general biology course with a laboratory section.

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"I just don't feel that there's any substitute for hands-on laboratory activities," Bates said, adding that they've cut the lab class sizes down so only a maximum of 12 students can meet at a time.

The class enrolls about 120 students and so far he's had about a dozen students request to take the course without any face-to-face component. Those students will be sent lab kits so they can do "parallel labs" at home.

During Katz Harwood's in-person dance classes, students will stand in 6-by-6-foot squares laid out on the floor with an empty square on each side of them.

Because it's not ideal for students to move through each other's air space, Katz Harwood said students will not be allowed to travel across the floor unless they can figure out a way to create "lanes" of travel for each student.

"It's enough to make your head want to explode on a semi-regular basis, but we're trying this ... This is what we do," Katz Harwood said. "We are creative people. We are creative problem-solvers. We adapt and we innovate."

Although she's excited to see students again, Katz Harwood, like so many of her colleagues, is wrapping up a work-heavy summer for a school year unlike any other and she has mixed emotions about what it will entail.

"I am nervous about this kind of communal gamble that we are all taking," Katz Harwood said.

Despite concerns across higher education that enrollment numbers would plummet due to COVID-19 and economic-related reasons, UMD's first-year enrollment numbers were down between 50-100 students compared to where the numbers stood the year prior.

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"A couple months ago there was a lot of uncertainty about where we would end up," said Ian Pannkuk, director of marketing and operations for UMD admissions. "I'm feeling very good about that in comparison to what could have been a couple months ago."

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Signs posted on classroom doors around the University of Minnesota Duluth remind students and staff how they can help stop the spread of COVID-19 on campus. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

'We need to deliver'

With about 54% of UMD's classes not slated to meet in person at all, many faculty chose a fully remote or online way of offering their classes.

Over the summer, hundreds of them participated in five-week or nine-week online teaching and course design training programs offered through the university.

Romesh Lakhan, an instructor of chemistry who will be teaching entirely remotely, participated in both.

"We expect our students to learn. We better be able to demonstrate that we're willing to learn, too," Lakhan said. "I think students are going to be expecting a higher quality experience and I think they're going to be less forgiving, which is fair because we've had time to prepare and we need to deliver."

Lakhan originally planned to teach using a combination of face-to-face and online methods for his two general chemistry classes, but his enrollment numbers were too high and a big enough space didn't exist to accommodate the physical distancing guidelines.

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Instead he and another faculty member teaching the same subject have partnered up to teach one large online class together.

"Rather than each of us trying to do everything from scratch, why not coordinate and try to make it greater than the sum of our parts?" Lakhan said.

Because her classes were small enough, Aparna Katre, associate professor of cultural entrepreneurship, found that when the university pivoted to fully online and remote learning in March, she could still foster meaningful class discussion.

"I found that some students actually were a lot more open to talking when they're remote," Katre said. "But of course, there were also situations where you were kind of losing some students."

That experience alongside wanting to avoid potentially exposing someone in her family to the coronavirus informed her decision to teach remotely. With that comes the responsibility of reorienting teaching styles.

"We cannot take what we taught in person and just mirror it for online. It has to be redesigned in many ways," Katre said.

Avesa Rockwell, an instructor and administrator for the writing program, also made the decision to teach online this fall.

Between not being able to see each other’s faces and the physical distancing guidelines, she feels that an in-person class centered around students workshopping their writing wouldn’t be any more effective than what can be accomplished using other methods.

“In a classroom situation we'd probably be all staring at our laptops, looking at each other's draft in Google Docs,” Rockwell said.

As an instructor in the U of M System, Rockwell said she has access to “incredible” infrastructure to support online learning.

“I worry that’s not going to be in place for district K-12 teachers,” she said. “I think we’re really well-supported in this. That’s a blessing.”

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