One online course at a time
Cornell moved quickly to establish distance learning last March in response to the looming novel coronavirus pandemic.
Faculty retooled their Block 7 and 8 courses, and they continue to teach mostly online and hybrid courses this fall—even with most students back on campus. During the process, some Cornell professors found new and even improved ways to teach and connect with their students online.
Here are a few of their stories.
Class delves into the science of COVID-19
Instead of teaching a course about genetics, she could make the class relevant to students displaced by the global pandemic. She surveyed her students and they agreed.
Because Cornell offers classes One Course At A Time on the block plan, she was able to completely revise the Block 8 course, retitled The Science of COVID-19.
Christie-Pope arranged online visits from six healthcare experts confronting the pandemic in various fields and in different parts of the country.
“These experts included a Cornell graduate, doctors, a nurse, professors, and an epidemiologist,” said junior Molly Nyberg, from Castle Rock, Colorado. “Being able to hear their stories about how the pandemic has affected hospitals in terms of the number of patients, patient care, and the impact due to the lack of personal protective equipment was eye-opening as they shared their experience with patients and the pandemic as a whole.”
Mastering their understanding of the pandemic gave the students a small sense of control over the unexpected turn their lives had taken.
“Being able to have a class focused on an event that is currently impacting the world was helpful during this time full of unknowns,” Nyberg said. “The class allowed me to learn more not only about the current pandemic but about other pandemics, epidemics, and infectious disease in general.”
Christie-Pope said she was grateful the flexibility of the block plan opened the way for this course: “Our calendar allows me the flexibility to take the current pandemic and turn it into a teaching moment that is relevant to our students’ lives.”
Her course, Trials and Transitions of the Renaissance, uses role-playing games to explore politics in 15th-century Italy and 16th-century England. Each student is assigned the role of a historical individual in each era, and the course typically spills out of the classroom for negotiation, politicking, and deal-making.
When the course moved online, Herder’s challenge was to recreate that immersive environment. She met the challenge by using Slack, a free chat platform used in many workplaces. Students posted their speeches as text in the main discussion channel, and debate followed in those channels. Students could use private channels with each other to negotiate in smaller groups or comment on what was going on in the main channel.
In addition, studying only one course created an immersive environment that perfectly suited their role-playing.
Eli Craig had taken another of Herder’s role-playing classes and was able to compare the in-person and online approaches. With Slack, he said, it was much easier to contact people through messages than it was to find them on campus.
“One of the things I appreciated most about the course was that Professor Herder adapted the class to work well within the online medium, instead of attempting to replicate the classroom in digital form,” he said.
Bring on the experts
When the pandemic temporarily shuttered the region’s museums, History Professor Catherine Stewart knew she had to move fast to keep her Public Memory and Public History class relevant.
She quickly called on her personal and professional networks to bring expertise from museums around the country to her students.
Senior Fiona Dwyer said the course actually was more expansive as an online offering.
“As much as I miss life on campus and having classes in person, this class expanded and grew because of remote, digital learning,” said Dwyer, of Indianapolis, Indiana. “Due to the course being moved online, it spanned the entire country. We had weekly Zoom calls with experts all across the U.S., we watched tour videos of all sorts of museums and memorials, and we explored online exhibits.”
Professor Stewart discovered that Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, was offering free live digital tours for educators while the site is closed to the public. She engaged a guide to focus on slavery at Monticello to fit with the course’s emphasis on African American history.
After that, she used her network to recreate a course that kept the component of field trips through Zoom tours while also giving students the opportunity to learn directly from public history professionals. Her guests included the coauthor of “Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory,” the creator of the computer simulation model of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and staff at the Library of Congress and the Newberry Library in Chicago.
“I came to the realization that virtual learning makes geographical distance meaningless, and that inspired me to think about how I might turn the limitations that came from teaching online into opportunities,” Stewart said. “I realized that I could ask experts in the field, regardless of their location, to join my class and take my students on a personal, virtual tour of a historic site or archive.”
Take-home lab kits
When Adam Plotkin ’20 first learned he’d be taking Introductory Physics II online from home due to the global pandemic, he was curious how his professor would attempt to solidify what he called “tough-to-grasp” course material.
As he was wondering, Professor of Physics Derin Sherman was spending his extended spring break doing just that—reconfiguring his final two block courses of the year to an online format.
“To my amazement, in the matter of a few weeks, Professor Sherman was able to take the whole lab component and transfer it to an online, at-home lab,” said Plotkin, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa. “This class exceeded all of my expectations of not only what could be accomplished in 18 days but, more importantly, what could be accomplished in 18 days in an online format.”
Sherman sprung into action by assembling and mailing take-home lab kits to each student, then continued to come into West Science Hall daily to create online demonstration videos, record lectures, and locate resources such as open-source materials.
Read the other stories in this series: