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Faculty prepare for possible transition to remote instruction

Channing Wang/Thresher

By Amy Qin     3/10/20 8:27pm

Faculty and university staff have begun to prepare for the possibility of transitioning to remote classes following spring break, according to an email sent to faculty obtained by the Thresher. As part of an ongoing response to the possible spread of the COVID-19 virus on campus, Rice University canceled all classes and graded exams and assignments for the week of March 9. 

A brief Rice Alert text announcing the cancellation of classes was sent Sunday evening, followed shortly by an email that announced the cancellation of classes for the week and large public events until April 30, including the first cancellation of Beer Bike in its history. 

Another email later that night from Interim Provost Seiichi Matsuda clarified that all graded exams and assignment deadlines for the week would be postponed after some professors reportedly told their classes that their assignments would be due.

In their initial email, the Rice Crisis Management Team mentioned the possibility of switching to mostly remote classes for the rest of the semester. The Crisis Management Team has formed a working group with the Faculty Senate to plan for this possibility. According to Faculty Senate Speaker Christopher Johns-Krull, planning for fully online classes is a work in progress.

“Rice offers a variety of types of courses, some already with substantial online interaction, so we do not envision a one size fits all solution,” Johns-Krull said. “Lab[s] and other experiential learning courses are probably the most challenging, and that is one thing the working group will be focused on, again, considering the recommendations of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].”

According to a March 10 email sent from Matsuda to Rice faculty that was obtained by the Thresher, the purpose of taking a weeklong break from classes was primarily to allow faculty to prepare for the possibility of transitioning to fully remote instruction.

“Our goal is to make enough classes available through remote delivery to reduce the chances of spread of [the virus that causes] COVID-19 in our community — and to become ready to fully convert to remote instruction with a few days’ notice, if necessary,” Matsuda wrote in the email.

According to the email, instructors of classes identified as being particular risk factors, such as those with more than 100 students or students who self-identify as being at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, will be notified by March 11 if they need to switch to remote instruction for the rest of the semester.

Jamie Catanese, who teaches BIOC 211, an introductory lab course that is required by bioscience majors, said he was “a bit surprised” to get the notification on Sunday that classes had been canceled. He quickly sent an email to his students outlining adjustments he had made, including providing lab data and changing the submission format from paper to digital, to allow them to submit their assignments that week. Then, he received the evening email stating that no assignments could be due that week.

“That came as a big surprise to me because there is nothing hindering my students from completing these assignments,” Catanese said. “It is not like students do not have access to Canvas. It seems that the university is communicating its decisions by email … why should my communication or instruction to my students be any different?”

Catanese said that although accommodating for a single week of canceled classes was fairly doable, he worries about the potential ramifications the last five weeks of classes are shifted to digital.

“The problem with this potential decision is that the students will not get the same learning experience if they do not get to do the hands-on portion in lab,” Catanese said. “I already have observed that students can watch a video, go into the lab to try to repeat what the video shows, and still mess up or not get at all the point of what they are doing. Virtual education has its limits and does not substitute for the hands-on experience in our lab courses.”

Beth Beason, a Biosciences professor, said that she has begun to plan long-term accommodations for her laboratory courses, such as performing experiments for her students and sharing data with them, making demo videos and utilizing Zoom for classroom discussions, in case classes become remote. She said, however, that such a format would detract from the learning experience from students in laboratory courses.

“If we no longer have in-person classes, students will not only miss out on interactions with faculty and TAs but also will no longer be able to collaborate with their peers in the lab,” Beason said.

Alden Sajor Marte-Wood, an assistant professor of English, said the major adjustment he had to make to his courses was to push essay deadlines to after spring break. According to Marte-Wood, he plans on switching his mostly discussion-based classes to meetings through Zoom video conferencing if in-person instruction is suspended.

“While something will no doubt be lost if we have to transition to full Zoom instruction, I’m quite confident that my discussion-based classes will be able to adapt to an entirely online environment,” Marte-Wood said.

Ultimately, Marte-Wood said he believes the administration made the right call in prioritizing the health of the Rice community above convenience.

“I understand that some individuals may feel that this decision has proved to be quite logistically inconvenient, but as COVID-19 poses a significant public health concern we need to respond with compassion, patience and due diligence in order to ensure that those populations most vulnerable and susceptible to COVID-19 are adequately protected and supported,” Marte-Wood said.

Shryans Goyal, a Will Rice College junior, said he was surprised by Rice’s decision to cancel classes and is now on the fence regarding his travel plans for spring break.

“I’m an international student, so I’m seriously considering going back to India if classes will be online for the rest of the semester, if the rumors are true,” Goyal said. “I want to decide quickly whether I should stay on campus or not so that I can book tickets accordingly. International students are uniquely disadvantaged in this situation.”

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