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Many faculty went back to school this summer with one goal: improve online classes

“I miss the authentic interaction in the classroom, but I have to be realistic," Denise Patmon, an associate professor at UMass Boston, said. "And I have to make the best of this situation, because learning and teaching must go on.”
“I miss the authentic interaction in the classroom, but I have to be realistic," Denise Patmon, an associate professor at UMass Boston, said. "And I have to make the best of this situation, because learning and teaching must go on.”Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Simona Socrate’s Arlington basement used to be a comfy hideaway for watching TV. But this summer, as the MIT professor prepared for a full semester of teaching undergraduates remotely, she transformed it into the nerve center of her introductory mechanical engineering class.

One side of the room housed piles of pool noodles, rulers, containers of putty, and rubber bands, which she packed into kits and shipped to dozens of students across the United States and as far away as China. Another corner of the basement became a makeshift studio for recording lectures, complete with large computer monitors, a whiteboard, and lights.

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“It’s a big production,” said Socrate, who has been a professor for more than 20 years. “When I came up with the plan, I had no idea what I got into.”

As fall approached, some colleges dithered before making plans; others planned for a mostly in-person semester and reversed course in the last weeks of summer. But another group of institutions made plans early to go primarily remote, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and all the state’s community colleges. And many of the professors have been focused on making the online transition — and spent the summer trying to make their remote classes as engaging and rigorous as the classroom experience.

For these professors, reinvention has meant reworking syllabuses, prerecording lectures, and reconsidering how to test students’ knowledge of material — and even how to bond with them virtually.

“The schools that are best prepared for an online fall are those that made that decision early,” said Chris Marsicano, the founding director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, which has been tracking reopening plans nationwide. “There are some institutions that just did not plan. It’s really important that those institutions get their act together.”

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Of the nearly 3,000 institutions that the initiative is following, about 1,000 are fully or primarily teaching online. In Massachusetts, about one-third of the 90 campuses Marsicano’s group tracks plan to teach primarily or fully online, and 23 institutions have adopted a hybrid model that uses both remote and in-person classes. The rest are only in-person or have not released specific pandemic-related plans.

For colleges the pressure is on to avoid a repeat of last spring, when disgruntled parents and students filed lawsuits claiming the online learning experience was not worth the thousands of dollars in tuition costs.

According to a survey of more than 1,400 students released by Third Way, a public opinion polling and advocacy group, about half of college students feel that higher education is no longer worth the cost, and 40 percent believe it’s a bad deal now that it has moved online.

Yet the traditional college model is likely to change significantly post-coronavirus, with online classes playing a much larger role, higher education experts said. It’s also possible that even colleges that are offering a hybrid experience will go all-remote if there is a surge of virus cases this fall.

“I feel like this is a brave new world,” said Denise Patmon, an associate professor at UMass Boston.

Her university’s decision in late June to move its classes mostly online helped her reimagine her education courses.

“That helped to liberate me,” she said. “It provided me with a clear lens for the fall.”

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Patmon attended several online training sessions the university held but also decided to refresh her approach so that students could submit blog entries and podcasts, instead of just traditional essays for their assignments. She wanted them to engage and experiment with the technology, well aware that it will be just as important for future teachers to become comfortable with it.

Patmon said students usually discuss sensitive topics, including race, in her class, but she struggled to figure out how to create a trusting and open environment in a virtual setting. Over the years, her office on the UMass Boston campus — decorated with art and gifts from previous classes, and stacked so thick with books that cellphone reception was sometimes dodgy — was a place where students would stop by and get to know her.

This fall, Patmon said, she plans to invite students on virtual art and history museum visits with her to develop those kinds of relationships. She hopes spending a little time with students one-on-one outside the classroom video-conferencing site will help them bond.

“I miss the authentic interaction in the classroom, but I have to be realistic,” Patmon said. “And I have to make the best of this situation, because learning and teaching must go on.”

For some professors, the big concern was helping students master challenging technical material. Douglas Leaffer, an associate professor of engineering and physics at Northern Essex Community College, said that after the abrupt online transition in the spring, he and other professors worried that students weren’t able to keep up and would struggle to progress to higher-level classes.

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Leaffer’s course was often hands-on and required students to build sensors and other equipment.

“I never thought I’d teach an online course,” said Leaffer, who has been teaching for 10 years.

To gain confidence, Leaffer and half-a-dozen other professors and adjuncts who teach the same subject took a six-week course with technology specialists and an online coach provided by the community college. They spent the time redesigning the course and trying to find inexpensive circuit kits that they could mail their students at home, to ensure that the experimental parts of the class remained intact.

Northern Essex spent about $500,000, including for small faculty stipends, this summer to help 150 instructors develop 200 courses for online delivery.

“It did upset our summers,” said Leaffer, who shelved plans to work on his own doctoral degree to reimagine his approach to instruction. “This was an intense summer.”

But, he said, “This is gearing up for the future for the online delivery. It was what was necessary.”

Whether all the efforts will be enough to satisfy expectations and quell growing questions about the high cost of tuition and the quality of remote education remains to be seen. While many colleges offered faculty training and stipends for the summer coursework, rarely was it mandatory. And few institutions reduced the price of tuition for online classes.

“The overall floor on performance will be lifted,” said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, which operates one of the largest online nonprofit colleges in the country.

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But he added that the online experience will still likely be uneven this fall.

Students, however, are unlikely to be as forgiving if they are dissatisfied with their online classes, especially since colleges had months to prepare, said Tamara Hiler, director of education for Third Way.

“Students are going to lose patience as more time goes on,” Hiler said. “There have been these issues about perceived value for years, but the pandemic has cracked that open.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.