All hands on deck to ensure an effective rollout of virtual classes

On Monday, March 23, after an extended week of Spring Break, Penn will resume its thousands of classes remotely only, due to COVID-19. Faculty members and instructors, and the staff that supports them, have been preparing around the clock.

A few years ago, Anne Duchene started recording her Econ 001 lectures at Penn using Panopto. With such a big class—she teaches nearly 900 freshmen each year—and because of the heavy content, Duchene knew the videos would come in handy for her students.

“I understood that they may miss some information in class, so I made the recordings available on Canvas,” Duchene says. “I never knew they’d become this useful.”

A person sits at a table typing on a laptop with papers and reading glasses and pens on the table

Come Monday, March 23, after an extended week of Spring Break, Penn will resume its thousands of classes virtually only, due to COVID-19. Faculty members and instructors, and Penn’s staff who supports them, have been working around the clock to ensure a rollout as smooth as possible.

“It’s really quite impressive how willing faculty are to take on this challenge in such extraordinary circumstances,” says Bruce Lenthall, executive director for the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). “There are going to be bumps during this process, but I am impressed by how hard everyone is working to make this as positive as possible.”

Since much of Duchene’s material was already online, she tried not to panic when she first heard the emerging changes. She was mainly confronted with figuring out a new plan for recitations, office hours, and testing. Duchene acknowledged that many of her colleagues, though, who teach community service courses, design or architecture studios, or any type of lab classes, are being met with exceptional challenges.

Discussing lab courses specifically, Rebecca Stein, executive director of the Penn Online Learning Initiative (OLI), notes how she’s seen the University’s innovative faculty working hard to adapt to a sudden reality. “Some of the labs, instead of manipulating data they might collect, they’ll be shifting to manipulating data that’s already been collected,” explains Stein, as an example. “That way they can still learn how to analyze the experiment.”

It’s been an asset for faculty that Penn has already instituted numerous online learning programs, which the University as a whole is leaning on during such an unprecedented time. “We know how to deploy technology and the limits of what can be achieved quickly,” says Stein. But she noted the major difference between traditional online courses and remote classes, is, of course, time to prepare.

“When I designed my MOOC [massive open online course], I had the luxury of time,” Stein says. “I was given the whole summer to create it, in a studio with the support of the wonderful team at the College of Liberal and Professional Studies. The lift we are asking faculty to do here is much, much greater.”

With all the known challenges in mind, and all the challenges to undoubtedly come, the teams at OLI and CTL have been diligently working to provide the most useful resources and web materials to professors at Penn to make their teaching as effective as possible. CTL, with its long-standing mission to continuously strengthen education at Penn, from the outset launched a revamped website and unveiled a series of workshops through Zoom and BlueJeans for faculty, which, according to Lenthall, have been in high demand.

“We are running between two and four a day,” says Lenthall. “By the end of the first week of classes, I expect us to have run the workshops probably 30 times.”

Lenthall says OLI and CTL workshops have varied—ranging from topics such as how to use the technology available to run a class remotely to rethinking assessments—and will continue to evolve. His team has also been sharing ideas with universities across the country, especially those part of Ivy Plus, piggybacking on ideas and providing insight and feedback to each other. “We’re part of a national community working on this,” he says.

An additional note that Lenthall makes is the importance of clear messaging in such an uncertain time. Faculty need to be flexible, and students need to be flexible, he says, and “if we are working on it together we will be more successful.

“We should recognize this is a difficult time for everybody independently of courses,” Lenthall adds. “How can we make sure taking these courses and being part of them remains a positive amidst this really difficult moment?”

Duchene says she’s taking the “new normal” and running with it. “It’s a different way of teaching, but it’s also introducing new opportunities.”

She says she plans to post some short, interactive videos on Canvas to explain specific microeconomics topics—the content she’d normally go through with students in person during traditional office hours.

“They can watch the video whenever they want, they can even re-watch it. There are a lot of different ways of teaching I am thinking about now that everything is online,” she says, adding that she thinks this new way of interacting could be a plus for her more shy students. “Some of them don’t dare raise their hands in class, but being online might make it easier for them to want to participate.”

She’ll also have to assess her students a bit differently, as her typical multiple choice, timed exam is pretty much off the table. But she is not worried. “I know that systematically every semester I give these exams and I know some students actually do understand the material, but they’re not good test takers and end up with a grade that does not reflect their true understanding,” says Duchene. “Now I am being forced to find a new way of assessing their true understanding and I think in the long run it will be more efficient.”

Optimism aside, Duchene notes how much she will miss the energy that is created in a physical classroom. But for the safety of society, she said she’s truly appreciative of all the tough decisions Penn has made to move to virtual instruction, and all the support the University has provided her during the transition.

“It’s such a weird time, it’s kind of crazy for everyone,” Duchene says. “I miss my students already, and it’s hard not to have physical interaction. But it’s different, flexible, and maybe more online communication could help, especially with this new generation of students.”

To the same tune, notes Stein, “Students are used to technology. This difficult moment pushes us to get closer to where the students are.”

Reflecting on a couple weeks of twists and turns, one thing is certainly true, says Stein: “We could not have done this 10 years ago.

“We didn’t have the technology, the skillset, the processes,” she says. “The world couldn’t have done it and Penn couldn’t have done it. We’ve come a huge, huge way.”