Some STEM teachers. report tripling the workload to offer fully online courses this fall

Professors have had to spend more time creating materials and organizing their classes due to the pandemic.

Credit: Stéphanie Jungyeon Nam

Last week, students in STEM classes said they were criticized by the increased workload due to the combination of synchronous and pre-recorded classes. Behind the scenes, however, some professors say they are working double or triple the usual amount to run a fully virtual class.

During his 12 years at Penn, math professor Robert Ghrist said teaching has never been so difficult. His work day begins at 4:30 a.m. when he begins to prepare material for his Mathematics 114: Calculus, Part II and Electrical and Systems Engineering 210: Introduction to Dynamical Systems courses. The hours before dawn are the quietest, and he can’t afford to re-do a few hours of lecture tapes because of a wandering car.

“Creating video conferences is different from what I usually do,” Ghrist said. “I’m a mathematician. I’m used to working on the blackboard.”

Ghrist said the math department has replaced infrequent, high-stakes midterms with weekly quizzes to ensure students get through class and reduce stress during the virtual semester. This transition, however, tripled the workload for math teachers to generate weekly assessments.

“The effect of that on the teacher’s side is that we are still working on writing the next round of quiz questions,” he said. “Because we welcome people in multiple time zones, we write multiple separate quizzes. ”

Accounting professor Mirko Heinle, who teaches 102 Accounting: Strategic Cost Analysis, said he had also experienced an increased workload this semester, having been forced to rethink his courses and assessments.

“All the test procedures and rules that I have developed are thrown out the window [now that everything is virtual], said Heinle. “Everything has to be rethought from the start. ”

In order to make his lectures more digestible for students in a virtual setting, Heinle divided his usual 80-minute lectures into three to five short videos and a 40-minute synchronous classroom session.

Heinle and Ghrist, who each teach over 200 students, cited their large class sizes as the reason for their increased workload as they have to accommodate larger numbers of students in different time zones and with personal circumstances. . Ghrist said, however, that the large class sizes did not deter his motivation to teach.

“I volunteered to teach these great lectures. It would be very easy for me to teach a research seminar, but I enjoy teaching first and second year students, ”Ghrist said. “I love giving introductory classes on a large scale because it’s a great way to get to know a lot of our students. ”

Overwhelmed by the combination of synchronous class sessions and prerecorded lectures, students in STEM classes said that the increase in workload and “classroom” time had forced them to drop out of class, work less time. hours at their jobs and honing their time management skills.

Ghrist and Heinle both said they are well aware of students’ struggles with the workload this semester and have implemented new technology to help students learn online.

Ghrist said math classes have started to rely more on Piazza, an online discussion platform that allows students to post questions with photos of their work and receive immediate feedback from faculty and teachers. teaching assistants.

“This [use of new technology], I think, is one of the lasting benefits of this distance learning experience, ”said Ghrist. “The teachers will learn more about Canvas and Piazza in order to improve the classroom environment. ”

Heinle, who also uses Piazza, said that of the top five tests that students must take in ACCT 102, the lower score will be removed and will not count towards their final grade in hopes of reducing student stress during an already difficult online semester.

Both professors offered guidance and encouragement to students struggling with the workload this semester.

“Don’t be discouraged,” Ghrist said. “What matters is not the difficulties you face, but how you respond to them. ”

He also advised his students to regulate their sleep schedules and seek out positive social interactions. He added that students should not hesitate to ask their teachers, teaching assistants and other students for help.

“At the end of the day, you have to balance things out,” Heinle said. “If that’s too much for you, learn a little less. If you continue, you will close.

Beyond the scope of STEM courses, however, professors teaching humanities courses do not report a significant increase in workload and are generally happy with the online semester.

English teacher Weike Wang teaches ENGL 010: Intro to Creative Writing and ENGL 115: Advanced Fiction Writing: Auto-Fiction. Wang said the time that would have been spent traveling to campus was now spent preparing for the course, which allowed her to start reading response materials earlier than she normally could for a semester in person. .

Philosophy, Politics and Economics professor Giuseppe Danese, who teaches 17 students between his two courses PPE 471: Political Economy – Organizations and PPE 402-303: Research in PPE: The Gift, agreed that the online format does not pose major challenges for him. He added that he believes his students spend the same amount of time on class work as if they were done in person.

“Classes are going exactly the same this semester as in previous semesters,” Danese said. “I believe [virtual learning] does not interfere with the learning goals of the class.

Despite the relatively smooth transition to online learning, both Wang and Danese have struggled to involve their students in class discussions and feel the loss of the dynamic classroom environment.

“It’s like a blessing and a curse,” Wang said. “I became more organized and it saved me a lot of stress. On the other hand, I feel like the camaraderie is a bit lost.

The virtual fall semester affected both sides of the boardroom, with students and faculty facing increased workload. In these unprecedented times, Ghrist praised the students for their resilience and willingness to excel despite the virtual university setting.

“One thing that I look forward to the most is the day when we are finally all back on campus and where I can meet all these students that I have seen through the screen,” he said. -he declares. “I want to meet them, shake their hands and say ‘You did a really good job, I’m proud of you.’ This is what I look forward to. ”

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