Michigan Tech faculty remain optimistic for semester ahead

Some classes will be entirely online, and some will be a mixture of face-to-face and remote learning.
This is a recording of the TV6 Early News.
Published: Aug. 26, 2020 at 6:01 PM EDT
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HOUGHTON, Mich. (WLUC) - Michigan Tech University faculty have been training for this day for weeks.

Thursday, students return to class and a blended learning style.

Some classes will be entirely online, and some will be a mixture of face-to-face and remote learning.

Mike Meyer, the director of the William G. Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning, said MTU has been growing its blended learning capabilities for about six years, after William G. Jackson donated $1M to the university to expand blended learning.

Meyer expects some challenges in the year ahead, but believes professors are ready.

“We’ve really focused a lot on that whole blended learning idea, and so I will say we had a big leg up on a lot of other universities in terms of being able to pivot to that,” said Meyer. “But I’ll also that say most faculty members, the bulk of their experience, both as a student and as a teacher, is in a face-to-face context, and it’s really different.”

About 60% of classes will still have some element of face-to-face learning, even if the seating capacity within classrooms is limited.

Within their classes, students will also have both asynchronous elements, meaning students will complete online tasks at their own pace that are prepared by their teacher, and synchronous elements, meaning all students within a class will log online at a specified time for some type of learning with their teacher.

Professors are rolling with the punches, but for some, like Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences Brigitte Morin, the hardest part will be keeping a personal connection to students.

“It’s weird to not be able to interact with your students like you normally do,” she said. “I think the whole reason we do face-to-face classes is to breed connection. So, having half of my students there and half of my students remote is going to feel different.”

“I usually joke that I get to know the good students, the bad students, and those that sit at the front. In this kind of environment, I don’t have that ‘sitting at the front,’” added Paul Charlesworth, Associate Professor of Chemistry. “But I don’t think that we’re going to lose quality of education. That content is still going to be there.”

Charlesworth says another challenge is using the technology. In a normal lecture setting, Charlesworth uses multiple media and screens within the classroom.

“So, very often I’ll have the question up on one screen and I’ll work through problems on the document camera on the other. That doesn’t translate so well to a single camera path here (on Zoom),” he said. “They don’t need to see me, but on Zoom, I don’t think there’s really any sort of easy way to turn me off and gain an extra video source.”

Then there’s accommodating the many hands-on lab work done on campus. Morin said it’s all been considered.

“We will have little kits that will have everything the students need. They will just have to work independently,” said Morin. “Shortened lab times, made the groups smaller, made everything independent, but to see how that actually plays out will be interesting.”

Third year chemistry student Jailynn Johnson says she’s confident in the steps Michigan Tech has taken to keep the student body safe and healthy, and hopes students will take advantage of the free COVID-19 testing available on campus. But she says does have some concerns for her remote learning classes.

“I am a little bit concerned about how to keep that same energy going, because I think that, me personally, I do kind of lose a little bit of motivation with not really being there,” she said.

Johnson said she’s used to going to the library to complete her remote learning. Now, she may have to find a new spot.

“What I’ve really been concerned about is thinking about where I’m going to go for the day to go do those classes,” she said.

Overall, there is a commitment to a quality education and a sense of optimism from both faculty and students.

Johnson said she’s happy to be back on campus and ready to begin her third year of higher education.

Meyer said he even foresees some of these new teaching skills will stick around post-pandemic.

“This has dramatically expanded their toolbox,” he said. “They (faculty) know lots of things that they would have never known before, and they’re never going back to the way they were teaching. On the other hand, certainly this is a new experience for all of us, and so there’s a lot of uncertainty. Faculty really want to do a great job.”

You can read more on the MTU Flex Plan and see COVID-19 testing data here.

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