Lessons being learned during the COVID-19 shutdown

Lecturer Peter Marsden teaches in an empty classroom after COVID-19 shutdown Chemistry lecturer Peter Marsden teaches online in an empty classroom after COVID-19 shutdown

By Denise Klarquist

“We’re all still trying to figure it out day to day.”  Since the shelter-in-place order as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closing of the UC Berkeley campus, this has been the pervasive sentiment among faculty and administration throughout the University, especially within the College of Chemistry.

The timing of the forced shift to 100% online learning was rapid and unprecedented. On March 9, campus officials announced that classes would be virtual through the end of spring break on March 29.  But on March 13 in a campus-wide email from Chancellor Carol Christ and Executive Vice Chancellor Paul Alivisatos, the decision was announced to extend virtual classes for the remainder of the semester to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Instruction would be offered instead via teleconferencing platforms only. On the heels of that came the Bay Area Counties’ March 16th announcement advising residents to shelter in place beginning the next day. Thus, on March 17 access to the College of Chemistry facilities, classrooms, and labs was effectively barred to all.

No one was prepared for the enormous stress this would create. “No one had any idea whatsoever we were not going to be in a classroom with the students,” said Jeff Reimer, Professor and Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “Most instructors I talked to were completely overwhelmed,” said Ann Baranger, a teaching professor and Director of Undergraduate Chemistry.

Although as of this writing virtual classes have been in place for over three weeks, things are far from settled. “The number of technology problems is just so long, I couldn’t even begin to list them all,” added Baranger. “Just learning to use Zoom effectively has been challenging; or a faculty member recording a whole class only to find the camera was not turned on.”

Along with technology hiccups and troubleshooting, no one is quite sure what to anticipate if colleagues fall ill and are unable to teach. Processes for administering exams are still being considered, though a pass/no pass grading policy and the abandonment of traditional-style exams (in many cases, replacing final exam scores with the results of problem sets and encouraging students to work collaboratively) is helping to minimize stress at least for the students.

Amid this crisis, every decision is made with a focus on balancing learning with flexibility and compassion for the disparate challenges faced by each individual. Being receptive to the severe burden on students is a top priority. Students don’t all have access to the same technology, and disruptive situations at home can make studying difficult.

“Our students are worried about their families; they’re worried about themselves. They’re worried about their community and their future. We have to understand that learning right now is really hard to do,” said Matt Francis, Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry.

In contrast, the crisis has shone a bright light on the enormous commitment, creativity, and adaptability of the college community. “I can say very sincerely the response of everybody, from the top administration down to the college’s grad students, postdoc staff, and undergrads, has been fantastic,” said Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs and Professor of Chemistry, John Arnold.

Matt Francis echoed the sentiment. “The entire faculty has really risen to the occasion and made it work. They’ve been innovative and supportive because everyone knows it’s what we have to do.”

Ongoing feedback and sharing have played a huge part in the success of the transition. Faculty meetings via Zoom have seen record attendance. Teach-Net, a moderated email forum within UC Berkeley, has become an essential resource allowing faculty from across campus to share feelings about new policies and how they’re adapting to online methods. “We’re all making this up as we go along, so the more we can share, the better it’s been working,” said John Arnold.

As faculty try to ensure equitable learning experiences, they are encouraging students to speak out so they can accommodate real needs as they arise, rather than try to predict and plan for every situation. And students themselves are playing a key role in offering solutions and improvements. Shane Devlin, a GSI in the Department of Chemistry explained, “We like students to communicate with us as much as possible so they can tell us, ‘Hey, this isn’t working, but if we do it this way, it would benefit everybody in the class.’”

Making the lab experience virtual

With eleven lab courses in the departments of Chemistry and Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) this semester, in addition to lab-related demonstrations in other courses, College of Chemistry faculty faced a formidable challenge: how to deliver an online learning experience that maintains the educational integrity of an in-person, hands-on class.

Facilitated by instructors and instructional support facility supervisor Laura Fredriksen, GSIs set up, recorded, and photographed 21 freshmen and sophomore-level course experiments in a matter of days. in addition, GSIs in the upper-division courses recorded several more.

Timing didn’t allow Negar Beheshti Pour, a CBE lecturer, to film experiments for CBE 154, a senior lab course she co-teaches with Professors Roya Maboudian and Nitash Balsara. Instead, she is sharing publicly available lab videos developed by other universities including the University of Colorado Boulder and Michigan Tech. “The equipment might not be exactly the same as what we have in the lab, but the basics are the same. We needed to use sources that are out there now,” Beheshti Pour explained.

Absent being able to gather data from their own experiments, CBE 154 students are working with raw peer data from earlier labs to analyze and present results via Zoom and the University’s learning center on bCourses.

To enable Aspen and COMSOL simulation modeling, lab manager Esayas Kelkile has been working with campus Educational Technology Services and was able to provide students virtual desktop access to the Chevron Computing Facility computers and Aspen and COMSOL software. This enhanced access will be a huge benefit to future students as well.

While some faculty have considered lab kits or kitchen chemistry, it’s unlikely anything can be created for this semester. The elimination of the hands-on lab experience is a harsh loss for students. “The courses aren’t ending. They’re reading and studying concepts so they’re going to learn things, but they’re definitely not learning the same things,” explained Anne Baranger.

Bringing lectures online

While lab courses entail the most compromise, lectures and classroom courses are no less burdened by this new “virtual” reality. Here too, GSIs became an essential resource to instructors forced to adapt their blackboard lectures to 21st century methods.

Zoom Pro accounts provided to all faculty have enabled students to continue to participate in lectures from across town or across the country. In addition, the ability of faculty to purchase the technology needed to facilitate online teaching has been a welcome relief. Professors previously unfamiliar with teaching online have tackled the challenge in unique ways, including utilizing a ring stand to hold a phone over a pad of paper, using the camera to transmit lecture notes, and broadcasting the lecture over Zoom.

“It may look primitive, but the camera-on-paper video is a similar experience to what some students get when a professor writes on a blackboard in the classroom,” said Jeff Reimer.

As time goes on, faculty are continually testing different options, employing tablets and multi-screen setups, and more advanced Zoom tools. Nevertheless, transitioning to online modalities is not as simple as setting up a Zoom conference.

“When you design a course intended to be accessed asynchronously, building in components that lend themselves to that platform is pretty different,” explained CBE Lecturer Shannon Ciston. “Ideally, I would create a 15-minute lecture, record that with discussion questions which students could then watch asynchronously. It has been an adjustment to take what was designed now as an in-person, 50-minute lecture with a team project component and readapt the course plan, which we plan pretty carefully, to this new reality.”

To compensate for the lack of in-person interaction, GSIs and instructors are encouraging the use of Piazza, the campus’s online interactive Q&A forum, and Google Hangout chat rooms to enable students to discuss lecture content and answer each other’s questions quicker.

While some faculty have been pleased with the amount of interaction in their online classes, others have experienced just the opposite. “Students are not anywhere near as forthcoming as they are in person,” said Jeff Reimer.

For CBE Assistant Professor Karthik Shekhar, the circumstance is especially challenging. Having just come on board as a faculty member this semester, this is not only his first-time teaching but also the first time his course, CBE 143, has been offered. “The hardest part has been the lack of feedback,” he explained. “A lot of the material is new, and students have varying backgrounds. Teaching in the classroom was helpful because I could modulate the pace based on the feedback. I could intuitively sense who’s following and who’s not. And that’s just hard in this online mode.”

Attitudes are changing

While it’s still too early to fully appreciate the advantages and evaluate the drawbacks, attitudes about the potential of virtual teaching modalities are already shifting.

“I was not a big fan of online methods before this,” explained CBE Assistant Professor Kranthi Mandadapu. “But my outlook has changed. I’ve uploaded my lectures on to YouTube (for now as private) and I would like to explore putting my research lectures there in the future. I’m excited to see what happens going forward. But I do miss the in-class experience of seeing the students and engaging with them directly.”

Asynchronous modalities such as course-capture which allows students to review lessons on their own time, and the flipped classroom format where recorded lectures are pre-assigned so classroom time can be spent on harder material and problem-solving will likely become more common now that instructors have had to overcome their reticence and see the benefits. “It could make our teaching quite a bit more innovative in the future,” said Anne Baranger.

Faculty are anticipating additional upsides with the video conferencing format, such as maintaining office hours or conducting lectures while on the road or reducing travel and their carbon footprint altogether.

Carefully advancing toward an uncertain future

While the outcomes and effects of this 100% online educational experiment will take months to evaluate, questions are already percolating. There are concerns that this experience may oversimplify the viability of online teaching and diminish the value and critical benefits of in-person and hands-on learning. The question also remains as to whether an emphasis on online courses could harm, rather than support diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Everyone agrees that face-to-face interaction is critically important. “The kinds of in-person experiences, especially in the lab, the College offers are essential to learning. This is part of who we are,” said Jeff Reimer.

John Arnold agreed. “Even though Phil Geissler course-captures the material, his lectures are packed. He has a guitar and he sings about chemistry. Years down the road students are going to remember Rich Saykally blowing stuff up and shaking the dust out of the ceiling and knocking the clock off the wall in Pimentel Hall. You don’t get that virtually. And it would be a huge mistake to imagine that.”

As the College of Chemistry community works through the daily challenges of this crisis and devises solutions, there is a tenacious will to come out ahead. “I’m sure things are going to change as a result of this and I hope for the better,” concluded John Arnold. “It will make us more resilient in the future. But we’re all learning, and I think that’s the important thing. There are no right or wrong answers here. There are decisions being made, and we’re hoping that those are good decisions.”