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The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.

Social distancing requirements and remote learning have substantially altered previous conceptions concerning how education can be accessed by students, facilitated by faculty and applied beyond the classroom. From primary school teachers to the deans of graduate programs, educators and administrators have learned a lesson or two themselves about adapting education methodology to best meet the needs of their students.

The Michigan Daily spoke with teaching faculty from the University of Michigan’s various schools and colleges about the past months of virtual and hybrid learning and what they are taking away from it all going forward

As COVID-19 cases among the campus community increased in the late fall and into the winter term, in-person learning was rarely a viable option. However, some professors had the opportunity to experiment with a hybrid classroom in the fall. In this format, professors simultaneously teach students online and in person. Typically, small cohorts of students rotate in and out of the physical classroom during certain days or times to reduce class sizes, while the remainder of the class attends virtually.

Dennis Oswald, an accounting lecturer and visiting assistant professor, adopted a hybrid teaching style at the start of the year. Although hybrid teaching can be difficult in practice, Oswald said for him, the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. He enjoyed delivering lectures in person to students in a classroom setting.

“I was still teaching in person, I was still in a classroom,” Oswald said. “I didn’t make a lot of changes in terms of the way in which my material was being delivered because I was still teaching it, just I was teaching to a camera (too).”

While Oswald did not have to make drastic changes to his teaching style, he admits the sudden shift to hybrid teaching was not ideal.

“I’ve been teaching for 20 years,”Oswald said. “This is the first time I’ve ever had to do hybrid, so I didn’t have the skills of 20 years of hybrid teaching behind me.”

The majority of professors at the University taught completely remote with either synchronous live instruction or asynchronous pre-recorded activities—or in some cases, a mix of both. 

Mary Gell, a lecturer in the German department, said she switched to remote learning as soon as the University sent students home last March and has not physically taught in the classroom since then. She said the transition to virtually teaching a foreign language was stressful because she had to quickly reevaluate how to present several aspects of her usual curriculum.

“There’s so much to think about,” Gell said. “You have to rethink your whole course. That’s what can be so overwhelming, just thinking, ‘how do I have this make the most sense for this (online) format.’”

Other faculty members agreed with Gell and Oswald about the difficulty of the initial transition to online classes. They added that there were positive aspects of online learning to carry over into in-person instruction as they look forward to a more normal academic year beginning next fall.

Oswald said hosting office hours online this year made him realize an online environment can be more efficient and accessible for students seeking additional support outside of class.

“One of the positive things that I know a lot of my colleagues are talking about is (that) we’re going to continue to do office hours online in the future,” Oswald said. “It gives us the opportunity to reach more students.”

James Juett, a lecturer of electrical engineering and computer science, echoed Oswald’s support for conducting office hours virtually.

“One thing that we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from students (about), that they would love to see going forward, is the ability to do remote office hours, because of the convenience,” Juett said. “I think that’s made interaction (between faculty and students) more accessible in a way, but it will be a challenge to figure out what the right balance is between some of the modalities that we’ve been using during the pandemic and more traditional in-person teaching.”

Gell said she also hopes to use her experience teaching German online to improve how students interact with both herself and each other in the classroom. Gell said the breakout room feature in Zoom emphasized the importance of small-group conversations and group work as a part of her students’ everyday routine.

“The breakout rooms were actually a big improvement in many ways to the in-person class,” Gell said. “(Students) end up speaking with everyone, getting to know everyone. It was really great for conversation.”

In an email to The Daily, chemistry professor Anne McNeil, said remote learning opened up the classroom to a wider variety of perspectives through virtual guest lectures.

“One of the biggest advantages to the online, synchronous course is that it was much easier to get truly amazing—but busy—people to guest lecture,” McNeil wrote. “For example, Regina Strong—Michigan’s Environmental Justice Public Advocate—joined our Zoom classroom … Online, it took just 1 hour of her day. It may have been much harder to get her to come in person.”

Andy Milne, assistant professor of jazz and contemporary improvisation, said he and his students appreciated the ease of inviting professional guests into the music classroom as well.

“(Interacting with guest lecturers) prepare(s) students in ways that they don’t necessarily know yet,” Milne said. “They (learn) interaction skills … increasing their facility to talk about music and engage with a professional from varying different parts of the music spectrum.”

Despite frustrations with online education, students have also found benefits to the more flexible nature of the virtual classroom. LSA freshman Serena Brimacombe plays field hockey for the University and travels to away games during her season. She noted that the ability to log in to an online class from anywhere and watch a recorded lecture at any time made it easier for her to schedule her classes around field hockey practices, something that is often more challenging during an in-person semester.

“From a student-athlete’s perspective, with online classes I could make them (fit around) my practice time so I didn’t have to give my (schedule) such a big gap, which is kind of nice,” Brimacombe said. “I could pick more classes that I wanted (to take) instead of having to pick them just based on time.”

Overall, professors across campus are hopeful that after a year of constantly reevaluating education systems in face of the pandemic, they can apply these lessons to their own, making their classes as efficient and impactful as possible in the future. Oswald said navigating the ups and downs presented by virtual learning has allowed everyone to develop valuable new skill sets and ways of thinking, even if returning to in-person instruction is the ultimate goal.

“I definitely want to be back in person in the fall,” Oswald said. “That’s where I think I’m best at, I think students want to be there as well. I’m happy with how my students stepped up, I’m happy with how I think we all just tried to make the best of it. I fully think this experience has given everybody—be it students, faculty (or) staff—a new set of skills that we will treasure.”

Daily Staff Reporter Maanasa Bommineni can be reached at maanasab@umich.edu.