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Pomona Faculty Rethink Courses, Refine Skills for Online Semester

Clockwise from top left, professors Genevieve Lee, Nicholas Ball, Janice Hudgings and Kevin Dettmar in instructional settings prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

After a spring semester in which courses designed for the classroom had to be reinvented on the fly for remote instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pomona College faculty in all disciplines have been hard at work this summer rethinking and redesigning their fall courses from the bottom up to bring the College’s intensely personal style of education online. “I can honestly say that fall will be totally different than last spring,” says Professor of Environmental Analysis Marc Los Huertos. “Last spring, we were reacting. In the fall we have an opportunity to be proactive. Which feels much better.”

Although the resurgence of the virus during the summer has forced the College to forgo reopening its campus and to continue online instruction through the fall semester, faculty members have been preparing for that eventuality and now face it with increased confidence. Professor of Mathematics Gizem Karaali, for one, has been planning for a possible online fall semester ever since she turned in her spring grades.

“I am intimidated a bit by what is awaiting us, especially the uncertainties,” Karaali admits, noting that her seminar for first-year students, titled “Can Zombies Do Math?” has been particularly difficult to redesign. “To re-envision this discussion-based writing-focused seminar class for a remote-teaching situation is challenging,” she says. “But it is also thrilling in some ways. I have found the challenge has inspired me to think more clearly about my goals and what I really want to provide my students.”

Using a range of resources offered through the summer by Pomona’s Information Technology Services (ITS) staff, faculty like Los Huertos and Karaali have been rethinking their goals, revamping their course plans and honing their online teaching skills with a variety of instructional tools. The goal: to provide their students with the kind of intense educational engagement expected from the Pomona experience, whether in person or online.

Janet Russell, Pomona’s deputy chief information officer for support and instructional services, makes a clear distinction between “remote teaching”— the goal during last spring’s hurried transition from classroom to cyberspace—and true “online teaching,” which is the much more ambitious goal this fall. “In the spring, courses had been designed to be face-to-face courses, and we had to pivot and quickly scramble to do remote teaching,” she explains. “The difference this fall is that faculty are planning their courses from the beginning to be robust learning experiences online, using a variety of online tools and techniques.”

Like their faculty colleagues, ITS staff members have had a busy summer, providing weeklong workshops on effective online teaching strategies, conducting technology sessions to bring faculty up to speed on a range of tech solutions, from Box to Zoom, and finally, working one-on-one with departments and professors in individualized consultations to help them redesign their courses to take advantage of the online setting rather than being handicapped by it.

The need to rethink and revamp, several faculty members pointed out, has resulted in a valuable learning opportunity. “Last semester was a whirlwind, trying to convert to remote teaching without having the proper preparation for it,” says Professor of Music Genevieve Lee. “I did feel that I had to become a much better teacher in the remote setting. I spent way more time in preparation for classes, and I was forced to think about how to deliver material in a more focused and efficient way.”

But Assistant Professor of Anthropology Joanne Nucho believes the work is paying off. In fact, she says, the experience she’s gained using digital tools like VidGrid and WeVideo will change the way she teaches from now on, whatever the setting. “I love the idea of using these tools in my speaking intensive classes this fall,” she explains. “What if student presentations that typically consisted of a live presentation and a PowerPoint could be made into collaborative video presentations rich with still images or digital footage edited into the final film? The digital tools do not necessitate being in the same space to record or edit these videos, or to watch them. That is pretty cool!”

Several faculty members noted that the weeklong workshops provided by ITS were valuable not only for the technical knowledge they conveyed but also for the opportunity to exchange ideas and strategies with other faculty members. “The insights I gained from colleagues in music and theatre were as valuable and thought-provoking for me as the ones coming from my divisional colleagues,” says Professor of Geology Eric Grosfils. “And holding those kinds of conversations over a prolonged window of time was a wonderful opportunity.”

One key change in how courses are being planned for the fall to take better advantage of the online medium involves a more intentional balance between synchronous teaching—class sessions with real-time presentations and discussions—and asynchronous teaching—videos and other resources that can be accessed by students at their own convenience. “Although my plans for my Greek courses are largely unchanged from spring 2020,” says Associate Professor of Classics Benjamin Keim, “with synchronous Zoom meetings featuring prominently, I’ve been talking with my colleague [Associate Professor of Classics] Chris Chinn about the possibility of following his lead and more definitively ‘flipping’ my Introductory classroom, requiring students to watch video presentations of the new grammatical and syntactical material asynchronously, so that our time together can be spent more collaboratively answering questions and working on translations.”

There will always be some classes that are more challenging for online instruction than others, but even faculty who teach in areas where hands-on collaboration is key, such as music lessons or science labs, are finding creative solutions. The Music Department, for example, has worked with ITS to equip students with external microphones and WiFi hubs in order to improve their audio experience on Zoom. And when Professor of Physics Janice Hudgings tried to imagine her Modern Physics lab without all the sophisticated equipment available on campus, she had an epiphany.

“Being forced to let go of that for this coming fall made me take a step back and remember that the scientific research process is much more than just working with equipment,” she says. “Instead, this fall we will read the scientific literature on simple statistical mechanics experiments together and try to put the pieces we learn together in new ways, with each student ultimately identifying a new question to ask or a new approach to an old question. Students will try out their ideas at home, building their experiments from basic, everyday objects and some super-fun mini-robots called Hexbugs.”

Beyond preparing for the fall, Grosfils has also spent a great deal of the summer working directly with students who will be completing their senior theses in geology next year, making sure they have access to and knowledge of the technologies they’ll need to conduct their research from home. That’s not unusual, he said, noting that Pomona faculty in all areas regularly go above and beyond in their effort to support their students—and never more so than now.

“This in many ways epitomizes to me the fierce dedication that is driving faculty to support their students’ academic experience in this time of collective need,” adds Grosfils. “We don’t know what we are facing this fall, but my colleagues are nonetheless selflessly devoting their summer time and tapping into their already-depleted energy reserves to help our students and make the coming educational environment as strong and effective for them as possible.”

If there’s a silver lining in all of this, Keim says, it’s the opportunity for faculty to add new skills and strategies to their teaching repertoires. “I have little doubt that the pedagogical reflection and technological training occasioned by our necessary pivot online will be beneficial for my teaching,” he notes, “and thus ultimately for my students, present and future, as I seek year in and year out to encourage their sustained—and sustaining—encounters with the ancient Mediterranean.”

That, Russell says, is the ultimate goal. “The long-term focus is to help faculty identify and become comfortable and confident in using technologies that will enhance their face-to-face teaching long after the pandemic is gone.”