Some courses continue virtual class format for fall, majority include in-person component

Sophie Dolan / The Tufts Daily
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Despite most classes returning to an in-person modality this semester, some courses have opted to remain fully remote this fall. Other faculty have adopted a hybrid format, with some class components being held in person while other parts remain online.

According to Samuel Thomas, professor of chemistry and dean of academic affairs for the School of Arts and Sciences, 86% of classes in the School of Arts and Sciences include some in-person component. Faculty have been extended the flexibility in determining their own course modalities.

Thomas said that the threat of COVID-19 transmission within the classroom — particularly the highly contagious delta variant — could influence faculty members to adopt online formats.

“There are numerous factors that could influence how a faculty member teaches,” Thomas wrote in an email to the Daily. “One could be their personal health or family circumstances … Another is that from the perspective of their pedagogical approach and the nature of the course, virtual teaching can be an advantageous way of engaging with students.”

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This concern is especially prevalent for faculty members at higher risk of developing serious complications if they do catch COVID-19. Sibyl Johnston, part-time lecturer in the English department, told the Daily in an email that her vulnerability to COVID-19 was just one consideration in deciding to offer her course virtually. 

“I have a hearing impairment that would make teaching in a masked and distanced classroom very difficult,” Johnston said. “While I have difficulty hearing my students in the classroom because of distance, soft voices, ambient noise, and the limitations of hearing aids in group settings, none of this is a problem on Zoom. It’s amazing to be able to hear my students with no difficulty.”

Thomas added that online classes make unique collaborative opportunities possible and have been beneficial for students who are unable to come back to campus this fall.

“Virtual classes can also offer very flexible opportunities for group work and collaboration through the use [of] features such as Zoom breakout rooms,” he said.

Junior Grace Laber, who is currently enrolled in a virtual organic chemistry class, said she benefits from the course’s online modality, as recorded lectures help her better absorb class material. 

“I think the ability to record lectures is a pro,” Laber said. “I really appreciated that over the last year: being able to go back and re-watch parts I may not have understood or reference parts in the lectures in my notes to then go back and take better notes on.”

However, online modalities also come with drawbacks for both professors and students, Thomas said. Teaching remotely often requires teachers to restructure their course plans, which is time consuming and especially difficult for experiential courses, such as labs, that require a hands-on approach to learning.

Students, like first-year Nico Halio, can feel less engaged with class material in a virtual format. Halio, who is thinking of studying biomedical engineering, said that his Expository Writing class quickly became his favorite this semester simply because the in-person format has been more engaging than his other online or hybrid classes.

“As an engineer — I think this is pretty common — … I’ve never enjoyed English classes, but this year it’s my favorite just because it’s the most engaging,” Halio said. “Online classes are so easy to zone out [during]; you don’t interact with anybody. You just sit in your dorm and tune in when you feel like you should.”

Remote classes can make students and professors feel more distant from one other and limit interactions between students and faculty members.

Laber said this lack of connection increases concerns about academic integrity. 

“I think there is just less accountability all around,” Laber said. “There is less academic honesty across the board because of the online testing format. And I also think that the teacher is just a lot more out of touch with what students are having trouble with and what students are thinking.”

When asked about the future role of remote classes, Thomas said that remote academics offer an advantage to students and faculty, while reiterating that Tufts is primarily an in-person university.

“Tufts is a residential, in-person university for our undergraduate students and the vast majority of our graduate students in Arts and Sciences,” Thomas said. “Therefore, the vast majority of our academics will be in person. Nevertheless, we do have opportunities to harness what we learned regarding best practices in online classes, and adopt them in a way that best enhances the teaching and learning experiences for our entire community.”

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