MTU Flex for Academics Update for Week of June 22

by Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

During the week of June 22, the MTU Flex for Academics Team spent a great deal of time discussing the process that the Registrar’s Office and academic units on campus are using to update the schedule of classes for fall semester. It is already clear that some large, lecture-format courses will be moved to fully remote instruction. At least one faculty member responsible for teaching a large lecture-format course noted that students were more engaged after the course went remote during spring semester. That same instructor indicated that, in a smaller discussion-based class, it seemed that some students who were unwilling or unable to participate in whole-class discussions when the course was face-to-face were much more eager to participate once the course pivoted to remote format. 

Throughout the week, other instructors were considering moving to entirely remote instruction in order to enhance student learning. However, it may be possible to have at least some large, whole-class, face-to-face learning opportunities, and discussions about using unconventional spaces are taking place.

As some courses move to a fully remote format, classroom space is being freed up for use by other courses. The Registrar’s Office has the goal of ensuring that Michigan Tech optimizes the use of classrooms and other instructional spaces so students have as much access to face-to-face instruction as possible. Revision of the fall schedule of classes is proving to be a highly iterative process, and the Flex for Academics group applauds the Registrar’s Office, academic department chairs and deans, and individual faculty for their efforts to create an effective fall semester despite the constraints imposed by COVID-19. 

Assuming that six-foot distancing will be maintained in instructional venues, the capacity of Michigan Tech’s largest classroom, Fisher 135, will be reduced from its current capacity of 476 to a COVID-19 capacity of 74. The Fisher 135 example highlights the challenges the Registrar’s Office staff and others are working to address as they collaboratively plan for fall. The limitations to classroom occupancies necessitate the setting aside of spaces on the main campus for students to use when attending a class “remotely” (meaning they won’t be physically present in the classroom despite being present on campus on a particular day). The MUB Ballrooms and part of the Keweenaw Commons are currently slated for use by remote attendees on an as-needed basis. 

The group discussed the possible need to lengthen the time between classes in order to allow for appropriate physical distancing and potentially increased travel times from one class to another. There is a need to reduce the likelihood that students will be entering and leaving classrooms with only one door at the same time. Having a greater amount of time between classes will allow for a greater gap between the time that some students exit and other students enter. More time between classes will also be useful to those who must travel up and down flights of stairs or use elevators as they move from one class to another. Finally, shortening the duration of classes, even slightly, will reduce the time that any group is clustered together in a confined space. 

The group indicated that any reduction in class time should be used by instructors for some other purpose during the semester, so students still have the same amount of time to engage with each course and its materials. Examples of possible uses of out-of-classroom time include quizzes or exams, facilitated discussions, problem-solving sessions, or flipped-classroom mini-lectures. The current thinking is that 50-minute classes may be shortened to 40 minutes. This means over the course of a semester, a lecture course that meets three times per week would have approximately 30 minutes per week or seven hours over the semester made available for out-of-classroom activities that engage students with the course’s content. 

The group also continued to review the results of recent research related to safety. Michigan Tech’s custom-designed instructional face shields will be provided to all MTU instructors for the fall. The group also learned the University has received a generous donation of face shields from Ford Motor Company and Houghton County Emergency Management, which will be used for other purposes on campus and will greatly augment the supply of those being produced on campus for instructional use. 

Discussions also included guidance from the Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) about potentially equipping smaller classrooms with CHATAttach—an audio conferencing system that enables even distribution of microphones and loudspeakers. If you are interested in testing a CHATAttach system, contact the CTL. The CTL will also assist with the proctoring of exams for those who need special accommodation, but notes that the capacity of the University’s testing center is diminished due to physical distancing requirements. The use of remote exams is encouraged, and the CTL and IDEA Hub will be working with faculty who have had success giving remote exams to provide some models for others. There will also be an upcoming Teaching Q&A on best practices for conducting remote exams to ensure fairness and security.

There have been some questions regarding the current status of the fall semester calendar and whether it can be modified if conditions warrant. At this time, there are many unknowns about what fall will bring. Although many people thought COVID-19 cases would decline over the summer months, this does not appear to be happening. In fact, the number of cases appears to be rising in some of the warmest parts of the U.S. We collectively know little about what will happen in the next few weeks, let alone what things will be like during the latter part of fall semester in November. For that reason, the provost has recommended we keep our options as open as possible for now, continue to monitor conditions, and develop a schedule for making calendar-related decisions that will allow us to use up-to-date information, while also giving everyone the time they need to plan and implement changes. By retaining flexibility in the fall schedule for as long as possible, we will have the best potential to respond proactively to unexpected events.