Virtually Engaged

  • Feature Story

Virtually Engaged

by 

Tristan Davies

Call it terra semi-cognita: Students and faculty returned this fall to a world of online classes, a continuation of the remote learning that began unexpectedly in March when the pandemic arrived and students were sent home. The difference this time is that there was a summer to work on adjusting courses to suit the online platform.

While most faculty didn’t have to drastically change course material, Academic Administrator Sierra Vallin notes, “They have altered the delivery to keep students engaged, pausing to ask for questions frequently.”

Another change was rethinking how to assess progress. “We completely threw out exams in 9.01 [Introduction to Neuroscience,] and replaced them with frequent, low-stakes quizzes—almost weekly,” adds Laura Frawley, PhD, course coordinator and teaching lab supervisor. “We believe this has encouraged students to stay on top of the material more than they would have if we had fewer, higher- stakes, exams.”

Jade Daher, a fourth-year Course 9 student, noticed the effort. “I’ve really appreciated how much care the faculty have put into making sure that lectures and labs continue to be as engaging and informative for us as they would be in person, and that they are encouraging us to participate and stay connected with our peers while still being accommodating of everyone’s situations.”

Other improvements from the spring include:

  • A new learning platform, Canvas, which replaced the homegrown Stellar system in June and has “gotten great reviews thus far,” says Vallin.
  • Technologies such as Panopto and sli.do which extend the capability of Canvas and Zoom and make teaching more interactive.
  • Better awareness of each student’s situation—for example, scheduling recitations so that students can attend even if they’re in time zones on the other side of the world.

Vallin and Frawley agree the greatest challenge was 9.17, Systems Neuroscience Laboratory. When taught in person, the class is one of students’ first opportunities for hands-on design, research, and analysis. How to translate this to remote learning? “We are doing this by incorporating avatar-style labs in which an experimenter performs an experiment at MIT live while responding to our students’ input. This method also enables students to be involved in complicated and advanced experiments they otherwise would not have access to,” says Frawley. “Students in 9.17 seem to really enjoy the course and are very engaged.”

While faculty and instructors deeply miss seeing their students in person, the shift online has not been as much of a setback as was feared. “Although I absolutely miss attending lectures in person, I actually like that so many classes are recording synchronous lectures to be available to students again for later use,” says Daher.

“I am pleasantly surprised by how well both 9.01 and 9.17 are going,” says Frawley, “far better than I anticipated.”

Says Vallin, “It seems as though learning virtually has in some way lowered the barrier between students and instructors. I think the instructors have done a great job of minimizing student stress which in turn humanized them. That is a great thing."