Professors weigh in on the uncertainty of the fall semester

Illustration by Monte | The Signal

This upcoming fall semester will be one that students and faculty at Georgia State have prepared for but nonetheless are expecting the unexpected. Every university has a different plan for operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have seen success with low infection rates, while others were met with campus closure a week into the new semester.

Most decisions about campus reopenings center around the student body, but professors also have concerns about the execution of COVID-19 safety precautions. 

When Georgia State closed in March, faculty had two weeks to figure out how to transition from in-person classes into an online learning environment. 

During the summer months, the university used this time to provide instructors with tailored training in online and blended learning models. Georgia State also arranged testing apparatuses around campus and created new learning models to replace exclusively in-person classes.

Georgia State is implementing three classroom models for the 2020-21 school year to accommodate rising COVID-19 infection rates in Georgia.

These models include an online-only teaching strategy, a blended learning model where in-person instruction has a 25% classroom capacity and a face-to-face learning model only for classes that cannot be taught online. Freshman Learning Communities, graduate students and hands-on learning, such as labs, are the first priorities for the face-to-face learning model. 

Department chairs were able to recommend which classes should use a specific learning model. Instructors required permission from their respective department chair, dean and provost to teach a course entirely face-to-face at a higher capacity than 25% if they deemed it more fit. 

Georgia State has given instructors a sense of independence in conducting their courses for the semester. Still, just like students, instructor opinions about campus reopening and teaching strategies vary across departments.

Dr. Jill Littrell is an instructor at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. Her first time teaching online was last semester when Georgia State shut down in the early days of the pandemic. Her instruction model will be entirely online, and she briefly explained her plan to connect with her students and provide online assignments to them.

“It will not be difficult to teach online,” she said. “I have made recordings of all my PowerPoints and mounted them on iCollege, [and] I will have platform meetings with subgroups of students during class time each week.”

Despite campus offices, facilities and classrooms opening with substantial regard to the pandemic, Littrell thinks returning to campus is “a terrible idea for everyone.” 

Dr. James Marton is also an instructor at the School of Policy Studies, teaching a fully online doctorate-level course in health economics. Due to the coursework being mostly independent learning, Marton believes this course will “go smoothly” in an online classroom setting because it will not be his first time teaching online. Marton taught an online master’s-level course on the same topic over the summer. 

Marton praised the instruction he received this summer from the Georgia State Center of Excellence in Teaching and Learning and feels confident in his ability to instruct this course. He attributes some of his confidence in teaching online to his class size, as it is only nine students.

“I think it would be more challenging for me personally to teach a larger undergraduate course online,” he said. “I would definitely have to lean more on the great training I received to do that.”

Marton explained that his main concern about campus reopening is him possibly contracting the virus and passing it to his wife. 

“I am in my 40s and in good health, so I am not in a high-risk group,” he said. “However, my wife has an auto-immune disease [and] health consequences for her would be much more serious than for me. Asymptomatic spread among healthy people is a particular concern for me.”

Dr. Erica Akhter is an instructor at the College of Arts and Sciences, leading a neuroscience-focused professional development course in tandem with teaching neuroscience courses. 

Akhter has identified the obstacles she may face during her first time teaching a STEM course entirely online and revealed her plans to overcome them. The challenges she discussed included maintaining a “community feel” while conducting a course asynchronously and how to mimic in-person discussions in an online classroom.

“In lieu of live discussions, I’ll be pivoting more to introspective activities and discussion posts that require critical thinking,” she said. “Both of these strategies will need buy-in from the students for them to be the most useful. Even more than when we were on campus, students will get out of [the] class what they put into it.”

Her plan to solve these issues that could present themselves in her classroom is simple: be as available to students as possible.

“My goal is to be as responsive while off campus as I was while on campus — maybe even more so,” she said. “Because many of the ideas in STEM are complicated and layered on top of one another, I want people in my class to feel like they can always reach out to me, and I’ll get back to them in a reasonable time.” 

Akhter does not plan on being on campus frequently throughout the semester but has some faith in the integrity of COVID-19 precautions being implemented around campus. She is confident in low virus transmission on campus only if safety guidelines are adhered to and the community as a whole takes responsibility. 

“Within my office building, I’m sure that the safety strategy has been well thought through,” Akhter said. “My only concern is that people may not follow the plan as closely as they get more comfortable being on campus.”

Her philosophy for a successful school year applies to both community virus spread and how faculty and students conduct themselves in their classes.

“Everyone’s time management skills and flexibility will be tested this semester, students and faculty alike, so taking personal responsibility and advocating for what you need is going to be essential all around,” Akhter said.