“It was really heartwarming to receive the chocolate macaroons and Ramadan bread. Being a person who often has to switch and transition to a different environment to take a break and start a new task, working from home has truly been a challenge in the beginning. Any social interactions that we often take for granted such as a smile from a stranger on the street or water cooler conversations suddenly become something that is so out of reach. The Zoom meetings with the class and our research group become the new grounding rocks in my life and routine staples.” — Debbie Yu, EECS, Class of 2021
The phrase “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst” truly summarized my mindset going into the summer. As time passed and the weather got warmer, it became apparent that I would need to strike a balance between being hopeful for a scientific breakthrough and being realistic about planning for a fully remote foreseeable future — including as a professor for my fall course. I was faced with a daunting question: How do I transition a course that is traditionally highly collaborative and hands-on, to being fully remote? Under normal circumstances, my Decoders series requires 30% of the time in the classroom, and 70% in a 12 x 36-foot cleanroom space performing hands-on experiments. Given the situation this fall, I had to transition all of the classroom teaching time over to Zoom, and figure out a way to give my students the hands-on experience they would usually get in the cleanroom.
This transition was where I discovered my own learning curve as a faculty member. Prior to the pandemic, I was not very familiar with “remote activities,” as I prefer (like many of my colleagues) to always work collaboratively and face-to-face when possible. However, with the help of my students, my staff, and the support of MIT, I was able to get the hang of Zoom pretty quickly. But I wanted to make sure that my students were still getting the most out of the course, and constantly sought and received feedback from them on what I could do differently to enhance the remote learning experience.
In order to avoid monotony, I scheduled weekly guest lecturers with a diversity of expertise from a number of different institutions: MIT’s EHS Department, the University at Buffalo’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Boston University’s Center for Memory & Brain. Each week, students were assigned the guest lecturer’s relevant publications and papers to review as homework, and were tasked with coming to the lecture prepared with questions.
“Being able to teach and interact with Canan’s class was truly a pleasure. The entire virtual setting still managed to achieve an ‘in-the-classroom’ experience by encouraging an active dialogue with the students, Canan, and myself as well. Having read a few papers beforehand too on the topic of the week primed the classroom to be full of big-picture conceptual questions as well as more technical and practical questions, which to me was truly a sign of a successfully designed course as a whole by being both thought-provoking and vibrant.” — Dr. Steve Ramirez, Boston University
Aware of my own feelings of isolation, I tried to help combat this feeling in my students by beginning each class with a relaxing piece of music. I also recognized that this would have to be a semester of flexibility; I changed the original scheduled class time to one that was more convenient for everyone, and also recorded each lecture for anyone who was unable to attend the live session. These strategies helped my students remain engaged, curious, and thoughtful throughout the entire semester, and I believe it staved off the dreaded “Zoom fatigue” that many students experience.
“When I first learned that all of my courses for the fall semester would be virtual, I was disappointed and concerned about the quality of my classes. I feel that this course truly adapted to the virtual semester by recognizing and accepting the limitations of a fully remote course while still thinking outside the box to facilitate learning. By utilizing guest lecturers and class discussion, I was able to stay engaged while learning about a variety of interesting topics from leaders in the field.” — Rachel McIntosh, EECS, Class of 2021
A particularly memorable class for me happened in mid-October, when I invited a group of students from Kadir Has University (KHU) in Istanbul to join one of our classes via Zoom. This class was very dear to me, as it allowed me to feel connected to my home country of Turkey and Turkish students from afar. I wanted to bring students from KHU together with my MIT students to help emphasize that even when times are difficult, it’s important to realize that we are not alone. We must lean on each other, reach out, check in, and continue making connections even in the midst of a pandemic.