Professors discuss hesitations about teaching in person

Personal situations, effectiveness of social distancing measures are two common concerns mentioned

Anjali Venna
News Editor

In the fall, professors will have the option to choose whether they teach face-to-face or online.

The Faculty Retention and Morale Subgroup recommended that UTD “allow instructors to have the option to teach in a fully online/remote fashion without UTD administration requiring that the instructor disclose personal details that might include health, caregiving responsibilities or childcare needs.” This subgroup is part of the larger Academic Continuity Working Group, which is one of many task forces helping to guide the university through this global health crisis.

Ravi Prakash, the speaker of the faculty in UTD’s Academic Senate, said approximately 52% to 53% of the faculty wanted to teach online, out of the 600-700 faculty who completed a survey conducted by the Office of the Provost. Serenity King, associate provost for policy and program coordination, declined to give results of the survey. Prakash, who is a professor of computer science, said he understood his colleagues’ concerns about in-person teaching.

“I am not in the age group that is very vulnerable, so I could possibly afford to take that chance. But then I have so many colleagues who are in their 60s and 70s or who have underlying health conditions that compromise their immune system or who have family members living with them, a spouse or a child or a parent, in some cases, who is very old or is severely immunocompromised,” Prakash said. “And for obvious reasons they don’t want to jeopardize the health of their family members. So, every faculty member in some way or form is heavily conflicted.”

Jason Smith, associate professor of computer science, said he would be teaching fully online classes this fall with a synchronous model for students that can attend online virtual classes, and for those who can’t attend he will provide recordings of lectures. His reasons for teaching online include living with a household member with high risk and an uncertainty in the safety of returning to campus.

“Based on all the models that have been run, it seems like in-person classes are probably not the best idea. I understand the importance of in-person education, but at the same time I feel like there’s a lot of risk involved not only with the faculty but also the students themselves,” Smith said. “I know that, from the Faculty Senate, they are working very diligently to make it as safe as possible, but there seems to be a lot of things that either can’t be controlled or are very difficult to control. I’m glad that they’ve given an option to faculty and students on how they want to proceed.”

The models Smith cites are working studies conducted by professors at Swarthmore University and the University of Pennsylvania, which are discussed in an Inside Higher Ed article.

“A standard intervention, consisting of quarantine, contact tracing, universal mask wearing, daily testing of three percent of the university population and large classes (30 or more students) moved online, suggests a slightly rosier picture, with infections kept below 66 people in 95 percent of simulations,” the article states.

Joseph Izen, professor of physics, cites being in a high-risk group and taking care of his parents, who are high risk as well.

“Ordinarily, I’m responsible for my students: the responsibility is to make sure my students have had a good experience to teach them well. In this crisis, it’s more young people who are taking care of their elders,” Izen said. “Young people are not at no-risk but are at less risk than older people and so it’s interesting to see the shoe on the other foot and see how many young people have taken responsibility. In a sense my students need to understand, and I think they do, that I need to take care of myself.”

Izen has been recording his in-person classes for over a decade and he uses those videos for flipped classrooms, in which students watch the videos on their own, and then use class time for other activities. He said this past semester, this system — which he compares to PLTL sessions — worked well. However, this fall he will be teaching a graduate class which he said requires a different method.

Richard Scotch — professor of sociology, public policy and political economy, and a senate leader on the Academic Continuity Working group — said transferring a graduate class online this past spring was relatively easy because the class was discussion-based. In fall, these types of classes could record discussions and include a discussion board or chat feature for students using the asynchronous model of learning, he said. To prepare for online classes in the fall, the Center for Teaching and Learning are conducting training workshops.

“The technology is shifting a little. In the spring faculty were left to their own choice on what platform to use: some people used WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Teams,” Scotch said. “But, for fall, the university has put a lot of its resources into a smaller number of platforms that have more features that make them stronger.”

Scotch said the administration has been very responsive to the concerns of faculty, and that most faculty have been flexible and appreciative that administration is trying to accommodate their desires the best it can.

“There’s been some frustration about the length of time it takes to make some of these decisions, but that’s not always something the administration has complete freedom over,” he said. “I know within most of the schools — not with the top administration, but the deans — have been having town halls. They’ve included teaching assistants and graduate students. It’s easy to forget just how large and complicated our instructional workforce is.”

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