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Rutgers deans comment on spring semester planning

While the University will operate mostly remote again for the Spring 2021 semester, deans from several academic schools at Rutgers said increasing in-person learning was necessary to allow students to fulfill degree requirements. – Photo by Pikist

With the semester coming to an end, individual schools within the University have finalized or are finalizing their plans for the Spring 2021 semester.

The Daily Targum previously reported Rutgers—New Brunswick Chancellor Christopher J. Molloy’s University-wide email on Oct. 8 announcing plans for more in-person classes during the spring semester.

The School of Environmental and Biological Sciences will have approximately double the number of in-person classes it had this semester, said Thomas Leustek, the school’s associate dean for Academic Administration and Assessment and professor in the Department of Plant Biology.

“The focus of many or most of the majors at (the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences) are science-based courses, and they require laboratories to really have the full experience in the course,” he said.

Leustek said having mostly remote instruction for the fall semester created a backlog of laboratory courses that needed to be taught in-person. A key part of the school’s core curriculum is experienced-based education and multiple laboratory courses are required to complete this learning goal, he said.

The Mason Gross School of the Arts also accounted for degree requirements that could not easily be satisfied via online courses, said Jason Geary, the school’s dean. The Targum previously reported that the school is planning to offer in-person courses that fulfill essential degree requirements for film, dance, theatre and music in the spring semester.

Since Mason Gross students need hands-on experience with particular equipment and spaces, the school thought it was important to increase the number of in-person courses and the access to facilities, including practice rooms and studios, Geary said. Mason Gross is holding approximately triple the number of in-person courses next semester than it did for this semester.

“My hope is that students will continue to feel that they are getting the preparation they need to be successful professionals in a highly competitive and unpredictable field, and my own belief is that the innovative approaches to learning, both in-person and virtually, that have been put in place for the spring term will accomplish that goal,” he said.

The School of Arts and Sciences has approved approximately 35 undergraduate courses and 26 graduate courses to meet in person for the spring semester, said Susan Lawrence, the school’s vice dean for Undergraduate Education and an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. Nearly all of the courses involve laboratory research, senior theses or fieldwork.

“The (School of Arts and Sciences) Office of Undergraduate Education and our Teaching and Learning team routinely share best practices with faculty through multiple channels and we follow up when we (hear) concerns from students,” she said. “We continue to provide one-on-one assistance, convene faculty learning communities and present workshops to support our faculty as they work to provide our students with a good experience during these unprecedented times”

Deans said their respective schools have specific teams or offices that communicate resources and best practices to faculty, as well as working with staff from Teaching and Learning with Technology and the Center for Teaching Advancement and Assessment Research to continue improving remote instruction into the spring semester.

Staff in the School of Engineering have discussed alternative options to high-stakes online exams, such as quizzes and team projects, said Henrik Pedersen, associate dean of Lifelong Learning and Professional Education and professor in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering.

“The use of (‘Pass/No Credit’ grading) is helpful in the immediate climate, but if we go into three semesters of that option, it may become problematic for students seeking to present a strong transcript for post-graduate employment and continuing education,” he said.

The School of Engineering will not have any regularly scheduled in-person courses for the spring semester, though it will offer opportunities for students to utilize engineering spaces for laboratory and design courses, Pedersen said. Graduate courses with research training may also be held on campus, he said.

Leustek said the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences aims to have more uniform coronavirus disease (COVID-19) protocols, such as weekly testing and social distancing for in-person classes, as well as better coordination between in-person and online classes for students.

“Let's say that a student has an (in-person) class,” he said. “And then immediately afterward, they're going to have to meet for a remote class, they won't have time to travel home after they leave their (in-person) class in order to attend their remote class. So where do the students go”?

To address this, the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences is setting up rooms in various buildings where students can sit for a remote class after attending an in-person class, Leustek said. The school did not have a large number of online courses before the pandemic.

“There’s a huge demand for online classes from our students, and sometimes even (in) a normal semester, students will prefer ... an online class,” Leustek said. “So I'm thinking maybe this is an opportunity to provide better service to students. Perhaps if we can establish true online courses for some of these remotely taught classes.”

Deans said their respective schools will offer both asynchronous and synchronous courses in the spring semester. Rutgers Business School, which will offer a limited number of in-person and hybrid courses, will have more synchronous courses than asynchronous courses, said Lei Lei, Rutgers Business School dean.

“While we leave it to the relevant faculty member and departments to determine the most effective format for teaching a given course, we tend to find that synchronous courses facilitate active engagement and interaction between students and faculty and provide valuable structure to a student’s learning,” she said.

The School of Communication and Information, which will continue to remain fully online, has encouraged asynchronous instruction to accommodate students with a poor WiFi connection or older technology, said Jonathan Potter, dean of the School of Communication and Information and distinguished professor in the Department of Communication.

“It is an adventure we are all on,” he said. “It is scary at times, frustrating and often confusing. But we are in it together and, hopefully, next year or the year after we look back and marvel at all we have been through.”


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