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College discusses academic changes during Town Hall

July 14, 2020

In the midst of Bowdoin’s preparation for the fall 2020 semester, Jennifer Scanlon, dean for academic affairs, hosted a Zoom Town Hall for students and their families on Thursday. Michael Cato, chief information officer, along with the members of the Continuity in Teaching and Learning Group, joined Scanlon in answering student questions and discussing how Bowdoin will execute its first-ever entirely remote semester.

How Will the Fall Be Different Than the Spring?

Throughout the Town Hall, the group emphasized that students can expect a different academic experience during the fall 2020 semester than they had when the College first switched to remote instruction in the spring.

“The best way to describe what happened in the spring [2020 semester] is emergency, remote teaching,” said Rick Broene, professor of chemistry and chair of the CTL. “What we’re planning to do this fall is evidence-based, well-researched online learning. And that is a different beast.”

“In the aftermath of the spring, we were able to solicit significant feedback from students and faculty about their experiences,” added Elizabeth Pritchard, associate professor of religion and associate dean for academic affairs. “We’re able to draw on all of that feedback to help us plan for the fall.”

The Group explained that one of the most significant changes in Bowdoin’s academic plan is the remodeled “time block” schedule for classes. During the upcoming fall semester, each class will have three 80-minute time blocks throughout the week. The shorter meeting times are designed to allow more flexibility in students’ schedules and to better enable faculty to teach across time zones.

These three-time blocks will not only be used for synchronous class meetings—the Group envisions that faculty will have the freedom to allocate them to office hours, asynchronous instruction and collaborative work.

“Think about [time blocks] as kind of holes in your calendar, with the specifics to be determined by the students in the class and the faculty member,” Broene said.

To help students remain on track for completing their major, minor and graduation requirements, specific blocks have been reserved for particular types of courses. For example, one block is reserved for introductory languages and upper-level courses, and another is reserved for first-year writing seminars and non-first-year classes.

“This set of time blocks contains fewer conflicts among classes than our regular series of time blocks,” Scanlon said. “I know that departments were very careful in using all of the different time blocks so that students would have access to the courses that they need for their majors and their minors.”

Students can expect to see more asynchronous instruction in the upcoming semester than they saw in the spring. These modules are another way that the College intends to provide students with more flexibility and agency as they take classes from a variety of environments.

“I think you’ll find that there’s much more support of different types of learning styles [with asynchronous modules],” Broene said. “We can deliver our classes in a much more succinct fashion, and then allow you to have more time to actually think about what it is we’re asking you to learn.”

Besides these structural changes to the academic schedule, the Group also cited Bowdoin’s new partnership with Everspring Partners, a firm that helps administrators of higher education create and deliver online classes, as a major difference between the upcoming semester and the previous one.

“Two things we told [Everspring that] we needed is to add to our expertise, and then also to give us the ability to scale so that we could start to do this across the curriculum,” Cato said.

The Group promised to share more specific developments about Bowdoin’s work with Everspring in the coming weeks.

From Hands-On to Remote

As the College continues to develop these academic plans, the Group has also been considering how to create an immersive academic experience through remote instruction. They have devoted much of their work to transforming Bowdoin’s most hands-on experiences—such as arts and laboratory instruction—into virtual educational activities.

The Group explained that, while no laboratory class will follow the same structure, professors in the sciences have been working on ways for labs to remain as interactive as possible. Some professors plan to mail lab materials to students (as long as these materials are safe and suitable for individual use), while others will film themselves executing and explaining each step of an experiment. For full-year courses, such as organic chemistry, many professors plan to move some laboratory material into the spring 2020 semester and use the fall to focus on scientific analysis instead of hands-on exercises.

“The faculty have been thinking of every way possible we can get you to have a similar experience to what you had on campus and be able to get the experiences and the techniques and manipulation skills that you need to know,” Broene said.

Some courses will also provide opportunities for students to venture outside near their own homes on individual “field trips.” Broene said that this will give students an exciting and educational experience that they would not have had if they were all living in mid-coast Maine.

“It’s actually an opportunity, if you think about it, to have students observe things in many different environments and then bring those all back to the class,” Broene said.

Faculty in the visual and performing arts have also been brainstorming ways to translate in-person experiences to remote ones. While sound delays on apps such as Zoom might prevent groups from performing live together, Arielle Saiber, professor of Romance languages and literatures, explained some of the ways faculty intend to mitigate the technical issues that student artists might face in the fall.

“There’s a lot of thought going into what we can do to help with these kinds of issues, whether it be particular kinds of headsets, particular kinds of apps and programs and tools online,” Saber said.

“Our professional training is in innovating and creating with the resources and materials we have at hand,” Carrie Scanga, associate professor of art, added. “We’ll certainly have to change the way we’ve done things in the past, but we can still hit those learning goals.”

The Group also explained that all students—especially those in classes that are harder to replicate remotely—can expect to see an increase in guest speakers. The Group hopes that these speakers will help reinforce an environment of intellectual engagement.

“It’s going to be so much easier to bring in people from around the world for a 20-minute event in your class, or to have interactions with people from around the world, around the country,” Saber said.

On-Campus Life

In the fall, Bowdoin’s campus will not be completely empty—it will still be home to first-year and transfer students, as well as to residential life staff and students who have been approved to live on campus to work on an honors project or because of a home environment not conducive to remote learning. The Group discussed aspects of fall programming that will remain the same and aspects that will change to fit the circumstances.

The College intends for first-year programming to remain as similar to the typical Bowdoin experience as possible, complete with pre-major advising and in-person first-year seminars.

“We really wanted to have a really clear and robust shared experience of advising for first years,” said Scanlon.

In addition, students on campus in the fall can expect to utilize outdoor spaces, such as tents, for meetings with faculty or other students. The College also plans to have some conference rooms available for limited use by reservation.

“We’re committed to thinking hard about how to create a rich, intellectual environment outside of residence halls, “ Scanlon said.

Accessibility

The new time blocks are one way that the Group hopes to make courses accessible to students in a variety of time zones. When students complete course registration, each course’s instructor will reach out to their students and gauge when, in the allotted time blocks, works best for the course to meet synchronously. The Group hopes that this system will be especially beneficial to international students as they navigate more drastic time zone differences.

After expressing their desire to advocate for and aid international students in all ways possible, the Group emphasized that the Baldwin Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT) will be an important and helpful resource for international students in the fall. The Group also mentioned the Bowdoin Online Learning Team (BOLT), which, according to an email Scanlon sent to all students on July 7, will “examine and implement best practices in online teaching and learning so that Bowdoin faculty can provide our students with a true Bowdoin education in the fall.” During the town hall, the Group explained that BOLT would also be involved in assessing the needs of international students.

“With help from…BOLT, [we will] think about best practices and how we can best support our international students,” said Scanlon.

Lesley Levy, director of student accessibility, mentioned that many students might need to

request new accommodations for the fall semester, whether it be for a new disability or because of a new need for accommodations due to remote instruction.

“The accommodations process is a very individualized and interactive one,” said Levy. “Students should reach out directly to me if they have questions about that or if they’re ready to engage in that process.”

Levy also hopes that adding captions to asynchronous modules will make remote instruction more accessible.

“That’s not only an accommodation for students who may have hearing impairments or learning disabilities, but it’s a game-changer for students who are consuming course contents in a busy setting,” said Levy.

With COVID-19 far from over, the Group has also designed the academic program to accommodate those that become sick and need to take a substantial amount of time off to recover. They hope that asynchronous modules will make it easier for students to catch up with their course work when they can do so.

“One of the nice things about an online environment is that if somebody does get sick, all those asynchronous activities that the student could have been doing…are still available for them to do on their own once they get better,” said Broene.

The panelists emphasized that, despite the many obstacles that will continue to emerge in the coming months, they are working to create the most engaging and productive experience for all students.

“I hope that what you got a sense of here is that Bowdoin faculty are committed to teaching…because we are committed to learning,” Scanlon concluded. “We have a commitment to making this work in the fall and discovering things along the way.”

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