Shifting to Distanced Life at MSU Has Not Been Simple

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Saturday, March 21, 2020, 5:30 pm
Emily Joan Elliott

Above: East Lansing's Cassiopeia, now masked (statue by Nancy Leiserowitz, photo by Gary Caldwell)

MSU classes have been held online for a little over a week now, but for many in the Spartan community, it feels much longer.

The decision to suspend in-person meetings in favor of remote learning made lots of sense from a public health standpoint. MSU has 50,000 students – a mix of undergrads, graduate students, and professional students – and 25,000 faculty and staff. With these numbers, social distancing is impossible under normal operations.

But even though the decision made sense, many faculty, staff, and students had little-to-no warning before it came down. MSU President Sam Stanley made the announcement that in-person meetings would end at noon on Wednesday, March 11, to the MSU community less than two hours before the order went into effect.

Instructors had to scramble

For many faculty members at MSU, the first murmurs of a possible transition had emerged only a day or two before the new practices went into effect.

ELi was provided with an email that Rachel Croson, Dean of the College of Social Science, circulated to department chairs, just one day before the decision. She suggested that online teaching was being considered by the university administration and referred faculty to the webpage, which at the time had only basic information regarding online instruction.

While some faculty were notified of the possibility of online instruction, they were cautioned against using this method before receiving an official go-ahead. Faculty with underlying health conditions and concerns were told to reach out regarding accommodations. MSU staff were left with even less information. They were asked to check the webpage, which was not yet live.

Aron Sousa, Interim Dean of the College of Human Medicine, told ELi that he had be making plans for the possibility of online instruction for several weeks before the announcement. Sousa explained that while colleges needed to follow any university-wide directives like ending in-person meetings, planning for how to fulfill those directives was left up to the colleges. The university had previously created a Coronavirus Task Force, which largely addressed issues related to travel, not teaching.

The decentralized system left some faculty better-equipped to prepare for the transition than others.

Teaching methods can be hard to change on a dime

Faculty and graduate students were largely supportive of suspending in-person meetings. Michael Albani, a doctoral candidate in the History Department, endorsed the decision, stating, “Personally, I think it was wise for MSU to transition to online instruction. I'm one of four TAs in a class with approximately three hundred students. Requiring that many students to congregate in a lecture hall after Governor Whitmer declared a state of emergency would've, in my opinion, been irresponsible.”

While acknowledging importance of social distancing, Albani said he also believed that transition presented its problems. He wished that MSU had “refined their timetable for taking action to inform instructors more quickly. I received notice of in-person classes being suspended at the same time as my students.”

MSU's Spartan Stadium in a January photo by Raymond Holt

Albani emphasized that the transition could not happen overnight. Albani had to discuss how to process with the instructor of record and his three fellow teaching assistants.

Faculty and teaching assistants needed to decide multiple things quickly. Should teaching continue to be chiefly synchronous – with everyone attending at the same time via video-chat – permitting the feel of a classroom? Or was an asynchronous approach better for accommodating life at home for students and faculty, by allowing faculty to post lectures and assignments for students to complete on their own schedules?

Even once a teaching style is determined, what are the best technologies to use? MSU faculty are fortunate that MSU’s internet capabilities are strong, and MSU had promoted use of technologies, such as Zoom – a video chat service – prior to the pandemic. But will students have access to their books and the internet from their homes across the state, country, and world?

In the face of having to pivot fast, faculty crowdsourced information, sharing lists of the best technology and how to use it through shared Google docs. The College of Arts and Letters even held two crash courses on teaching technologies the Thursday and Friday following the decision. MSU Libraries and MSU Archives and Historical Collections offered to mail books and scan copies of documents to students relocating off campus.

Some activities don’t work virtually

At the time of the announcement, it was unclear how classes that needed to meet in person, such as science labs and theater classes, would do so. Those decisions came later.

On Monday of this week, Stephen Hsu, Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation, called for restrictions on the use of laboratories, asking for remote research and meetings whenever possible. Because many labs on campus run on federal funds, they need to follow federal guidelines that emerge and could be subject to closure on short notice.

On Tuesday, research using human subjects was also discontinued. Joseph R. Haywood, Assistant Vice President for Regulatory Affairs, stated, “For studies that have the potential for direct therapeutic benefit to participants, any in-person participant interactions must be minimized and alternatives for in-person data collection should be considered as feasible.”

Sousa told ELi early last week that clinical education in the College of Human Medicine was set to continue. He explained that medical students “were trained to work with diseases. Medical students will be on the front lines as residents in a few months.” While sick students were being told to stay home, medical students were seen as useful members of a care team.

But then the American Association of Medical Colleges, which oversees U.S. medical education, issued guidance “support[ing] our member medical schools in placing, at minimum, a two-week suspension on their medical students’ participation in any activities that involve patient contact.” That meant Sousa’s team had to pull students out of clinical work. He is hoping to get the healthy ones back in soon, as they are likely to be needed in clinics – and to obtain important clinical educational experiences – as the disease spreads.

Students face unique concerns about the quality of their educations as their learning modalities shift. As Albani reported, “An in-person experience is what my [undergraduate] students were expecting when they enrolled in my course. No matter how necessary it is, I fear that this sudden shift will be disappointing for some students and a genuine challenge for others.”

Some faculty and students are calling for the university to reopen the period for deciding to take classes on a pass/fail or credit/no-credit basis to mitigate these issues.

There are real concerns about overwork moving forward

One week in, things at MSU seem to be largely up and running after much legwork by faculty and teaching assistants. Albani said that the faculty member teaching his course encouraged teaching assistants to cancel Friday classes and to spend the weekend planning. Many did likewise, and that helped them get things on track.

Anecdotal reports suggest that students are tuning in and doing the required work. But many say everything feels as though it takes twice as long. Instructors have pointed to the difficulty of answering questions that students would have asked in class. Now, they battle overflowing inboxes from concerned and dedicated students. Answering questions via email is what must be done, but it is time consuming.

MSU's campus in a January 2020 photo by Raymond Holt

The transition to online teaching raised concerns about labor practices and policies. The Graduate Employees Union (GEU), which negotiates contracts with the university on behalf of teaching assistants, knew that online instruction was an increasing likelihood but received no advanced warning from the university.

GEU’s chief information officer Darren Incorvaia told ELi, “Our concern is that some TAs will be tasked with handling the transition to virtual learning, a responsibility that really should fall to the professor of the course, and that this increased burden could lead to overwork.”

By contract, TAs should only work 20 hours a week on average. That means some weeks TAs might work 22 hours and other weeks only 18. The union asked all TAs to log their hours to prevent overwork. Similarly, the Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty also asked its members to log their hours.

Some non-tenure track faculty are contracted to work just 10 hours a week, and UNTF was concerned that the transition would put these instructors over their contractual limits.

Incorvaia of the GEU also had concerns about health care for graduate students. By contract, TAs must go to Olin Health Center to get referrals to receive outside care. Should Olin become inundated, what were graduate students to do? The GEU is advocating for over-the-phone referrals and successfully negotiated with the university for TAs to have access to Teledoc services through which patients can speak to a doctor over the phone or through a video call.

The GEU has also successfully advocated for parking permit reimbursements and university reimbursements for non-refundable travel expenses for canceled research trips. In addition, the union has shared information on foodbank resources and provided financial support to vulnerable members through its solidarity grants.

Other concerns regarding tenure for faculty have also emerged. Some on MSU’s campus are calling for student evaluations received this semester to not count for or against granting tenure. Advocates of this position believe that students cannot adequately evaluate faculty members’ teaching strengths in these conditions.

Everybody is tired

This week, MSU President Sam Stanley called for staff to work remotely whenever possible, saying, “All employees should be communicating now with their supervisors about regular and possible alternative work scenarios.” He referred staff to yet another new website:

Some people might think working from home is easier. But one thing seems ubiquitous among everyone we talk with: fatigue.

Many students have had to pick up and move. The East Lansing and university communities have struggled with sudden population drops and daily-routine shifts. Faculty and students have had to rapidly adopt new methods of instruction and learning, all while worrying about the wellbeing of loved ones.

The one question that still lingers is: how much can life go on as normally scheduled in these extraordinary times?


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