Distanced But Not Disconnected

By Robin Roger, September 8, 2020
Innovative teaching and learning marks first day of classes for fall 2020 semester.

The campus may look different on the first day of classes this year, but students, faculty and staff across the college are gearing up for a vibrant and engaging fall semester.

In a video message, President Shirley M. Collado wished students well on their first day of classes, and urged them to make the most of their experience.

“Your faculty and staff have been preparing an amazing semester,” she said. “Please, as you get into your coursework, get to know folks, say things and do things that perhaps would be a little different than you normally would, and get to know your peers. This is not going to be forever. This is just what we have to do now to get beyond this, and we will.”

New Students Hit the Ground Running

In preparation for the fall semester, incoming first-year and transfer students participated in a first-of-its-kind virtual orientation, which included scavenger hunts, a group fitness mashup and a singalong. And more than 600 first-year students got a head start on their classes through the Ithaca Summer Seminars.

“I was eager to get started at Ithaca, and I had been looking forward to interacting with students and faculty for months,” said Xan Hopkins ’24, who took three courses over the summer at a discounted rate. “Not only did I get to meet and form connections with faculty members and classmates, I was also able to familiarize myself with Sakai and other online resources that I’ll need for the coming remote semester.”

More Than Zoom U

While many classes will meet via Zoom this fall, faculty are moving beyond the basic online meeting tool to come up with engaging ways for students to interact with the material and their peers. The faculty are using a variety of cutting-edge technology and tools to maximize the possibilities of learning in a virtual environment, even creating opportunities that might not have been available in a traditional classroom setting. 

In addition to using Zoom breakout rooms, faculty will be using collaborative tools like Jamboard (a digital whiteboard where students can post notes and images) and Fishbowl (a group discussion tool where some participate and others observe) to help students collaborate and build off each other’s ideas. Other tools include VoiceThread, Mentimeter and Flipgrid, as well as the college's online learning management system, Sakai.

An education professor even created a simulation of Ithaca College in virtual reality to  make the class feel more like a community. She collaborated with staff and students in IC Immersive, an initiative of the Teaching and Learning with Technology team within the Office of Information Technology. 

“VR labs can differentiate instruction for a variety of learners,” says Christine Havens-Hafer, assistant professor of education. “Learning how to incorporate VR into their future classrooms is valuable training for my students in an area that will continue to grow — and it will make them more marketable in the education field.”

Faculty Go the Extra Mile

Faculty members have made multiple changes to their syllabi and teaching techniques to ensure that their courses are student-centered and collaborative. And what’s more than that, they have made great efforts to ensure their students feel like they are part of a community.

“I think it’s essential to give the students the sense that they belong to the class, that they can engage with each other as valued members of a community of learners and thinkers, as well as writers and artists, in my case,” says Saviana Stanescu Condeescu, an associate professor of theatre arts.

More than 260 faculty members participated in a Summer Institute: Flexible by Design to learn how to use technological tools to create engaging synchronous class sessions, communicate more clearly and frequently with students, set up more effective online learning environments, create community in remote classes, and adjust the workload for remote learning. Faculty members are also reaching out to their students to see what their needs might be, and coming up with accommodations.

"While I will miss our usual classroom experience and can't wait for things to get back to normal, I am really excited about the new ideas and improvements in my teaching that will make my classes better, not only for this fall, but also for the future.” 

Lisa Farman, assistant professor in the Department of Strategic Communication

“I have worked all summer to make my courses more flexible and inclusive for all students,” said Lisa Farman, assistant professor in the Department of Strategic Communication. “I know students will be dealing with a lot this fall, so I have changed all of my course policies to accommodate that and really create the best experience possible, based on the latest research in teaching, learning and inclusive design. While I will miss our usual classroom experience and can't wait for things to get back to normal, I am really excited about the new ideas and improvements in my teaching that will make my classes better, not only for this fall, but also for the future.” 

One math professor said he won’t be giving tests this semester, since he is more interested in making sure his students grow in his classes. An accounting professor has incorporated role-play to make her classes more interactive, and a faculty member from the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity  has built a supportive, safe community for students interacting with her and each other remotely.

Faculty members have even come up with creative ways to continue the work of their student research teams and have made new assignments that leverage their students’ unique environments.

Faculty members are also preparing students to adapt to the new remote working environments they may find themselves in beyond graduation. For instance, acting professor Cynthia Henderson performed in the Hangar Theatre's first virtual season this summer. This fall, she will be adapting the play “She Kills Monsters” for Zoom.

She has been working with colleagues at the college and members of the National Alliance of Acting Teachers to assess best practices for teaching acting via Zoom. Being creative with that technology’s capabilities — playing with depth perception, shifting the location and angle of the camera, and incorporating entrances and exits — can add layers that help the actors engage with each other and their spaces.

How to Stay Focused

In advance of this first day of classes, alumni, juniors and seniors gave current students suggestions on how to stay focused while learning from home. Jarrod Walczer ’13 recommended a sit/stand desk set-up, blue light glasses, noise cancelling headphones for deep work, thermally insulated coffee mug and water bottle, two monitor set-up (if you can find the space), and a fidget cube. 

“And while you're at it, order some Gimme! coffee and have it shipped to your home to get a taste of Ithaca,” he said.

“Setting up a comfortable space dedicated to studying is key! I refuse to do my work or classes on the couch or in my bed, and instead have set up a cozy corner of my room with everything I need to be successful during my classes!”

Mikayla Purcell-Bolha '21, music education major

Many recommended creating a consistent schedule. 

"Create a schedule. Follow it every day," said Jack Gallagher ’69. "It’s a job. Treat it as such. Be safe!"

Bold scholar and sociology major Jacqueline Laferriere ’22 suggested, "(1) Making a schedule that includes carved out time for things that aren’t work and are self-care! 2) Having a work area filled with things that make you smile! 3)Having a comfortable chair and switching up where you do work sometimes!"

- Additional reporting by  Danica Fisher '05, Kelli An '04 and Elizabeth Gangemi

Read more about Innovative Learning at IC

Learn more about the innovative approaches faculty are taking to ensure student success and sustain the IC experience in a virtual environment. This series of stories on innovative learning includes examples from across the college.