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Fall planning (#1088)

Topics/tags: Grinnell

Grinnell College has now released a reasonably large amount of information about our plans for the coming year to the outside world. These plans include 7.5-week terms to replace our 15-week semesters; a mix of in-person, online, and hybrid classes; regular testing of students (and, I assume, faculty and staff); small communities calledscurries" [1]; and much more.

Within the next short period of time [3], departments and individual faculty will need to make a lot of decisions about our courses. We’ll need to determine which of our fall courses, originally scheduled in semesters, go in each term. We’ll need to figure out what to do when a faculty member was scheduled for three courses in the fall since we should only be teaching one course—or maybe one-and-a-half courses—per term [4]. Almost inevitably, that will mean canceling a course. We’ll need to figure out how each course fits in the timetable: Is it three days a week, four days a week, five days a week? What time of day do we offer it? Does it have an accompanying lab? Does the lab meet one day per week or two days per week? And we’ll have to figure out how the primary course model.

As far as I can tell, there are about six course models. Because we are requiring social distancing outside of scurries, classrooms will hold significantly fewer students. Our CS labs, which normally hold up to thirty-two students and are usually scheduled with twenty-four, will hold about six students. So, for in-person classes, we can either have a traditional format (small class or scurry) or we can rotate students through the classroom, with a fraction of the class doing each class in person and a fraction doing it online. Online classes provide a different kind of choice. We can offer online classes either synchronously or asynchronously. I’ve heard that evidence from the spring suggests that students learn better and prefer synchronous online classes. However, synchronous online classes can present difficulties for students abroad and may exacerbate equity issues [5]. We can also offer hybrid courses that have some in-person students and some remote students. And we could go to the extreme, and offer the so-called HyFlex courses, that support synchronous in-person students, synchronous online students, and asynchronous online students, all at the same time.

I’ve heard that most students would prefer traditional in-person courses. And Grinnell will certainly offer some of those. It will be easiest with scurries. But once you impose social distancing, things get complicated. Even if you have a small class (so no rotation of who gets to attend), social distancing makes collaborative work difficult. Active learning doesn’t really work in a socially distanced classroom, and active learning is an essential pedagogy. Scurries also aren’t perfect. Since the faculty member won’t be in the scurry, masks will still be necessary. That means, for example, that classes will be more difficult for those who rely on seeing other people’s mouths move: those with partial deafness, some ESL students, and, oh, those teaching another language. That’s right; part of foreign language pedagogy is looking at how people make sounds. That’s hard to do en mask, as it were. Many theatre and dance classes require enough physical exertion that masks might present a health challenge [6]. And exertion creates droplets of all sorts. So, in many cases, online is better than socially distanced in person.

In any case, I’ll need to make my decisions soon. I fall into a moderately high-risk group; I’m male, obese, and getting close to sixty. I’m not over sixty, so that reduces my risk. I’m O+, not A. But there’s a risk.

Like my students, I want a return to normalcy, a new form of normalcy that resembles the old normalcy, at least in how classes operate [7]. I took a job at a place like Grinnell because I like working face-to-face with small groups of students. Evidence suggests I do it relatively well.

And our testing regime seems strong. We will isolate and test students when they arrive in town, even before they get to campus. We will test them regularly. In theory, my chance of encountering a Grinnell student with the novel coronavirus should be less than encountering someone in town with the novel coronavirus. But it’s a crafty virus. If it gets into campus, it will spread rapidly. I’m also likely to spend more time with my students than I would with almost anyone in town. An hour, each day, in the same classroom, seems riskier than passing for a few minutes in a store or on the street.

So the risk is hard to assess. My initial assessment matched the theory; good precautions and regular testing make it unlikely that students will have the virus. And so I was thinking of teaching at least one class (my Tutorial) in person.

Then I saw an article about Fort Benning. Here are a few relevant paragraphs.

According to a release from U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 640 new recruits arrived at Fort Benning and were medically screened and tested by medical professionals. At the time, four tested positive. All 640 recruits entered a 14-day monitoring period, with the four COVID-positive recruits isolated and properly treated.

After the 14-day monitoring period, training operations began with COVID-19 prevention measures in place including masks and social distancing. Despite these efforts, however, eight days after the end of the 14-day monitoring period, one recruit reported to the chain of command with COVID-19 symptoms.

All 640 recruits – which form 30th AG Battalion and 2nd Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment – were retested for COVID-19. After all 640 tests were returned over a two-day period, that same cohort of recruits had a 22 percent COVID-positive rate with 142 positive tests.

Would the same thing be likely to happen at Grinnell? There aren’t enough details, but it certainly seems that way. Perhaps even more likely. After all, the test traditionally has a comparatively high false-negative rate and Grinnell’s scurries seem to have fewer prevention measures than the recruits have. But maybe there’s more to the Fort Benning story. Who knows what else was going on there? [8]

Let’s see. I’d like to teach Tutorial in person, even though I think one could teach a good Tutorial online, but there are risks involved in teaching in person. When I started writing this musing, I was pretty sure that I’d volunteer to teach it in person. Now that I reflect more carefully on the risks, I’m less certain. I’ll need to discuss that one with my family a bit more.

What about CSC 151, which I’m also scheduled to teach this fall? The course has some returning students in it, students who will likely be online. I’ll be teaching it in the second fall term, which means that it will be unlikely that I’ll be able to have a scurry. It always fills, at least in recent years. I hate mixed in-person and online classes. I rely on pair programming and other active-learning strategies. As far as I can tell, my only real option is to go online. I’d prefer synchronous, but that’s something to discuss with my department.

Oh, yeah. There’s also the one-credit CSC-281, Learning from CS Alumni. I’m not sure whether that will go in F1 or F2; probably F1. But it will definitely be online. The alumni guests won’t be physically present, so there’s no reason for the students to be physically present, either. Plus, it’s primarily intended for 3rd-years and seniors, students who are less likely to be on campus in F1.

I’ve almost figured out which term each course will be offered and what form it will take. It’s probably time to take a step back and look at my department.

The first broad task is to figure out which courses go in F1, which courses go in F2, and which courses go away. I’m told that someone is doing a large optimization problem to do a preliminary assignment that limits the number of term conflicts, assuming that students maintain their current schedules. I wonder what other requirements they put on the model. Will it matter what we get? I’m not sure. I’ve set up a draft for the department and we’ll discuss it on Monday.

Stay tuned.

[1] In honor of Grinnell’s squirrels [2].

[2] Scarlet the Squirrel is not our mascot. Our teams are currently the Pioneers.

[3] We haven’t been told what that is.

[4] I believe that the rationale for the limit is that it contributes to faculty wellness. I expect that teaching two courses in a term would be overwhelming, particularly given the rate of grading. Students have also been told that the one-course-per-term model helps ensure that faculty are available for them.

[5] A student in a household with a good ISP, no responsibilities, and no siblings and family members competing for computer resources will be much more able to access synchronous course materials. A student with less good ISP; siblings they must watch, help, or share computing resources with; a job; a troublesome home situation; or any of the thousands of other challenges that currently present themselves, will find synchronous courses more difficult.

[6] Limited oxygen intake.

[7] I’d give that up for a new normal that changes how class operates and, more importantly, how race operates.

[8] I’ve heard that the Shadow knows [9].

[9] Or does the Shadow only know what evil lurks in the hearts of men? [10]

[10] Does that make the Shadow ineffective against female criminals?

Version 1.0 of 2020-06-18.