The sudden closure of campus and the switch from physical to virtual classes in light of the pandemic was a challenging transition for many in the Wellesley community. However, after a year and a half, everyone is finally returning to campus, and students are not the only ones to adjust to the transition back to in-person education. Professors are also going through a notable shift from the virtual to physical space.
Initially, both faculty members and students faced pressing challenges while navigating college amidst the pandemic.
“It was a tumultuous time. Students had a lot of concerns that had nothing to do with school — family, financial, security. And then on top of that, they were expected to do school,” said Physics Professor James Battat. “From the faculty point of view too, there were many who had people to care for at home — be it elders or children.”
Many students and faculty had not even heard the name “Zoom” before the pandemic. Multiple professors mentioned that navigating the world of Zoom posed several common challenges, such as dealing with the unfamiliarity of its features while working with technical barriers like low internet connectivity.
The struggle to transition to an online platform was also compounded by the substitution of the semester system with the term system, which involved splitting each semester into two seven-week terms. This required teaching material professors would normally have covered in a whole week within a single 2.5 hour block.
Besides molding the structure and pedagogy of classes, professors and students also struggled to build community within the virtual space.
“[The community] is such an important part of the college experience,” Economics Professor Pinar Keskin said. “That is something we cannot replicate in any online setup.”
Although adapting was tough, Wellesley’s faculty still strove to create an enriching academic experience. They did so through increased flexibility, new community norms, altered assignment structures and an optimistic and supportive attitude.
“What was going to be helpful [to students] was being reassuring, providing continuity, providing more policies for late work or for things going wrong, setting up some new norms around issues that may arise during the pandemic and trying to stick with whatever we had decided to do,” Sociology Professor Smitha Radhakrishnan said.
Many professors also added that the adoption of new pedagogies during virtual classes proved to be a silver lining.
“We had for a long time wanted to make some pedagogical changes and we were forced to make those changes [during the pandemic],” Professor Battat said. “A lot of those are going to stay.”
Professors also explored a blended learning approach, which combines online and in-person learning practices in education. For instance, several professors mentioned how recording a Zoom session and sharing it with students unable to attend the session can ensure that no student is left behind. Many professors also use pre-recorded videos from the virtual classes as supplements for their teaching. Another practice several professors have adopted includes having office hours on Zoom or hosting Zoom meetings if they are unable to physically attend meetings.
“We took [the situation] in our stride,” Math Professor Ismar Volić said.“We knew we had to do it and so we went with it.”
Professor Radhakrishnan further expanded on another main change many faculty have made to their teaching methods. A couple of years ago, many faculty were trained on structural inequality and given concrete tactics on how to improve inclusivity in any classroom space, which are being adopted by many professors.
“The pandemic was a push and an opportunity to really apply this learning,” Professor Radhakrishnan said.
The virtual learning space also encouraged faculty to explore collaborative and innovative tools like flipped classrooms, where students watch recordings of content and spend class time for problem solving.
“They’ve been doing flipped classrooms in K-12 for a long time, and it’s just not something that we in higher education have been pushed to do before,” Professor Radhakrishnan said.
After getting through the turbulent year, the Wellesley faculty are excited to physically be back on the campus they have missed so much.
“We’re basically back to the normal way, just with masks,” Professor Volić said. “We’re just happy that this is happening.”