Fulfilling the Promise of Distance Learning

SoE faculty build on lessons learned to deliver impactful remote instruction this fall

The coming fall semester at Rutgers University will combine a majority of remotely delivered with a limited number of in-person, on-campus classes. Lengthy deliberations that weighed state, national, and Rutgers’ own health experts’ predictions of continued spikes in COVID-19 cases against the university’s priority of safeguarding the health and well-being of its community led to this recently announced decision.

“Rutgers faculty are busy preparing for remote undergraduate instruction and building on lessons learned from the spring semester,” stated President Jonathan Holloway in a letter to students, faculty, and staff. “The university has made, and will continue to make, investments in instructional technology and training to further enhance the student experience. All classes that are taught remotely will meet the standards and expectations of the world-class institution that Rutgers is.”

To do this, the fall online experience for School of Engineering students will offer synchronous instruction, or courses that take place in real time, as well as asynchronous – generally pre-recorded – courses that preclude real time scheduling. Information about which courses will be synchronous and which will be asynchronous will be posted online on August 1.

Faculty will incorporate highly interactive activities and approaches – from synchronous office hours and small-group breakout rooms to interactive quizzes and discussions embedded in recorded material – that engage students and deepen their understanding of course material. Remote lab courses have been redesigned to meet the same goals as in-person lab sessions.

Exceeding Expectations

As an innovator in virtual learning, Rutgers has long recognized that the ability to learn, engage, create, discover, and produce in a virtual environment is an increasingly critical career competency.  

As a result, when the university cancelled in-person classes, lectures, and labs in March in response to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, School of Engineering professors and students readily adapted to a new normal of online learning by drawing on Rutgers’ history of innovative distance learning options. “At times like this,” Richard J. Novak, vice president for continuing studies and distance education noted in March, “our experience and expertise pay dividends. With everyone working together, Rutgers could not help but be successful.”

Lisa Klein, a distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, was impressed by her students’ ease at making the transition to remote learning. “I thought they were remarkably accommodating. They gave me hints on how to improve presentations and made it clear what would help them,” she recalled. “They adapted and kept up with the work – and didn’t complain, realizing we were all in this together.” 

Klein is confident that her “terrific” Rutgers students will again rise to the challenge of online learning in the coming semester. 

A Meaningful Experience

Noshir A. Langrana, a distinguished professor and interim undergraduate director in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, agrees that the communication and general understanding among both students and teachers definitely reduced much of the stress that came with remote learning and teaching his junior level core course in biomechanics.

“In the beginning there was a learning curve that took more time to get used to, especially with staying focused during lectures,” he remembers. “But over time, it became second nature.”

Initially, Langrana and his teaching assistant Courtney Semkewyc were concerned about teaching online as they could not see what students were doing when lectures were delivered. “But our students were very understanding, adaptive, and supportive. Fortunately, lectures were recorded so students could review the content later on.”

Langrana additionally credits Semkewyc with supporting various online related issues – including quizzes and exams that were given through tools such as Canvas and Proctortrack.

“The overall experience was surprisingly pleasant and meaningful,” he says. “Moving forward, this new environment may provide even more time for studying, homework, or relaxation by having classes readily available in the students’ homes,” he adds.

Surprising Advantages

Biomedical Engineering professor Gary Drzewiecki discovered that online teaching produced unexpectedly positive outcomes after his in-class lab course converted to online in March. “With the same group, students’ grades went up a whole letter grade as compared with in-lab teaching,” he reports. “I found that while they missed the in-lab time, they were able to continue learning using remote simulations of experiments.”

An even more impressive advantage, according to Drzewiecki, is that his students spent less time debugging their in-lab set-ups, which can considerably cut into their learning time. “They gained up to 30% of their learning time when not having to perfect their setups,” he reports. “Online labs were a positive experience.” 

Technology to the Rescue

Last spring, Engineering Computing Services (ECS) provided students access to more than 200 engineering lab desktops through Vlab – a virtual lab portal – to enhance their online learning experience. This fall, Alexei Kotelnikov, associate director, information technology, reports that ECS will continue to engage and connect students from a distance by working on improving the Vlab performance. He notes that the Electrical and Computing Engineering Department will also deploy web cameras to extend Vlab functionality or handle lab equipment remotely.  

The design process for civil and environmental engineering (CEE) professor Qizhong (George) Guo’s senior capstone design course on water resources and environmental engineering was originally suggested and facilitated by the CEE Industrial Advisory Board. Project students were first asked to duplicate professional engineers’ design for stormwater management on a New Jersey Turnpike exchange before proposing a greener, more sustainable design and assessing the impact of potential sea level rise. While Guo reports that his students were able to use the actual project site as a basis for their designs, he had to adjust his approach when the class went remote.

That’s when Guo turned to Rutgers Canvas to improve his students’ remote learning experience. “One particularly useful function was the breakout rooms that I was able to create for individual design groups,” he notes. While students were able to hold discussions among themselves, Guo was able to join or leave each breakout room as he wished. 

While Guo remains impressed by his students’ determination to tackle present and future world problems online, he is equally grateful for the CEE department’s support. “To facilitate the learning and application of software that is essential for the design, the department purchased the semester-long license for the students,” he says. “ appreciate the students’ resilience and the university’s internal support.”   

At the end of the semester, Guo’s students presented their group design projects online, which had an unanticipated upside. “The online presentations made the attendance by outside guests easier. We were grateful to the outside professionals who accepted our invitations and provided valuable, encouraging feedback to the students,” Guo says.