Meeting the Challenge of Remote Learning

Prof. Alex Bertuccio teaching from home.

After Covid-19 shuttered classrooms, SoE faculty are embracing the new normal

In early March, Rutgers University and other universities and colleges across the nation began cancelling in-person classes, lectures, and labs and holding them online. While according to higheredjobs.com, many of the country’s faculty lacked the training or experience to adjust rapidly to providing distance instruction, Rutgers School of Engineering professors have been able to transition relatively seamlessly to remote teaching for the remainder of the spring semester.

Umer Hassan, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and Global Health Institute core faculty member, calls this “the new normal.” He reports, “My remote online teaching is going great, and I have a feeling that this situation has provided the push we needed for next-generation instruction. This will have phenomenal consequences in years to come in terms of our educational and instructional innovations.”

According to Richard J. Novak, vice president for continuing studies and distance education, for faculty eager to ensure their remote teaching best serves student needs, instructional designers can provide access to an array of technologies and tools that create a robust and engaging learning environment.

Rutgers, Novak says, “has a long history of offering distance education and it is at times like this that the experience and expertise pay dividends. With everyone working together, Rutgers could not help but be successful during this crisis.”

Putting Voice into Action

Following advice from an Italian physician friend, Annalisa Scacchioli, an assistant teaching professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, prepared for the pandemic early. “I started at the end of February to avoid crowded areas, use all possible precautions, and organize my daily life in a completely different way.” For the New York City resident, being able to teach remotely has made all the difference.

From the start, everything went well for her Dynamics and Intro Mechatronics classes, which each enroll 160 students in online teaching mode. “I was excited to begin a new experience with online teaching. Moving from in-person to online lecturing – using the WebEx platform at regularly scheduled class times – was a natural extension,” she recalls. “My transition was especially smooth not only because of the WebEx platform, but also because I’d already applied a combination of  advanced technologies, design methods, and pedagogical tools and practices to build a learning environment that improves my students’ technical and professional skills.” 

 Since privacy concerns prevent videos from being shared during online lectures, Scacchioli fosters student engagement by expressing her enthusiasm, energy, and passion through her voice. “I’d been taking an acting class, ‘Voice into Action,’ at Manhattan’s Stella Adler Acting Studio before the pandemic, and that experience is now helping me with my online classes,” she says.

From Labs to Laptops

To run remote lab sessions, such as those offered by Scacchioli and others, professors have implemented special online strategies. According to Alberto Cuitiño, department of mechanical and aerospace engineering professor and chair, his department has made recordings of individual labs to share with student groups at scheduled lab times. “The experiments are explained in real-time, live, as if the students were physically in the room,” he explains. “After that, data we have already captured for that lab is shared with the students. From that point, the students analyze the data and develop individual reports, as usual.”

Alexei Kotelnikov, associate director, information technology notes that Engineering Computing Services (ECS) has provided access to 237 engineering lab desktops via Vlab, a virtual lab portal. “This has helped our students and instructors to keep using applications on lab desktops, while working from home on class assignments and engineering design projects,” he says. “To my understanding, no other schools at Rutgers do that.”

Chemical and biochemical engineering assistant teaching professor Alex Bertuccio adjusted his course syllabuses for Process Engineering Lab II, and Byrne seminar: Batteries, Genes and Beyond to make things fairer for students. While he is prerecording asynchronous lectures for his lab course, he follows his student lab teams’ progress with experiments through required weekly meetings. 

Actual lab assignments required additional adjustment. “I did have to replace a lab experiment with an alternative. Students will design their own lab experiment that I could theoretically add to the lab next year,” he explains. 

When it comes to research projects, Bertuccio is encouraging his students to review background and theory literature. “Now is a great time to delve further into the literature, which often gets pushed to the side because it’s easier to be in the lab than to sit down and read,” he says. “I’m also encouraging them to analyze current data, identify pieces they are missing, or issues they have with techniques, and to plan out experiments to conduct when Rutgers reopens.”

Keeping Students Engaged

While Bertuccio’s students tell him they miss the in-class environment, he notes that the WebEx video chat feature is a great way for him to stay connected with his students.

To keep his students engaged, he recommends they get into a routine by setting up a weekly schedule for things they need to do, and make appointments for his virtual office hours.

While Scacchioli also stresses that students maintain their on-campus daily schedules she also suggests they maximize their engagement by eliminating distractions during online lectures. To further engage her students, she offers “Coffee with Professor Scacchioli, ” which she describes as “a Sunday afternoon social event that explores how engineers can make a difference during these challenging times.”   

“I’ve just maintained what I started out doing earlier in the semester,” says civil and environmental engineering associate professor Monica Mazurek. Her students are working on a hydrology project that analyzes precipitation records kept over the past 50 years by various New Jersey locations. “This kind of applied learning gives them an opportunity to see how engineers solve problems and gives them something interesting and relevant to do,” Mazurek explains.  

Elin Wicks, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, currently teaches hundreds of students in her three sections of Engineering Economics. For her lectures, she is taking the asynchronous approach, which requires putting a week’s worth of work together at once, although her syllabus and content coverage remain the same.

She emphasizes the need for students and faculty alike to be patient and understanding as they adjust to online learning. “We’re all going to be experts by the time the semester is over,” Wicks predicts.

Novak says, “The School of Engineering, like the other schools across Rutgers, has done an amazing transformation to continue to deliver a high quality education to its students,” says Novak. “This is not particularly easy to do, but even harder when under the time pressure as presented by the pandemic. But the results have been noteworthy – and this experience will also open up ideas for the future.”