October 20, 2020

SIPA News extends many thanks to Anya Schiffrin, the director of SIPA’s specialization in Technology, Media, and Communications, who prepared the following report with assistance from Hannah Assadi. A shorter version of the article originally ran in the Morningside Post, a student publication.

After extensive Zoom training over the summer, many faculty had little sense how the fall semester would go. We had spent weeks reading about how to teach online, yes, and then tearing up and rewriting our syllabi. But how would we keep students engaged and also treat everyone equally when folks are scattered around the world in different time zones?  Should we cut up lectures into little pieces so they’d be more engaging? Tape them in advance? Go into breakout rooms several times per session?  Teach in the classroom knowing that many students would be watching on Zoom? Whichever way you approach it, it was clear that teaching would be much more work for students and faculty alike.

As the semester’s midpoint neared, I wanted to see how SIPA faculty and students were feeling about their courses—so I gathered some thoughts from members of our community about how it has turned out. Most seem to agree that the flexibility of teaching and learning online offers opportunities that were previously unavailable in the traditional classroom.

Thanassis Cambanis, who teaches the course Writing About War, said he has found teaching on Zoom, despite obvious downsides, to be better than the traditional classroom in some ways. “For instance,” Cambanis said, “I’ve been able, from the first session, to bring everyone into the discussion—and it’s easier on Zoom to bring the less talkative students in and prevent the more charismatic and comfortable students from dominating discussion.”

Striking the same note is Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, who teaches Politics of Policymaking, a required course for MPA students. “The chat and breakroom features [of Zoom] offer more opportunities for discussion than my large lecture class would have normally afforded,” he wrote.

Some in the Columbia community have even suggested that Zoom learning can be fun. “I have enjoyed getting to know students up close on Zoom and I am finding it to be a lot more intimate than you would think,” said Sarah Holloway, director of the Management specialization.

Savita Bailur, who teaches Policy and Practices in Digital Development, cited a number of further advantages to Zoom teaching. “Students have different ways to be interactive,” she said. “We are able to have speakers from around the world [and] we are able to really think about who could be excluded from technology because we ourselves are experiencing various connectivity issues or know others who are.”

While most surveyed acknowledge that Zoom learning and teaching is not the ideal, the semester is still going far better than expected.

Allynn McInerney MPA ’21, a student in my Global Media course, recalled “a certain feeling of dread as the semester approached.” But, she said, “the willingness of my fellow students to engage and focus in online classes has made all of the difference.  If you have a committed group of people on screen, then pandemic-forced Zoom works. None of us want this to be the norm... but this is our reality, and I am really encouraged by how people make the best they can out of a hard situation, showing up and doing the work it takes to make this as fulfilling an experience as possible.”

Léa Allirajah, an MA student in the human rights program, says visiting speakers on Zoom are “providing global perspectives and experiences that I have never encountered before.… With an online platform, geography is much less of a hurdle.”

Questions about whether to teach in-person loomed large over the summer. Many faculty felt torn because they want to be with their students but were afraid of the health risks of being in  a classroom.

Steven Cohen, director of SIPA’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy says he is glad he went back to teach in person. He wrote to me that class discussions are a bit more formal, while side conversations about projects are planned in advance—and that students have thanked him for giving them a chance to returning to the classroom—literally.

Holloway, of the Management specialization, is also teaching in person; her course on entrepreneurship is high-flex. “It definitely takes getting used to and some technical savvy but the students seem to appreciate being in the same room with each other and the teacher,” she said. “It is challenging learning which way to direct your attention when you have both students in the room and on Zoom, but once you get used to it, it works.”

The consensus among faculty suggests that hybrid teaching is the most complicated of all because it requires teaching both in-person and via Zoom. It’s a new experience but getting easier all the time, faculty say.

Ester Fuchs, director of SIPA’s Urban and Social Policy concentration, has been doing hybrid teaching but reports that she’d rather be full time in the classroom or on zoom entirely. But others say that even though it’s strange to be in a classroom with just a few students it’s still worth it.

“I still prefer [in-person] classes, even with the facemask and the whole drama of the technology,” said Laura Pulecio Duarte MPA-DP ’21. “You gather more information in the classroom than on Zoom” and it’s easier to make friends and talk about assignments after class.

However you cut it, it seems that the vast amount of hours spent revamping our courses for the COVID-19 era have paid off.

To bolster my own small-scale research on this topic, Hazel May, the associate dean for academic affairs at SIPA, shared with me the results of the course implementation survey, which is always carried out around the third week of the fall semester. This year, 75 percent of responses said courses so far are “very good or excellent” and 93 percent chose “good, very good, or excellent.” Of these respondents, 84 percent are attending their courses remotely.

As Professor Paola Valenti—who received one of Columbia University’s Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching last May—perfectly articulated, “Teaching is definitely more challenging this year, but I have to say it is also more rewarding…. We are in this together.”