Active Learning Initiative Makes Big Impact on Transition to Online Instruction

By: Erin Philipson

In 2019, the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering embarked on a project to transform the way students learn in their junior year courses. The project, called Active Learning Initiative (ALI), is funded by Cornell’s Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and the Center for Teaching Innovation through grants, with the overall goal to facilitate the redesign of courses to implement research-based active learning strategies and create sustainable improvements to undergraduate education.

Faculty in the Sibley School, including Hadas Ritz and Elizabeth Fisher, were struck by the differences they observed between students’ work in class and in their engineering project teams. The initiative aims to combine the best elements of project teams and coursework through case-based learning.

Most of the funding for ALI is used to hire postdoctoral associates or lecturers to help design and implement instructional interventions. In the Sibley School, Ben Finio and Matt Ford were hired last year to assist with the development of ALI materials for use in individual courses.

In the past few weeks, the ALI program has also had the unexpected and crucially important benefit of aiding with the department’s transition to virtual instruction necessitated by the Coronavirus pandemic. Faculty at universities across the country are struggling with this transition – especially those who are not familiar with online tools such as Zoom, a video conferencing platform, or Canvas, a learning management platform.

The department’s COVID-19 Task Force acted quickly to bring Finio and Ford on board with the transition effort, as both were already familiar with the faculty and their specific needs.

Faculty have many concerns in addition to transitioning their courses online including shutting down their research labs, trying to provide continuity for their graduate students, and considering what this massive shift means for the future. Teaching specialists like Finio and Ford have been able to sort through the overwhelming amount of information about remote instruction to bring forward the most helpful resources for faculty.

Both teaching specialists have been engaging with faculty via Zoom to assess their courses and readiness for online instruction. “It's faster and easier for them to sit down (well, via Zoom) with someone to go through the basics or essentials of what they need to know. And if they have a question, rather than digging around to figure out which FAQ or email the answer is in, they can just email me,” said Finio.

Along with ALI co-lead Hadas Ritz, they’ve created Canvas websites for faculty and TAs with resources for virtual instruction focused on “peer-learning,” - sharing specific solutions and experiences of other faculty in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “I have been coordinating and running training sessions for TAs on remote recitations, office hours, and exams. We are also scheduling ‘tech checks’ with faculty to test their readiness to teach from home, and have been consulting with faculty to solve specific problems,” said Ford.

“I think the great thing about the Active Learning Initiative is that it helps address one of the key concerns people have about transitioning to online learning - keeping students engaged,” said Finio. Classes involved in the ALI were already in the process of assessing ways to make lectures more active and engaging. The question for faculty then becomes “How do I continue to engage students in active learning, but do it online?” instead of starting at square one.

One of the biggest challenges the department will face in the coming weeks is on the other end of the teacher-student interaction - the hardware and internet capabilities of the students. “We are making sure that every class has backup plans in case lectures are disrupted by hardware or connection problems, but we’re going to have to find creative solutions for a lot of individual cases,” said Ford.

In addition to providing support for the Sibley School, two of the video tutorials created by Finio and Ford have been shared with faculty around the University through the Center for Teaching Innovation’s resources pages. They've created videos on topics such as "How to Prevent Zoomboming" and "How to Share Real-time Notes during a Lecture" in addition to their online teaching basics tutorial.

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