DAN: Our guest today is Elisabeth Hamin Infield. She is on the faculty in urban regional planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and she has been teaching for many years. I’ve known Elisabeth for a long time. We’re happy to have her on the program because we want to talk to an experienced educator who is dealing with all of the changes and turmoil that’s going on with respect to the disruption that COVID-19 is causing.
Elisabeth, welcome to the program.
ELISABETH: Thanks Dan. Thanks Kieran. It’s great to be here.
KIERAN: It’s nice to meet you. Virtually, but you know, that’s how we socialize these days.
DAN: That’s how we roll.
KIERAN: That’s how we roll.
DAN: So to start off, we’d like to learn more about the Master of Regional Planning program there at UMass Amherst. And I know that the program itself is campus-based and it’s in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, but can you give us a profile of the MRP that you’re working in and just basic background?
ELISABETH: Yeah, so we’ve had our MRP for many years. It’s an accredited program that’s just a master’s degree. We have an undergraduate that I teach in, too, that’s in sustainable community development. Today I’ll probably talk some about that because I have the contrasting experience of teaching a graduate course and teaching an undergraduate course, suddenly, online.
But anyway, our program has about 20 students in each year’s cohort and a lot of them go on to be like municipal town planners and they work for planning agencies, and some of them go into nonprofits, sort of organization and civic promotion, and they do all sorts of things. It’s a really great program.
DAN: The students are mostly from the Northeast or across the country. Where do they come from?
ELISABETH: Our students, they’re mostly from the Northeast, but we always have some students from elsewhere… California, Washington, center of the country and a few international students. So we try to have a mixture, but a lot of the kids are from New England.
DAN: Yeah. And as a residential program like that, I assume the students are essentially full time.
ELISABETH: Yeah, we’re absolutely a full time program.
DAN: And then the other thing that I’m wondering is, are there already courses in the curriculum that are taught online just as the way that the degree is delivered now?
ELISABETH: We have a few of our undergraduate courses that are taught online in the summer, but the master’s level courses we have not taught online mostly because there’s just not enough of a market for them. We’re not a big enough program…
DAN: … and then those, those summer courses, then for the undergraduates, it sounds like are mostly taught asynchronously then… they’re not lecture courses in the summer.
ELISABETH: Yeah, I think that’s, I think that’s right. But honestly I don’t know because I never asked because until three weeks ago I didn’t know how different that was, between the two.
DAN: Sure. You didn’t know to ask that question.
ELISABETH: No, I really didn’t.
DAN: All these things that we are learning so quickly.
Tell us a little bit about the courses that you are teaching particularly.
ELISABETH: My main research area is in adapting to climate change, so how cities can become better prepared for the climate of the future — more resilient, which is, of course, incredibly relevant right now. And also how they can have lower greenhouse gas emissions. So my undergraduate level class is in that, it’s in planning for climate change for cities.
Then my graduate level class is in research methods and so it’s really a course to try to help the students prepare their thesis or project proposals over the course of a semester. Teach them some research design, teaching, some about qualitative and quantitative methods and how you do a literature review. And hopefully by May they have a proposal that they can take to their committees to get signed.
DAN: In the undergraduate classes as you describe it, are there parts of that class that are group work that — the way it had been designed — or is there a practicum component to that in some way or how, you know, how had you structured that as a, as a campus based class?
ELISABETH: The big product at the end of the semester is actually a group research poster. The students were looking at ways to make the campus more climate-adapted, to make it more resilient, lower the carbon footprint. And so there are groups of four students putting together a research poster and by the midterm they had done a draft of their posters and presented them and at the end they have to do a final of their poster, which will be interesting,
DAN: And that actually brings up the next question I have, which is: in online education we find ourselves thinking about very intentionally building the learning community within the class because people are distributed and don’t physically see each other. Is that something in either your graduate or undergraduate class that you think about intentionally or does it, has it simply happened by the fact that they’re in the program together and have worked together for years. Or has it not happened? Is it something that isn’t really a concern?
ELISABETH: So at the undergraduate level in particular, I have them do group work because I want to be sure that they get to know a few people in the class really well. I mean it achieves other goals, but that is certainly one of my goals is, I want to know that everybody in that class has somebody to say hello to each day when they go in, so people to talk to about assignments and things. And so they’re put in these groups pretty early. And the groups are based on interests so they form sort of a, a learning community in these small pods. And I think that has been pretty successful.
At the graduate level… the course has 10 landscape architects who are designers and then it has 10 planners who are social scientists for the most part. And then, there’s a little crossover between them, but they’re really very different. When I’ve tried to bring them together as really different people to achieve their goal of preparing a proposal, it actually hasn’t really met anybody’s needs.
DAN: Here’s a more technical nuts and bolts question about your courses… In the in person course, in my experience, there’s a big latitude with how much of the LMS, the learning management system that universities provide, that a professor can use. Have you been using your LMS very much in your courses or not a lot? Where would you be on the spectrum?
ELISABETH: I think I’d be pretty far along the spectrum. There are certainly people who use the LMS more, but I have over the last five years sort of moved more and more onto it because the students like it. Each week has content, it has the goals, it has the, the readings. If I have assignments, that’s where they turn their assignments in. I can communicate with them through announcements on the LMS. Um, I haven’t had to do exams through it, but apparently I will this year… a whole different thing.
The other piece of software I use in my undergraduate course in particular is that Perusall. It’s a great program. Basically I give Perusall a PDF of a reading and then the students read through Perusall and they comment and annotate in the software and they can see each other’s comments. And then it’s got an algorithm that scores them, in an automatic sort of way, and I think it’s amazing because it means that they really do the readings, you know? They don’t have any choice.
DAN: Yes, I like that.
Well, the big news of course is COVID-19 pandemic and the disruptions that’s caused everywhere, but we are particularly interested in that in higher education. I’m wondering how it unfolded for you all at UMass Amherst. How quickly did it unfold? And did you have any warning at all? Was it during your spring break, which it was for a lot of people?
ELISABETH: So there were hints and rumors, but there was no announcement until three days before the end of the week before spring break. So they, like, announced it on Wednesday and on Friday we all left. And there’s effectively no classes on Friday… so, essentially, everybody left on Thursday. The university did not give us an extra week to learn how to do online so we had to transform our classes over spring break.
DAN: So much for the break part of spring break.
ELISABETH: Yeah. Right? So there was not much warning at all for instructors. I mean, we could sort of hear what was coming down the pike, but until they said it, it wasn’t very real. And I think we all assumed that certainly they would give us some time and resources. They sent out lists of places that you could go for more information. Like here’s the Zoom help desk!
DAN: Which is overwhelmed…
DAN: You had a 24 hour notice to basically gather your resources, gather your laptops, pack things up so you at least had your books and laptops and papers and stuff. So I suppose there’s something in that.
DAN: Clearly there’s been this massive lift in higher education about getting courses to pivot because of COVID-19 and really what the courses are pivoting to is what’s being described as emergency remote education. I think it’s also important to remember that this was involuntary on both the professors and the students part.
From what I’ve read, the energy really has been just getting these courses up and getting them to work. And for the most part that’s meant creating a facsimile of what the faculty had been doing in the classroom. A lot of times it’s streaming lectures, or something comparable to streaming lectures, synchronous seminar sessions in ZOOM, something like that.
I mean, that makes sense. It’s hard to change course design halfway through a semester. It seems like a conversation about the challenges of pivoting suddenly to remote education and about the variety of practice in designed online education is something that’s going to be good for us all to have.
That said, I want to acknowledge, Elisabeth, that you’ve only been doing this for two weeks now. You had to pivot two weeks ago, right?
ELISABETH: That’s right.
DAN: So… how’d you do it and how are you doing?
ELISABETH: Well, not only have I not had instruction in how to do online education, I’ve never even taken an online class, which is probably true for all of my peers. So I have no, honestly no idea what the range of possibilities are for online education. So the pivot really is just taking the material we were doing before and putting it on ZOOM.
And if all you do is that, it’s not really hard. I mean my faculty… the ones who teach studio, like, that’s a different conversation. But for those of us who are just doing courses, if that’s all you do, it’s not that hard. The problem is it’s not clear that the students are learning much if that’s all you do, because it’s fundamentally different online than it is in person. And so if I’m aware that I’m not capturing the benefits that online could be, and yet there’s this deficit of just like the straight pivoted course without having much adjustment.
KIERAN: Elisabeth, as somebody who has been teaching in a face-to-face classroom, synchronously, and is now teaching on ZOOM, what do you see as the differences between those two experiences… for the student? I imagine it’s a lot different for you, as the instructor, but what are the differences from the student’s standpoint?
ELISABETH: I think that difference is in energy. We get energy from seeing other people respond to what we’re saying. And the challenge for me with just lecturing on ZOOM, and I think the challenge from the student’s perspective, is that without that energy, it’s like just talking into the… out into the universe. How do I know anybody’s listening? Cause I don’t know if they’re listening or not.
For better or worse, many of my students don’t put their video on and I’m in a place without great internet, so for me it’s probably better because the bandwidth would be perhaps challenging. But nevertheless, I can’t see their faces. I just see their name. There’s no feedback of energy and a few students will ask questions, but it’s pretty rare so far. Like only a few people are confident enough to stop the class over Zoom to ask their questions.
KIERAN: Well, yeah, that’s another challenge from the standpoint of the instructor side of things. Often, the reason instructors want to do a synchronous course is so they have that question and answer in real time.
But it’s hard to focus on giving an energetic lecture, especially when you’re sitting at a desk if you’re not in a classroom, and also keep an eye on the checkerboard of faces that appear on a ZOOM screen. You’ve got to mute everyone to maintain any kind of decent sound quality… and while it used to be the norm to have a separate person monitoring the virtual platform, you know, watching for students to raise their hand to ask a question, or keeping track of the chat room, that’s no longer the case. So by the time the instructor takes a break and looks at the chat feed or raised-hand icons, well, the moment’s gone. Everyone’s moved on, students don’t want to hold back the class or, or look to the instructor like they’re not keeping up by asking a question that was being discussed 15 minutes ago.
ELISABETH: Oh, I just want to say that that two person idea, that’s a great point because I am not able to see if a student raises their hand. Like I, I can’t, I can’t do all of that at once. And so I just sort of plunge forward unless they unmute themselves and say, excuse me, I have a question…
KIERAN: And it’s not actually enough for them to unmute themselves if the instructor has muted the class. So being able to designate someone as the… proctor? The monitor. That monitor can also combine similar questions, or break in at an appropriate time, all of that.
Now that the technology has become more personal–using your own laptop, for example, instead of lecturing from a tricked-out broadcasting classroom, there’s been this expectation that the instructor is supposed to be the producer, the director, the cameraperson, the soundboard operator, the announcer, and the main act, all at one time, and that’s just unrealistic.
ELISABETH: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, my courses aren’t large, and I still realize that I, I can’t do that at the same time. So, you know, I think if we’re going to do that, then the university has to figure out some way to provide us with the proctor.
DAN: In your graduate class, could a student like, could they take turns being the, the monitor as it were? Um, now they’re not in the same room as you are, so you’d still have to have some way of getting information from them? I’m not, I’m just trying to, I’m just trying to think about how we could do that with the current resources.
KIERAN: If you pre-record the part where students would normally be taking notes anyway, now you can use the live, synchronous time for Q&A or discussion groups. In that case, you are able to focus more completely on students and their questions, you don’t have to toggle back and forth between presenter and monitor. So that might be one thing to try.
ELISABETH: Interesting. That’s a great idea.
DAN: Let me clarify you’re, basically run your courses synchronous at this point or blend parts. Synchronous, part async. How’s, what are you doing? It’s only been two weeks. I understand. But…
ELISABETH: So I’ve been alternating a little bit with… we have a synchronous class and then a class… I don’t know if it’s really properly async or if I’m just giving them assignments that take up a time and they’re supposed to meet with each other during that class time, and I’m calling that an asynchronous class.
The one piece of advice that we did get, very strongly, is that we should not have the same expectations for the level of work that students will do the second half of this semester. And that’s in particular, not just because we don’t know what we’re doing online, although that is certainly part of it, but it’s also just because, you know, people are a mess right now.
DAN: The world’s crazy, yeah.
ELISABETH: I will say that I have, you know, the ZOOM has that polling function, right? And so I have put together like three little polls that I do most weeks and one of them asks “what’s your learning situation like?” and ask them to say: I’m completely distracted and I can’t get anything done; I can do the work, but it’s not very good; or It’s about the same as usual. I’ve been tracking that — this is actually the third week that I’ve been doing this so — tracking that over the time and it has not changed that much. Most students say, ah, I can get work done, but it’s not very good work.
And the other thing that I’ve asked them is, “How difficult is it for them to be online, get the technology? And not many students are having a big problem, which we had been warned that a lot of students would have trouble, but in fact for these particular individuals, they’re not reporting much trouble.
But then the third thing I’m asking is do you want it to be synchronous or asynchronous? And they say that they want it to be synchronous. When I’ve talked to them about it, I think it’s because there’s more of a, things are so disrupted that to have yet something else change right now is not desirable. That in fact the course time provides them continuity from before to now. And again, that might be because I don’t know how to make community in the same way that you do.
But does the desire for a synchronous experience mean that activity has to be a lecture? Could the lecture be recorded so students can watch and listen when they can focus, and use the synchronous time for something more participatory, such as Q&A or a class discussions? That’s the concept behind a flipped classroom, right? Make the more passive activities recorded or asynchronous and use the valuable face-time for more active tasks. Not to mention you have to record the lecture anyway.
ELISABETH: I want to tell an anecdote that absolutely supports what you’ve just been saying. In my, you know, desire to just take what we would do in class and put it online, there was a video that I wanted the students to watch and it’s a good video. It’s by Majora Carter and she’s an amazing speaker and it’s a great topic. And so while we were online, I put the video up on my computer and did share screen and we supposedly watched the video together. By the time I came back from that video, 12 minutes, there was like five people left in the room.
KIERAN: That’s one of the issues with live streaming — what looks like a class full of attentive learners… may not be. But if you switch the synchronous activity to something participatory, like an active discussion, then it’s harder for students to hide, and easier for you to tell whether they actually watched the recorded material as preparation for that conversation.
DAN: It’s like, watch these videos, you know, watch Majora Carter, watch whomever, blah, blah blah. We’re going to workshop something about that when we get together, we’re going to have a discussion when we get together, you’re going to pair off in, in groups and do something, and those are things you can do, you know
, in the sync session that build on having watched the video.
Furthermore, I know the types of videos you show because we teach courses that are related to each other and, particularly when you’re dealing with the graduate students or adult learners, a lot of times those videos are things that they can watch with the family. That Majora Carter video, as far as I’m concerned, everyone should watch her, the whole family can watch her. And I think there’s some utility in letting them schedule the time that they get to do their videos. And I generally mark, actually, in a lesson plan, I will say what age level of appropriateness the different videos are. So it’s like, okay, this is like 12 and up. This one, yes, it’s graduate school, but your four year old would like this too.
KIERAN: I can share a different approach on videos, which is… this has been several years ago now but, about a week before the semester was supposed to start one of my faculty members contacted me to say she wasn’t going to be available to teach. And, luckily, it was subject matter I’m familiar with so I was able to step in and teach it. But, of course, I had plenty of other things on my plate, especially a week before the start of a new academic year so I had to make some decisions about how I was going to handle this. The instructor hadn’t built out her course on the LMS yet, I had to familiarize myself with the textbook and her syllabus, which had been shared with the students already… I knew I wasn’t going to have time to record any lectures and she didn’t have any already recorded from previous years.
At the time I had been listening to a lot of TEDtalks by environmental speakers, all very knowledgeable, all very well produced, and I thought, you know what? Maybe I can repurpose talks that were given in front of a different audience, and so I curated these talks based on their relevance to the topics being covered each week in the course, as laid out in the syllabus.
The comments at the end of the semester were interesting to see because, of course, the students had no idea that using TEDtalks had not been the initial plan. As far as they knew that’s how we intended for the course to be taught all along. So I got comments like “It was so great to hear different voices and perspectives on these topics and not just the same speaker for every lecture.” Meaning, we didn’t have to listen to you every single time! I think sometimes we forget how much excellent material is already out there, and that we don’t have to do everything from scratch.
ELISABETH: So in that situation for, Dan or for you, so you have them watch the video and then what? Like what is an effective way to get them to reflect on the video? Because I don’t think that a, a vid, a ZOOM room with 20 people is an effective way to get discussion going.
DAN: Uh… not as a real time discussion.
My courses are all synchronous and there is a written, a written discussion that happens for them. I’ll often do the same thing. I’ll have curated videos but that’s great because then I get Sylvia Earle to talk about oceanography or Joan Nassauer or to talk about landscape structure, we get great thinkers… those things are all out there on the internet.
Generally on something like that, they’ll be some sort of followup discussion from the video. Now the, the discussion is prompted, so it’s directed towards a learning objective. Sometimes there’s “take the information from the video and then do something else with it”… so find an article, do a follow up. In my class, they’re presenting them by posting the links and writing up their presentation. But you could, in a ZOOM class, say I want you to present your followup article in five minutes.
What you said about energy I think is very well said because there’s a lot of research that shows, particularly as a professor trying to lecture, you’ve got a pretty short attention span for how long of a, of a piece you can put out… 20 minutes kind of pushes it. But if you had something where you had 20 students in class and each got five minutes, then the mere fact that it’s quick and dense and then you move on to another person keeps the room lively, I think.
I agree. I don’t think you could have a conversation with 20 people in one group or in a web conferencing software. You’d have to break them out into subgroups It’s a peer-partnering toward a sort of discussion, and they could be on different themes and then there’s a report out that they would do at the end. They could record a conclusion. It could just be a discussion and you’re going to drop in on them, which you can do in the software, and they know you’re going to pop in on the discussion at some point.
DAN: You don’t have to do active learning in online education. You can easily design a course that’s very passive. But it’s very easy to be in a build in active learning when you’re building out an online lesson plan.
KIERAN: You know, I’ll be interested to see whether this emergency remote instruction experience feeds back into campus-based instruction once there’s a chance to return to the classroom. You know, will getting some experience with virtual technology cause faculty to think about how to up their game in a more traditional setting?
From things I’m reading and hearing, there has been a fairly honest discussion about what works better online, what doesn’t, and how there might be a general shift to something closer to a hybrid approach. I mean, I’ve been saying for years that I think the wall between classroom and virtual is going to become less rigid, and I’ve certainly watched it become more porous.
DAN: Elizabeth, you’re in a very interesting position because you were together for six or seven weeks and now you’re suddenly working with them online… so they had some sort of sense of community or some sort of sense of connection from the beginning of the semester. Is that carrying over?
ELISABETH: I think it’s interesting to me that the students who participated actively in person are not necessarily the ones who participate actively online. And that’s a little bit of a surprise. But I have students who said very little in the classroom, but online they’re raising their hand and they’re saying very interesting things, and vice versa. So it, I’m sure it carries forward, but I don’t think it’s in a direct line that it carries forward. I’m not sure I could articulate exactly what the difference is. I get the sense that without pretty sophisticated course design for online, it would be harder to develop a relationship with students.
KIERAN: One thing I hear, especially from younger students in our program, is that they notice older people, you know, older than them, we like to start a relationship with a face-to-face interaction and then, if things progress into a friendship or trusted colleague situation, THEN I’ll share my email address with you, or my phone number for texting, or my Twitter handle, or whatever. Whereas, the younger age cohort that’s often referred to as digital natives, that process is completely flipped. That face-to-face experience? That’s the prize. You have to earn that. We’ll start out in a digital space, on social media, for example, and if you earn my trust then we can meet in-person.
ELISABETH: You know what you just described is a dating app.. right?
KIERAN: Well, yeah. There’s a reason dating apps are set up the way they are, and it’s based on behavioral science, right?
DAN: You had mentioned, in your climate course the students are structured, you know, from the beginning to be working in small groups and task groups. What have you been doing to sort of push that forward? Or did they have enough momentum already to keep going?
ELISABETH: Umm… so one of the things that has been, I think, interesting community building is we spend a few minutes at the start of each class talking about how they’re feeling about the pandemic situation. And then, because it’s a course about resilience, I’ve pivoted the course some so that we talk about some other sort of emergency response, I go like, so how do you think that applies to the situation we have today? And the students have responded to that really positively. I think it keeps them engaged because they’re thinking about what’s real right now and what’s on their minds. So that’s worked really well.
That’s a long lead up to saying that the original conception for the posters was that they would work on some, like, more traditional campus planning issue. And I’m opening it up to the groups to say, if you want to change topics and do something about responding to the pandemic you can change topics. I’m very curious to see how many groups choose to change topics, which would be more interesting, and how many choose to take their midterm idea and just build it out, which would be frankly easier.
Now, that said, beyond that, I haven’t really figured out how to push them forward other than originally the plan was that they would do a research poster… and that’s not gonna work in this format. So I’ve reverted to telling them that they can do a very brief PowerPoint presentation, which I think loses something cause I really wanted them to have to do the research poster, but I just, I can’t imagine how that’s going to work visually.
KIERAN: What if they were to do it as a blog?
DAN: A blog or a website?
ELISABETH: Do the students, do you think the students necessarily have the skills to do that? Are they going to go well, how do I make a blog? Because then I can’t answer them.
DAN: The interesting thing about like a blog or a website is they’re working in groups. So statistically at that age group, someone’s got some skills as far as putting a website together. And there’s, uh, lots of the web hosting companies, if you use their domain, have a free service and have templates that they can choose from. So the technology part of it’s not too bad.
It does potentially change the audience. So if their assignment had been to do a poster for an academic audience, that’s one thing. If their assignment had been a poster for a public meeting, then the website would potentially be the same audience. And then obviously everyone in the class then gets to review all the websites that everyone’s put together and have an opportunity to talk or respond as it’s built into the course. You could change how you phrase the target audience for the information. But you know, it’s an alternative form of communication. It’s a more internet based form of communication using a blog or website.
ELISABETH: Things to think about… for not too long, ‘cause we only have three weeks left.
KIERAN: Have you considered crowdsourcing that problem with your students? Asking them to come up with their own ideas, or let groups try different things so the class as a whole can see what works, what didn’t, discuss why.
ELISABETH: Hmm. That’s a good idea, actually. Because they’re supposed to come back to me on Thursday with the proposal about what they’re going to do for content. I could reach out to them, go like, and by the way, you can come back to me with a proposal for what you’re going to do for a medium as well.
KIERAN: They might surprise you.
DAN: Things are so disrupted and right now that it makes sense to open things like that up. I’m trying to open things up as much as I can.
Building on the fact that you have been a professor and a department chair, what words of encouragement do you have for faculty or program directors who are finding themselves in this sort of crazy disrupted time?
ELISABETH: I think for instructors who take this as an opportunity to experiment with different ways to deliver material, it could actually make our instruction better over the long run, even for in-person, because I know it’s making me really rethink how I do participation in the classes, and think about how I structure assignments and projects in ways that I had just haven’t had to think about for a long time. And so, it’s painful to do it with this abruptness but I, I think that it could, if we play it right, actually improve pedagogy overall.
DAN: Elisabeth. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us today. I know it’s a crazy busy time, but we really appreciate your being here.
KIERAN: It was great to get your thoughts and perspective, and hear about how your experience dealing with all of this.
ELISABETH: I learned a lot, so thanks for giving me suggestions, and other people suggestions. It’s a great topic.