Moving large-enrollment course online leads to surprises

Jamie Oberdick
April 28, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Justin Pritchard, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Early Career Entrepreneurial Professor in the Penn State College of Engineering, had never taught an online class. That all changed in mid-March, when a shift to remote learning at Penn State due to COVID-19 required Pritchard to deliver online education to his students, including a large-enrollment course.

portrait shot of a professor

Justin Pritchard

IMAGE: Penn State College of Engineering

A large-enrollment course is one of the more difficult types of courses given the number of students, and to up the challenge for Pritchard, this semester was the first he was teaching the class, BME 201: Fundamentals of Cells and Molecules. BME 201 is a sophomore-level core class for the biomedical engineering major, and this spring Pritchard is teaching 115 students. The classes are delivered using the video conferencing tool Zoom.

Pritchard said that attending high school in the late 1990s and college in the early 2000s, when the internet was playing an increasing role in education, has helped him relate to delivering education online. In addition, he has extensively used Canvas, Penn State’s course management system, so he has experience using many of the necessary tools.

“It’s certainly challenging to go from in-person to online with a class you are teaching for the first time,” Pritchard said. “But at the same time, things are happening that are interesting and even exciting or fun.”

One interesting thing he has noticed is student engagement is higher than he expected.

“I’m finding that students are a lot more engaged via the Zoom chat function and it’s surprising,” Pritchard said. “Whereas only five students would answer questions during in-person BME 201 classes, I have about 20 students out of a class of 115 who feel comfortable using the chat function. They’ll do stream-of-consciousness asking of questions, the questions just flow. Sometimes it can be a little disorienting in a lecture when you’re trying to convey information, but it’s also fun.”

Students will even answer each other’s subject-related questions during class, something Pritchard notes is fascinating to watch.

“I do find it so entertaining to see what they are chatting about and the times when others will answer,” Pritchard said. “And the other cool thing, it’s not disruptive to a lecture. So, if I’m focusing on trying to explain something and a question pops up, I’ll wait until I finish my explanation to answer. But then another student answers them. It’s almost like they are very quietly whispering in class.”

Pritchard added that he found this to be so effective, he is considering incorporating a chat function in some way for his future in-person teaching.

As far as class expectations, Pritchard said the learning objectives are the same and there is still a set amount of material that he must cover.

“I think taking the class online now is a positive for students, as they are finding it a good way to focus on something other than the pandemic,” Pritchard said.

He recommends one way to help students is via expanded virtual office hours.

“It’s hard to know everyone’s challenges so biomedical engineering faculty just try to be flexible,” Pritchard said. “We used to do office hours in a group, where myself and teaching assistants bring everyone together to help a room full of people. So now we spread it out so there are more than twice as many time slots to help students.”

He concluded, “I really think the key to teaching during this pandemic is being understanding of the circumstances that the students find themselves in and being willing to make the right adjustments.”

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Last Updated April 28, 2020