Online labs, studios have drawbacks, but departments are trying to smooth the transition

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Students in the College of Architecture, Planning and Design utilize many online programs for their studio classes. (Sabrina Cline | Collegian Media Group)

As classes move online, students and professor face many challenges. One obstacle is adjusting lab and studio courses with an emphasis on hands-on learning to a digital format.

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Amit Chakrabarti says this is a unique challenge that many professors and Teaching Assistants have risen to face.

“I’m so impressed with this faculty,” Chakrabarti said. “The faculty is very innovative, very creative.”

Departments will use many different resources to supplement online instruction. Chakrabarti said many professors have been working individually the past week to video themselves conducting experiments and recording data to upload to Canvas.

“They will teach online and they will have discussions with the students. … It might be different in different departments,” Chakrabarti said.

Brett DePaola, head of the physics department, said this will be the primary format used for physics labs.

“We plan to video faculty members actually doing the labs — sort of serving as the hands of the student,” DePaola said via email. “We will show the data to the students and ask them questions about the data and expect them to analyze the data and come up with results based on that analysis.”

Lecture courses, DePaola said, will use Zoom to conduct lectures at their scheduled time.

“Ordinarily, our recitations and studios … are team-learning exercises,” DePaola said. “Our challenge will be to keep as much of that alive though Canvas chat groups. We are confident that the online version of these courses will not be as good as the face-to-face. However, we are also confident that the students will have the means to learn the material and by the semester’s end, will have acquired all the knowledge and experience that they will need moving forward.”

Daniel Higgins, head of the chemistry department, said via email chemistry labs will move forward in the same manner.

Studio classes in the College of Architecture, Planning and Design and the art department already use digital learning in the regular curriculum. While distance learning isn’t ideal for studios, Tim de Noble, dean of the College of Architecture, says most projects are already submitted digitally.

“In addition to the production files, most times students create a formatted presentation for delivery, utilizing PDF, Blue Beam, Powerpoint or other presentation software,” de Noble said via email. “Admittedly we do print much of their work, mainly to augment presentations and/or for display, but also as a part of the iterative process of design.”

The main problem de Noble sees is the inability to exchange ideas among peers. This will still most likely occur over Canvas and other communication methods, but it will not be the immediate feedback available in-person studios.

“While a bit more cumbersome to move this to an online process, I am assured that students and faculty will continue to engage in the meaningful process,” de Noble said.

Mira Bhagat, junior in microbiology, says she knows her TAs are working hard to prepare labs for her organic chemistry lab, but she is worried the hands-off approach won’t be as conducive to learning as an in-person lab would be.

“Simply watching someone else do the lab won’t make it as memorable,” Bhagat said. “A huge part of lab is knowing how to use the equipment correctly and safely. For me as a microbiology major, this isn’t a huge concern, but for chemistry majors, they’re definitely losing important information.”

Another aspect of labs she worries she’ll miss out on is communicating with group members and learning from each other.

“Working with your group members in in-person labs is more effective because you can ask each other questions and better understand the procedure,” Bhagat said.

Chakrabarti emphasized that while conducting experiments for online use, professors are maintaining social distancing protocols. In addition, processes they utilize now could provide insight to developing online classes in the future.

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My name is Bailey Britton and I am the managing editor for the Collegian. I grew up in Colby, Kansas. I am a sophomore studying journalism with minors in leadership studies and English. I value quality news coverage and believe that communication is a vital part of solving problems. When I have free time, I like to spend time with friends and family or be outdoors with a good book.