University used teamwork to execute remote and safe-classroom instruction

Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, stands in the Watsco Center arena, which has been converted to classroom space this fall. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, stands in the Watsco Center arena, which has been converted to classroom space this fall. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

University used teamwork to execute remote and safe-classroom instruction

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
With three different modalities—in-person, remote, and hybrid learning—and technology like webcams for videoconferencing now in place, classes have resumed on the Coral Gables Campus with the safety of students, faculty, and instructors in mind.

One of the most unusual games of Tetris wasn’t played on a laptop or smartphone, but on the University of Miami Coral Gables Campus during the height of this summer, when faculty and staff from a multitude of departments and divisions reconfigured teaching spaces, shuffled furniture, and integrated technology into classrooms as part of an ambitious endeavor to safely bring students back—both in-person and remotely—for fall-semester instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Students got their first look at the University’s reimagined teaching spaces on Aug. 17, walking into classrooms that featured seats spaced six feet apart, protective plexiglass shields on desktops, hand sanitizer dispensers, webcams mounted on special stands, and professors sporting lavalier microphones. 

Taking it all in was Jeffrey Duerk, the University’s executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, who arrived early on campus that day to welcome back students and faculty and to peek in on a few of the redesigned classrooms that are the result of a special committee he convened over the summer to shepherd the changes. 

“I’m so proud of our University and optimistic for the semester,” he said. 

University of Miami students are now learning—and instructors are now teaching—under three different modalities: in-person, completely remote, or via a hybrid model that combines the two. The process to get there has been a monthslong effort—one that took root in mid-March, when the coronavirus’s spread forced virtually all of the nation’s universities and colleges to shut down early and convert to distance learning for the remainder of the academic year. 

“Once we got past the first couple of weeks of the spring-semester conversion to strictly remote learning, we started considering what the fall semester might look like. And by the middle of May, our plan had started in earnest,” Duerk recalled. 

“But it had nothing to do with the surge in cases in Miami-Dade,” he said. “It was just recognition that this pandemic would be around for a year or more. And therefore, regardless of what happened locally, we were going to have to be prepared to do what was right for our faculty and students and guided by public health principles.” 

Duerk organized the Course Grid and Reduce Campus Density Committee, appointing to it representatives from across the University. Its first challenge: delivering on the promise of a semester that was comparable to what schools and colleges had offered during spring registration for the fall—in-person teaching and learning. 

The challenge was daunting. About 13,000 students had already registered for fall classes, and faculty had locked in their class times and locations. “The question we faced was, given the fact that most students had registered for their courses and we’re going to have to social distance, how can we preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the semester in its normal format that students and faculty signed up for?” Duerk explained. 

The committee also encountered the additional challenge of how to seat, for example, 200 students in an area that wasn’t large enough to facilitate the six-feet-of-social-distancing requirement for a class of that size. “We had to look at our course enrollment and figure out what classes could be put where, and how we could reduce the density in some rooms. And that was like a big game of Tetris basically,” Duerk said, referring to the widely popular puzzle game that started in the ’80s. 

To overcome those challenges, the committee came up with ideas where some mid-sized, face-to-face (F2F) classes would shift to much larger spaces and continue to be offered F2F; in others, a hybrid model was created with attendance staggered in some classes. Group A, for instance, would attend a two-day a week course on Tuesday while Group B would attend virtually, with the groups reversing that schedule on Thursday. 

The committee also converted large non-teaching spaces into classrooms. A section of the Watsco Center bowl area, the Fieldhouse, and the Shalala Student Center Ballroom, for example, are now being used as classrooms with appropriate technology—webcams, massive projection systems, and microphones—installed for those students who are attending the University in a virtual format only. 

Even contact tracing was factored into the reconfiguration of classrooms. “Imagine if a student gets sick. We would want to know who sat around them in every class. Not that those students would necessarily be identified as a ‘close contact,’ but we’d certainly want to talk to them,” Duerk said. “So, we not only assigned students to sections but students to seats within those sections, so that we’d know who was sitting next to who on every given day.” 

Duerk noted that when the basic layout for courses in classroom spaces had been drafted, faculty and teaching assistants (TA’s) with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-identified risk factors were offered and provided accommodations by their deans and/or department chairs, which altered both classroom layouts and course offerings. When some courses moved to a remote format, rooms opened up for the reconversion of hybrid classes to face-to-face and vice-versa. In the end, more than 500 faculty and TA requests for accommodations were provided.

Facilities Operations and Planning (FOP) played a major role in the reimagining of the University’s classrooms, using computer-aided design to change their setup. “From those marked-up floor plans, we went around and rearranged furniture, moving some pieces into storage,” said Jessica Brumley, vice president of FOP. “Where that wasn’t possible—areas with fixed seating such as in the Whitten Learning Center—we placed sleeves on chairs to identify those seats that were unavailable for use.” 

Workers installed plexiglass wellness shields in some classrooms and hand sanitizer and alcohol wipe stations in all. They also placed informational graphics throughout campus, reminding the University community to keep a physical distance, maintain hand hygiene, and wear masks. 

“As with everything with the pandemic, it’s something that we all had to figure out as a team and rely on each other’s areas of expertise to pull it off,” Brumley said. “It was a lot of reassigning resources, too. We had someone who typically works in finance coordinating furniture moves. It was a diverse team effort.” 

Three, large, air-conditioned tents have been installed on the Foote Green near the Richter Library as additional classroom space, she noted. 

Faculty members; the presidents of the Undergraduate and Graduate Student Government; the Office of the University Registrar; and representatives from Student Affairs, the Faculty Senate, University Libraries, and Information Technology served on the committee that ushered in the classroom changes students are now experiencing. 

“We were able to forecast any potential complexities that could have arisen, and with this knowledge we hit the ground running from day one,” said Dacia Simpson, director of Classroom Management, who leads the Course Grid and Reduce Campus Density Committee. Periods during which some classrooms are not in use are being devoted to study areas for students, with strict social-distancing guidelines in place, she said. 

While some schools and colleges have autonomy over their own classrooms and labs, Simpson’s Classroom Management group is responsible for the day-to-day technology support for most instructional areas on campus—about 84 classrooms. With the recent hybrid model integration, her team upgraded that technology, installing webcams and other devices into newly converted teaching spaces. 

Information Technology supported that effort and has also helped to ensure that students attending classes remotely can stay engaged. “How do you share materials with them? How do you make sure that if you have a videoconferencing session that somebody is monitoring for questions?” said Allan Gyorke, associate vice president for information technology, assistant provost for educational innovation, and chief academic technology officer. So, his group aided Simpson in getting lavalier microphones in the hands of faculty members teaching hybrid courses. 

Abigail Adeleke, president of Student Government, has already witnessed first-hand the effectiveness of that technology, noting that the instructor in one of her Tuesday classes used a microphone to engage remote students in the lecture. “One of the measures closest to my heart and one that I advocated for while serving on the committee was the ability for students to elect to be fully remote,” she said. 

Gyorke’s group also produced a special guide, Preparing to Teach a Hybrid Course, which has been distributed to faculty. “As the summer progressed, the Division of Continuing and International Education (DCIE) and my team worked together to provide workshops to faculty about teaching in online and hybrid formats,” he said. “Rik Bair in DCIE was a great partner and leader in creating the faculty professional development series.” 

The now fully operational ’Canes Central—which provides undergraduate and graduate students with support for registration and records, billing and payment, financial aid, and ’Cane Cards—played an integral part, making sure students were able to register seamlessly for fall classes. “We had originally been slated for a soft launch in May,” said Sean Kilpatrick, executive director. “But with the pandemic, we launched earlier to support COVID-19 operations.” ’Canes Central, Housing and Residential Life, and Financial Assistance interacted with each of the approximately 3,600 students who elected to take all their courses remotely. 

Lessons learned from the University’s response to Hurricane Irma three years ago undoubtedly served as a guide in helping the institution bring back students for in-person, remote, and hybrid learning this fall. “After Irma hit and we had lost three weeks, we started the formal process of creating school-based academic contingency plans, with the School of Nursing and Health Studies being the first school to complete their plan,” Duerk said. “We also then created a committee on academic computing and focused on how we might create an academic library of courses should they be necessary.” 

He said that last January, University officials noted that the nursing school plan accounted for both natural disasters and pandemics. “As COVID emerged, all the schools and colleges responded by adapting their plans based on what Nursing had already considered,” Duerk said. 

His own extensive scientific background—he holds multiple degrees in electrical and biomedical engineering—aided in the effort to solve problems his team encountered over the summer as they created and then implemented the blueprint for bringing students back safely. “As an engineer, there are two things that helped,” he explained. “One is an appreciation of the underlying math, biology, and science of COVID-19 and also having a feel for how to decompose a problem into smaller portions, attacking the most important parts first. And, being pragmatic, sometimes perfect is the enemy of good. The scientific discipline and problem-solving nature are the most relevant.” 

When the pandemic subsides and classroom instruction and physical space return to some degree to what they once were, will the hybrid model employed this semester remain? “I think so,” Gyorke said. “Will it be widespread? No. But it certainly gives us the ability to have, for example, a visiting scholar or to share lectures with a partner university in Latin America,” she added. 

“Now that we’ve dipped our toe into this hybrid space, we’ve learned quite a lot along the way,” Gyorke continued. “Some faculty are finding it works for them, some are finding they would rather just meet students in the classroom. It’s really broadened our experiences as to what’s possible.” 

Duerk said that while students are comfortable with the technology, they were not accustomed to it “for the role that it was being asked to serve.” 

“While the students may be comfortable with digital technology for social interactions, this is using it in a different way, in a way that they have to be active learners and not engaged participants,” he said. “The difference between being engaged in conversation and banter is different than deeply putting your mind to what’s going on in your eyes and ears on a screen to learn. I don’t think there’s been any time in the history of higher education where the faculty and the students were learning at the same rate at the same time,” he added. 

“In reality, we are neophytes in this new educational frontier,” Duerk explained. “Yet, we know it will change higher education because we’ll eventually figure out and become experts on which tool works best for different kinds of courses and different kinds of content.”