First day of classes sees new environment for teaching and learning at Elon

Masking up indoors and in the classroom, physically-distant seating arrangements and new classroom spaces are a few of the new measures in place to promote health and safety during course meetings.

Elon’s fall semester got underway on Wednesday, as students and faculty members headed into reconfigured and new learning spaces equipped with masks and new guidelines for how they will interact and engage this academic year.

The semester commenced following months of preparation on campus for a return to in-person learning and extensive planning by faculty for how to reconfigure and adapt courses while planning for changes and challenges that may arise during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tents have been erected around campus to provide additional classroom space, and locations such as McKinnon Hall and Lakeside meeting rooms have been put into service as “surge” classrooms. For instance, Associate Professor of Journalism Rich Landesberg’s COM100 course met Wednesday in the 230-seat Turner Theatre in Schar Hall, with at most only three students to a row. 

Assistant Professor of Exercise Science Titch Madzima teaches one half of his exercise science class live in Koury Business Center on the first day of classes of fall 2020.

The number of desks in classrooms has been reduced to reinforce occupancy limits, with desks spaced out to adhere to physical distancing recommendations. Each classroom has a sanitizing station equipped with hand sanitizer, sanitizing spray and wipes.

Students entering Assistant Professor Titch Madzima’s Exercise Physiology Course Wednesday morning stopped by the hand sanitizing station before heading to their desks, which they wiped down with sanitizing wipes when class concluded. Madzima noted that it was more challenging to get to know who was who with everyone wearing masks, as well as to see when people were smiling, but underscored the importance of this new way to engage in the classroom.

“Let’s all take care, and look out for each other,” Madzima told the students. “This semester as we need to make adjustments, we’ll make adjustments.”

Classrooms are now equipped with cameras to allow for remote participation and for class sessions to be recorded. That has enabled faculty members to rethink how they’re students learn together, with many designing blended classes that have students alternating in-class and remote learning.

“A lot of faculty members have been thinking through what technological tools make the learning experience rich and help meet the learning outcomes,” said Deandra Little, assistant provost and director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning. “That can mean using those tools to bring in-class and out-of-class students together.”

Associate Professor of Journalism Rich Landesberg teaching in Turner Theatre on the first day of classes.

Planning for the 2020-21 academic year included a commitment to face-to-face learning as a foundation for student success, with the development of new guidelines and changes to operations undertaken to promote health and safety during the pandemic. The university also adopted an accommodations process for students to request to learn remotely, as well as for faculty members to teach remotely and staff members to work remotely this fall. About 170 students applied for remote learning accommodations and all were approved, while about 70 faculty members were approved to teach remotely.

That means the vast majority of classes this fall will be conducted completely in person or with a blend of in-person and remote learning. Of the 1,800 undergraduate course sections offered this fall, about 165 will be taught fully online.

This summer, the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, Teaching and Learning Technologies and Writing Across the University offered a week-long Course Design Institute to assist faculty with adjusting and rethinking their courses. Teaching and Learning Technologies offered Digital Learning Days to provide training on a variety of technological tools and services while Writing Across the University shifted its Writing Boot Camps online.

Professor and Chair of the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship Rob Moorman teaches on the first day of classes on Wednesday, Aug. 19.

Little noted that about three-fourths of course sections will be split this fall so that physical distancing within the classroom space can be maintained. Faculty members have been creative in how they have organized and split their class sessions. Some will have half the students in class on Monday, the other half in class on Wednesday, and then each group alternating in-class time on Fridays, which would be dedicated to problem-solving sessions or writing workshops. That’s supplemented by online work outside of class throughout the week, Little said.

For instance, half of Madzima’s Exercise Physiology students will be in class during each session, while the other half will be joining remotely that’s to the Zoom videoconferencing app and a camera and microphone mounted in the classroom. At least one student in class will be logged into the Zoom session that the remote students will be gathered in, and will relay questions or comments submitted via the chat function so that each student can engage, whether they are there in person or remote. The course has a lab component, and Madzima said those lab sessions will all be in person, with extra personal protective gear put to use to promote health and safety.

Professor of Chemistry and Chair of the Department of Chemistry Kathy Matera teaches half of her biochemistry class live in Koenigsberger Learning Center and half virtually on the first day of classes of fall 2020.

“People are thinking really carefully about what provides the best pedagogical learning experience, and how they can best replicate that in a new classroom environment,” Little said. “We can’t do collaborative learning the same way we did last fall, and so technology tools in the classroom are providing new ways to get people talking and working together.”

This semester, Elon has adjusted the academic calendar, so classes started earlier than originally planned to allow for in-person learning to conclude before the Thanksgiving break. This semester, final exams will follow Thanksgiving, but will be conducted online to avoid having students go home for the holiday and then return to campus.

Additionally, the class schedule each day has been adjusted to provide a longer break before classes. The schedule incorporates at least 20 minutes between classes instead of 15 to hopefully reduce density and congestion in hallways and between buildings.