Virtual Learning Should and Can Be Hands-On

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Back in March, as campuses across the nation abruptly shifted from in-person to online learning, many of us faced an existential dilemma. How could colleges — especially those that encourage collaborative, hands-on learning — adapt to distance education? Could we replicate learning in labs, group projects and field research at home?

As many colleges and universities embark upon fully remote or hybrid academic years, and others pivot back online due to the rising complexities of managing COVID-19 on a campus, we face the same questions — and challenges — all over again.

Experiential education — learning by doing — captures and retains a broader and more diverse audience, instills confidence and self-efficacy in our students, and leads to better learning outcomes. Losing this crucial element of learning may mean compromising on meeting the educational needs of our students, delaying critical research or limiting the discussion and debate necessary to successfully address the very problems our country is confronting amid this global crisis.

As the dean of an engineering school, I recognize the hurdles of offering experiential education under the current constraints. “Remote hands-on leaning” seems like an oxymoron, particularly in the engineering and science fields. Yet the stakes are higher than ever for us to get it right.

Furthermore, as the pandemic’s impact is far worse for our Black, brown and lower-income students, we have a responsibility to mitigate inequities in our system and remain even more engaged, facilitate peer-to-peer connections and be flexible — despite the distance.

Months ago, when confronted with these challenges, we did what engineers do. We saw a problem. We tried our best to solve it.

Doing so required us to entirely rethink all our courses just two weeks before the start of spring term. At Dartmouth College, we teach engineers to engage with science and technology at the intersection of the human-made world and the human experience. For us, that meant finding ways to retain this key pillar of our curriculum, not in a classroom or lab alongside other humans but online.

In the end, we retained core elements of what distinguishes our college. We offered 55 engineering courses, just four fewer than planned, with more than half of the courses containing lab- or project-based components — elements we were eager to keep. By the end of spring term, our students had worked in virtual teams to build 3-D-printed chronometers, mini-Segways and balancing bots, and prototypes for inexpensive ventilators using BiPAP machines. Our researchers had pivoted ongoing work to confront the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2.

And we did this without breaking our budget or requiring our students to spend more. In fact, as a school of engineering, we broke even when accounting for other savings from shutting down heat and electricity in our near-empty buildings and from canceling events and travel.

With COVID-19 a reality for the foreseeable future, all of us in higher education administration must think outside the box if we are to continue to ensure we meet the highest educational needs of our students. Every institution has a different set of constituents, resources and needs, but we can offer some general advice to other educators seeking to incorporate more hands-on learning into their virtual and hybrid courses.

Focus on the most important things your students need to learn. Too often, we get bogged down with what we can’t do in class versus what we can. During the past months, we focused on the most important elements of our courses and reimagined the best way for students to have that experience at home. We did not aim for an exact replica online.

Repurpose common household items and spaces. With students scattered across the globe, we drummed up ideas for lower-cost, readily available alternatives for materials and equipment: garden hoses, paper clips, sugar and salt, to name just a few. We also considered how a garage, the kitchen counter or a bathroom sink might transform into a bench or lab. In one course, our students used hammers, mallets and common hardware to build their own at-home plastics impact tester, in place of a $10,000 piece of equipment they would normally use on our campus. Students can even be assigned the responsibility of developing their own distinct demos to exhibit a newly learned concept.

Look to relatively inexpensive scientific kits. Scientific equipment and kits are available at a much lower cost than even just five years ago. To be sure, as an Ivy League school, Dartmouth has more resources than most, but even with just $50, the possibilities are virtually endless. For many of our classes, we paid to ship various kits to students containing relatively inexpensive parts, such as paper clips, tubing and wiring. The kits we developed for some of our robotics courses will be used as standard and supplementary materials for upcoming courses, making engineering more accessible to more students well into the future.

Retrofit equipment so students across the world have access from their home. We were able to continue to tap in to campus resources even while our buildings remained relatively empty. As students could no longer operate machinery in person, some Dartmouth classes full of students in locations all across the country and the world accessed equipment, such as a scanning electron microscope, from home after we retrofitted our machines to adapt to online learning.

Use free online materials and inexpensive equipment. For a small mechanical engineering course, we paid for and shipped each student a mini 3-D printer; at under $200 each, they cost less than some textbooks. For project-based courses, we gave teams of students scattered across the world small budgets and debit cards to purchase required materials. And we asked students to get creative. In one materials science course, our students made rock candy to study crystal structure.

Empower faculty and staff with flexibility and support. At times, teaching these classes remotely required sheer willpower and the can-do attitude of faculty and staff members who rolled up their sleeves. When one of our associate deans realized that parts necessary for a class might not arrive in time, he rented a flatbed truck and visited local hardware stores to purchase the materials. Some of our front-line staff members shifted from usual work duties to help box and ship hundreds of lab kits to students so they could do project-based learning at home.

Offer extra support and resources to students, as feasible. It’s most important to acknowledge that students also are facing uncertain times. Even a relatively inexpensive, remotely located teaching assistant, such as an undergraduate who took the course last term, can be an incredibly valuable source of additional support for current students. All our faculty and teaching assistants offer more office hours to meet the new demands of distance learning and account for time differences around the world.

Although you’ll now see plenty more students, staff and faculty on our campus, we are essentially replicating what worked in the spring, making simple tweaks here and there to meet evolving needs. For example, this fall, many of our courses are still only being offered online, so we have continued to buy materials for students to use at home. But, instead of shipping everything, we are leaving prepacked and clearly labeled boxes for those students on campus to pick up, reducing time spent and total cost.

We continue to fine-tune our plans for the remainder of the academic year, aiming to be even more accommodating and flexible while still maintaining high standards. Every student who wants to should have the opportunity and ability to fully participate, and our COVID-19 experience has illuminated how to do better.

It’s what our students deserve.

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