Life and learning find a way during a pandemic

On March 12, Iain Cheeseman held his final in-person lecture for 7.06 (Cell Biology) before the Covid-19 pandemic prompted MIT to abruptly transition to online learning. A professor of biology and Whitehead Institute member, Cheeseman was five minutes from the end of his talk on actin binding proteins when the fire alarm unexpectedly sounded, and the entire class was forced to evacuate.

“To me, that was a metaphor for the entire semester,” he says. “You have the best-laid plans, and then an alarm sounds, everyone is suddenly forced to flee, and all you can do is hope that they stay safe. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”

Like many universities, MIT recently emptied its physical campus and established a virtual one, instructing students to return home and community members to work remotely if possible. Despite the short notice and continually-evolving circumstances, the Department of Biology is finding ways to come together while being apart.

Cheeseman and his co-instructor, Becky Lamason, were in a better position than most to move their class online. In the fall, long before the pandemic, the two began working with the department’s digital learning team, MITxBio, to create an online version of 7.06.

Each year, in addition to conducting award-winning educational research, MITxBio teams up with several instructors to devise massive open online courses. These “MOOCs” are replete with recorded lectures, online assessments, discussion forums, and detailed animations. Anyone can take an MITxBio MOOC for free, or pay a small fee to receive a certificate post-completion. MIT students can also use these digital resources through their class websites.

MITxBio’s list of responsibilities expanded almost immediately after MIT announced its plans to go remote. The team became the department’s go-to resource for online learning, and they began meeting with instructors to demonstrate how to record lectures, run recitations via Zoom, hold online office hours, administer exams, and determine a general workflow for the new normal. They also compiled recommendations and instructions for the transition. In addition to 7.06, MITxBio is also assisting with 7.014 (Introductory Biology), 7.05 (General Biochemistry), and 7.28/7.58 (Molecular Biology).

“Normally, it would take us about six months to develop the online resources for a MOOC,” says Mary Ellen Wiltrout, lecturer and MITx digital learning scientist. “But in this case, we didn’t have much advance notice and that really compressed our timeline.” She’s pleased to report that remote learning thus far hasn’t been very exciting, which is a “major success” because it means things are running smoothly — although there were some kinks early on.

Simple tasks that were no-brainers during in-person classes became conundrums in the virtual realm for instructors. Should they hold live lectures at the regularly scheduled time, or record their lectures for easy viewing in multiple time zones? What’s the best way to administer and grade a remote exam? How should teaching assistants conduct their recitations? Even noticing when a student raised their hand in a virtual classroom became a quandary. But perhaps the biggest predicament of all was determining how to proceed with lab classes, which revolve around hands-on experiences.

Technical instructors like Vanessa Cheung and Eric Chu have continued to hold their labs, 7.002 (Fundamentals of Experimental Molecular Biology) and 7.003 (Applied Molecular Biology Laboratory). Cheung and Chu had just three days after students departed before Building 68 was closed to nonessential personnel. They wrapped up as many experiments as they could, and combined those results with data from previous classes for their students to analyze. Cheung and Chu documented many of the techniques through pictures, videos, and diagrams, and then supplemented their own instruction with online content from other sources. Each week, the instructors, students, and teaching assistants gather in a Zoom chat room to discuss additional material and announcements, before breaking into smaller discussion groups.

Luckily, Cheung says, the students had already learned the key lab techniques, and the remaining protocols merely required “pipetting things into tubes, which they already know how to do.” Thanks to all the online supplemental materials, she suspects the students may be getting exposed to more information than they normally would if they were still on campus. “In some ways, they may actually have the opportunity to get more out of the class,” she says.

“The lab instructors have done a phenomenal job transitioning to remote learning,” adds Adam Martin, associate professor of biology and undergraduate officer. “The students may not get to experience the joy of loading a gel for themselves, but they’ll still get the chance to analyze and write about real experimental data.”

Martin oversees his own lab of undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and technicians, who evacuated Building 68 shortly after the students left campus. His group studies embryonic development in fruit flies, and has put wet lab experiments on hold in favor of learning computational techniques, conducting literature searches, and composing papers from home.

“We’ve stayed pretty busy,” he says. “The biggest challenge is maintaining our fly stocks.” Some of the flies have remained in Building 68 under the supervision of designated caretakers, while a back-up collection resides safe and sound in Martin’s basement.

As an undergraduate officer, Martin has remained in touch with undergraduates outside his lab as well by setting up one-on-one meetings. “I’ve been trying to be proactive about keeping in touch, and regularly engaging with them to make sure no one is falling through the cracks,” he says.

In addition to continuing existing student services, MIT has also aggregated online teaching and learning resources, and organized a Student Success Team that pairs undergraduates with coaches who provide support.

“MIT is stressful enough in-person,” Cheung says, “but add to that distractions at home, spotty Wi-Fi, and the stress of a pandemic, and it’s a lot for students to manage.”

Through virtual check-ins, online surveys, and unintentional guest appearances by family, members of the MIT biology community have gotten to know each other in new and different ways.

“All the students are realizing that we have lives,” Martin says. “Managing family and work responsibilities has been a balancing act, to say the least.”

Back in 7.06, Cheeseman was preparing for the first online exam by sending a practice quiz with light-hearted questions. In one question, he asked his students for silly social distancing stories. He was touched to receive tales of family bonding, online orders gone awry, and lots of recipes.

“It gave me such a perspective on the undergrads here,” he says. “I really miss them. There’s no way we can pretend this is life as normal, but I respect how the students are doing their best and have continued to have a good attitude.”

Cheung and Martin have been impressed with the high participation rate they’ve witnessed. “It’s heartwarming to see that MIT students genuinely care about learning,” Cheung says, “even when they’re scattered across the globe.”

Even after everyone eventually returns to campus, Wiltrout predicts teaching and learning at MIT will never be the same — and perhaps that’s a good thing.

“Many people were initially hesitant to adopt online learning technology,” she says. “But now they’re realizing that these online tools can really enhance in-person learning, or make some TA duties more efficient.”

While MIT weathers the pandemic, students, instructors, and staff in the department will do their best to continue as normal. “In my case, that means entertaining my students and keeping the dad jokes going,” Cheeseman says. “It isn’t the situation any of us would have wanted, but we’re coping better than we ever thought we could.”

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