When Cornell shifted from in-person classes to virtual instruction in March 2020, individual faculty members were asked to quickly implement new technologies and strategies for keeping students engaged online. Though many had limited experience teaching via Zoom, they rose to the occasion.
Some produced scripted video lectures filled with music and video clips, some invited guest lecturers from around the world to Zoom in and share their expertise, and some incorporated online polls to encourage students to interact in real time via chat. Faculty whose subject matter required in-person instruction incorporated outdoor classes, small group instruction to maintain social distancing, and even fun costumes and music to raise students’ spirits—while keeping them safe.
As the new academic year begins, we reached out to several faculty members across campus to share the lessons they’ve learned. Here, nine Cornell faculty members relay how they pivoted to respond to the pandemic, what the experience taught them, and how these insights have led to lasting innovations in their classrooms.
We hope you are inspired by their ingenuity, passion for sharing their knowledge, and dedication to and empathy for their students.
Bruce Monger: rise up and be heroes
“I like being up on stage trying to inspire students to work to make a better world.”
Bruce Monger, director of undergraduate studies for Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, teaches Introductory Oceanography—among the largest and most popular courses at Cornell. When Bruce started teaching oceanography in 2006, there were 142 students enrolled. In the 15 years since, enrollment has grown to more than 1,000 students. Bruce’s class typically fills Bailey Hall.
Bruce’s students tell him that they are inspired by his passion for ocean conservation. “I like being up on stage trying to inspire students to work to make a better world,” he says.
In fall 2020, when his introductory class was offered fully online, it was important to Bruce to maintain a personal connection with students. He reached out to eCornell to use their staff and studio to create movie-quality recordings of his lectures. The recordings allowed Bruce to smoothly transition between full-screen headshots of himself talking to the students and full-screen slides and video clips.
Watch Bruce encourage his students to make the world a better place.
“The high-quality audio and video were greatly appreciated by students,” Bruce says. “It was clear from the course evaluations that my passion came through in the recorded lectures.”
An unexpected silver lining is that eCornell will soon launch a new online ocean conservation certificate program, using the recorded material from Bruce’s introductory oceanography lectures. “I’m excited that my passion for ocean conservation will now have the potential to reach more people beyond the Cornell campus,” Bruce says.
In spring 2021, Bruce decided to use a similar approach in his online Physical Oceanography class for upper-level students. “I downloaded an open-source software called Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) that allowed me to run my class via live Zoom and make the same kind of smooth switch between full-screen slides and full-screen high-quality webcam headshots of me talking with students,” Bruce explains. “This format allowed me to make a nice personal connection with students,” he says.
Bruce is looking forward to returning to in-person classes this fall. “I like people and I like making human connections,” he says, adding, “when I’m on stage in Bailey Hall, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
Durba Ghosh: reimagining the 8:00 a.m. class
“A lot of our students are awake at 8:00 a.m., but not ready to leave the house. It was pretty amazing to have 60+ students dialing in at eight in the morning for class.”
Durba Ghosh is a history professor and director of the new Humanities Scholars Program at Cornell. In spring 2021, Durba taught two online classes: A Global History of Love with an enrollment of 60+ undergraduates and a Humanities Scholars research seminar with 14 upper-level students.
The History of Love class was offered at 8:00 a.m.—traditionally not the most popular time slot at Cornell. Durba was surprised to find that she had a waitlist for the class. “It turned out that this timing allowed international students to enroll,” she explains. “It also turned out that a lot of our students are awake at 8:00 a.m., but not ready to leave the house. It was pretty amazing to have 60+ students dialing in at eight in the morning for class.”
Durba says that her History of Love class depends on student interaction. In person, students use iClickers to respond to true-false and multiple-choice questions throughout the class period. With the transition to Zoom, Durba invited students to record their responses to her lecture in real time, in the chat.
“On Zoom, they’re not limited to the ways that we phrased the question, so it opens up new possibilities,” she explains. She also invited students to rename themselves in the chat, several times each week, to keep the discussions entertaining.
“In the chat, other students could read the responses and engage. It allowed students less likely to speak up to participate more actively,” Durba shares, adding, “I’m thinking of ways to replicate this experience in person.”
Student responses to a question Durba posed in class: “Why do you want to know how your parents met?”
- Hearing/telling the story creates a stronger bond between me and them
- It’s something our kids are gonna ask us
- I wanted to know why she got stuck with him
- Yeah, why him?
- It is part of our identity given that it’s the reason we exist
- Their meeting resulted in my being
Durba reports that a lot—more than the usual number—of her students were experiencing stress and struggling to maintain balance in spring 2021. As a result, she “followed up when students missed class or didn’t participate. I also granted a lot of extensions and incompletes, which alleviated the pressures for some students, but not for all.”
Durba will be teaching a new course called 9/11 and Its Afterlives this fall. She plans to reach out to each student individually during the first few weeks of the semester, “to preview what their semester looks like and help them to anticipate deadlines and bottlenecks given their workload.”
Anticipating stress around the ongoing pandemic, Durba is being proactive. “Far too often, students feel as if they have disappointed the instructor, which adds to their stress,” she says.
To help students stay on track, Durba plans to offer options for paper assignments, so that students can pace themselves. “I will also conduct a mid-semester and end-of-semester evaluation,” she explains, “so that students can monitor and assess their work for themselves.”
Dave Lin: navigating the sea of black windows
“Every now and then, an answer would rise out of the chat from someone with their camera off, giving me hope that they were paying attention.”
Dave Lin, associate professor of neurobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, has been counting the days since his courses transitioned online. “In the old days, a little over 522 days ago, the best part of my day was working with students to identify and understand a problem,” he says.
At the start of the pandemic, he suddenly found himself in front of “a sea of black windows” on Zoom, seeking to connect with his students. “I needed a new way to connect with students who were in another country or time zone, and somehow figure out whether they understood the material, regardless of if their cameras were on or not,” he shares.
In fall 2020, Dave taught a class designed to prepare first-year graduate students for a career in the life sciences, called By Scientific Design: Skill Building for a Career in the Life Sciences. About 20 students were enrolled. In spring 2021, he and a team of lecturers taught 110 first-year veterinary students enrolled in Function and Dysfunction: Part I (Foundation Course IIIa), a course about how an animal’s systems work together and how injury or disease can affect these systems.
Typically, Dave loves the aha moments when he sees that his students have grasped a new concept. “Working side by side with students, talking to them one on one, and drawing them out to gauge their level of understanding all lends a feeling of immediacy and impact,” Dave says.
With the transition to online instruction, he tried all sorts of approaches to engage with students. “From funny Zoom backgrounds, to terrible dad jokes, to an unusually high number of Poll Everywhere questions, I stumbled my way through the pandemic to try and figure out how to reach students. And every now and then, an answer would rise out of the chat from someone with their camera off, giving me hope that they were paying attention,” he says.
On a positive note, Dave feels that small group discussions via Zoom encouraged his more reticent students to participate. “Because only one person could talk at a time, it allowed people who may have been particularly shy a chance to speak up.”
Dave is looking forward to resuming in-person classes this fall. “I hope we never have to rely solely on Zoom again to interact with students,” he says, “but if we do, I think I will forgo the dad jokes and go with the ground rules we established for each Zoom class—give everyone a chance to speak, be respectful of others, and agree to all do our best to move things forward.”
Alexandra Cirone: bringing the world to students
“Pandemic teaching is not normal teaching—it’s like pushing a boulder up a slippery hill.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Alexandra Cirone, an assistant professor of government, has been teaching virtually. Last year she taught a graduate course in Game Theory and a senior seminar called The Truth About Fake News.
“Pandemic teaching is not normal teaching—it’s like pushing a boulder up a slippery hill,” Ali says. “We faculty were able to cope by drastically changing our courses and by being flexible—both in responding to our students, and to the world at large,” she adds.
To adapt her curriculum to a virtual format required many behind-the-scenes tweaks. Ali employed multiple strategies to make her classes more effective, including: “creating and recording additional content, flipping the classroom, developing asynchronous activities via Canvas to ensure that students who were absent or on different time zones could still engage, and adjusting group work to minimize screen fatigue.”
Ali capitalized on the virtual format to bring in guest speakers and experts from across the country. “Zoom makes it easy for speakers to visit a class,” she says, “and the students love it!”
“In my fake news class, we had the director of strategy and policy at the Department of Defense Joint Artificial Intelligence Center come to talk about AI, and we had a data scientist on counter-misinformation from the DNC ‘visit’ class to talk about fake news during the 2020 U.S. election.”
Ali also took advantage of the Zoom platform to conduct Rapid Fire debates, in which each student has one minute to speak. Students are split into teams, and teams alternate speakers from minute to minute. In spring 2021, her students debated for and against the Flat Earth conspiracy theory. She reports that her students’ performance was “utterly brilliant.”
“The virtual format allowed students to hone their speaking skills in a way that is more interesting than the traditional podium debate format,” Ali explains. “Since Zoom requires no physical movement (and has the added advantage of allowing students to look up facts as they went), the debate was much quicker,” she says. “Also, students who were apprehensive of public speaking found it easier to participate via Zoom (instead of standing up in front of a room),” she adds.
Another innovation that Ali noted was the Government Department’s adoption of Slack during the pandemic, to facilitate communication between faculty, graduate students, and prospective graduate students. “We have one channel that passes on opportunities for grants, fellowships, or jobs; we have another channel for faculty business or questions; we have yet another channel for fun things or personal announcements (such as baby photos or cheering for students who won dissertation prizes),” Ali says. “It’s been a way to connect, even if we aren’t physically together,” she explains.
Ali is grateful that Cornell has implemented a campus-wide mask mandate as students return to in-person classes in fall 2021. “Students and faculty are still coping with fear and stress, and, at any moment, we know we could revert to virtual,” she says.
Muna Ndulo: practicing patience
“In the end, the teaching went much better than I imagined it would.”
Muna Ndulo is a professor at Cornell Law School with expertise in international and comparative law and human rights. When the pandemic hit, he was teaching International Law and Foreign Direct Investment to 76 upper-level Law School students and a seminar in International Criminal Law to 16 students.
Muna says that he, like many Cornell faculty members, was unprepared for the transition to remote learning in spring 2020. “Online teaching was new territory,” he says. “The impromptu meetings immediately after in-person classes were suddenly gone!”
He had to learn new computing skills and turn to his teaching assistants for suggestions on how to engage students using various features available via the Zoom platform.
“The Law School technical staff were superb,” Muna reports, “and we all quickly learned the basics for teaching online. Thanks to my teaching assistants, we came up with ideas about group work and collaborative activities (quizzes, polls, etc.).”
For example, in spring 2021, Muna taught his students about the protection of intellectual property. After his lecture, Muna polled the students to hear their opinions on liberalizing patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
“I was amazed at the poll results,” Muna says. “There was almost unanimity in the class on the need to liberalize patent protections in the case of COVID-19 vaccines. Many students stated that this was an emergency situation, and countries should be allowed easy access to COVID-19 technology so that they could protect their populations from this devastating disease,” Muna explains.
Muna shares that many of his students faced pandemic-related challenges, including loss of loved ones. “It certainly made me more patient,” he says.
He feels that teaching during the pandemic has also made him focus on better communication with students. “I found myself encouraging more feedback to make sure the students understood the materials we had covered in class,” he says, adding, “I tried to counter the challenges by scheduling regular online meetings with small groups of students, and by increasing email discussions.”
Looking back on his experience during the pandemic, Muna says, “in the end, the teaching went much better than I imagined it would.”
Still, he is looking forward to the return to in-person classes this fall, when he will teach International Human Rights and a seminar on Law and Social Change: Comparative Law in Africa. Muna admits he is a little apprehensive about “getting to know the students faces,” because everyone will be wearing masks.
Michelle Moyal DVM ’07: reminding students to eat, hydrate, and breathe
“We had to find ways to be creative and stay physically distant, while still being confined in a room when performing procedures.”
Michelle Moyal DVM ’07 is chief of the Primary Care Surgery (PCS) service in the College of Veterinary Medicine. She returned to work at her alma mater in the midst of the pandemic. “While I returned during a really scary time in our history, I was honored to join the faculty of the very institution that molded me as a young doctor,” she says.
Michelle works with about 85 percent of Cornell veterinary students in their fourth and final year. Last year, she taught more than 100 students in groups of 4-5, as they rotated through the Primary Care Surgery service. Under Michelle’s supervision, students work hands-on and in-person to examine, draw blood, and perform surgeries on cats and dogs from local animal shelters and rescues.
“Clinics are intended to allow our students to apply the learning they’ve done in their first three years into a full year of actual hands-on practical application,” Michelle explains.
Since much of this work cannot be done online, she strives to keep her students as safe as possible.
“We had to find ways to be creative and stay physically distant, while still being confined in a room when performing procedures,” she says. The college has implemented a series of safety protocols, many of which Michelle hopes to retain in the long-term. They include:
- Face shields, masks, and social distancing whenever possible
- Hand-washing and disinfecting work stations after each use
- Rounds held outside in the open air at a distance or via Zoom when possible
- Separate rooms/work stations to accommodate (and separate) students
- Students take breaks one at a time to ensure safety when eating in break spaces
Michelle also encourages students to take time for self-care throughout each day. “I remind them to eat and hydrate, as well as breathe and focus on their patients,” she says, adding, “Rounds outside allow for us to sit together in the fresh Ithaca air and take in some sun!”
Students also get to choose the music played in the operating room when they are performing surgery. “They have the ability to express themselves as a person during a time that can be quite stressful as a young surgeon,” Michelle explains. “This brings a lot of joy!”
Michelle feels that the pandemic has changed the dynamic in veterinary medicine—introducing shorter appointments, curbside service, and less in-person interaction. She hopes to ensure that her students are prepared to hit the ground running as they graduate and begin their professional lives.
“All the pandemic cats and dogs people adopted will need care, and our students will be on the front lines to provide that care,” Michelle explains.
“My goal is to help our students truly experience cases as they will see them in practice. My hope is that they apply everything they’ve learned in veterinary school to provide the best possible patient care,” she says.
Miloje Despic: learning to read between the lines, online
“One of the biggest challenges ahead of us will be to find effective ways to overcome the sense of isolation and restore a positive outlook on students’ academic future.”
Miloje Despic, an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics, teaches a variety of courses—from large introductory lectures with students from various majors and colleges, to advanced graduate-level seminars in syntax, morphology, or semantics. “I teach a really diverse group of people, which includes many international students,” he says.
The biggest challenge Miloje faced at the start of the pandemic was how to gauge his students’ grasp of the material without being able to read their facial cues and body language. “In an in-person setting I can quite easily determine from the students’ expressions if the material is too complex, too easy, or if I need to slow down or speed up,” he says.
Without these useful clues, Miloje reminds students throughout his online lectures to jump in at any point if they have questions about the material or if they need further clarification. “I have tried to make my online classes as interactive as possible,” he explains.
To accommodate international students in different time zones, who watch his online lectures asynchronously, Miloje set up one-on-one online meetings to answer questions and provide individualized help. “It took some time to get used to this mode of operating, but I think it worked fine in the end,” he adds.
Miloje shared that, at the graduate level, where student’s work often involves detailed structures, formulas, and examples, he has found the screen sharing feature of Zoom to be very useful. “It’s really easy to point out subtle problematic details,” he says. “Also, if during the discussion we remember some other analysis or paper that could be relevant, we can easily find it and discuss it right away, instead of leaving it for some future meeting. I feel that we cover more ground this way than by sitting in an office across from each other with paper copies of the document in our hands.”
Another unexpected silver lining for Miloje is the fact that he’s been able to attend many conferences online. “The immediate benefit, of course, is that there’s no travelling (often exhausting and time-consuming) and we get to learn as much as in an in-person presentation,” he says.
On the downside, Miloje worries that the pandemic has left many students feeling isolated, especially those in international locations. “One of the biggest challenges ahead of us will be to find effective ways to overcome the sense of isolation and restore a positive outlook on students’ academic future,” Miloje says.
Jamila Michener: extending grace
“Cornell students are amazing when they have some space to learn in more engaged and authentic ways.”
Jamila Michener is an associate professor of government, co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, and co-director of the Politics of Race, Immigration, Class, and Ethnicity (PRICE) initiative. In fall 2020, she taught an undergraduate course, Politics of Public Policy in the U.S., and a graduate seminar, Poverty and Social Policy. This fall she is launching a new undergraduate course called Health Equity, Politics and Policy, in collaboration with her colleague Isabel Perera.
Throughout the pandemic, Jamila taught from her guest bedroom. Her two children were attending school from home, a few doors away, and Jamila says balancing these priorities was challenging. In fact, she describes last year as “one of the toughest years of her career.”
Jamila credits her friendship with Anna Haskins for helping her survive the past year. “We were a major support system for one another,” Jamila says. “We had weekly Zoom hangouts to debrief and share advice. We also took outdoor, masked walks regularly, and that was key to maintaining my sanity.”
Recognizing that her students were experiencing similar challenges, Jamila says that she responded by extending them—and herself—grace. While she did not compromise on her high standards and expectations for her students, she made adjustments to accommodate their mental, emotional, and physical limits.
One way she did this was by assigning less: “less reading, fewer assignments, fewer tests, and fewer deadlines,” she explains. Recognizing their “already impossible workloads” and deciding to ease off was, Jamila says, the perfect antidote.
“I discovered something that will change my teaching going forward: less is more,” she says. “When I assign fewer articles or books, students read the ones that are assigned more closely. When they have fewer assignments to complete, they tend to put more effort into each one. When they are less stressed thinking about the next deadline, quiz, or test, they can focus more on the substantive content of the class.”
Jamila also offered students creative alternatives to traditional essays. For one assignment, she asked that they use any medium other than a standard paper to present a key concept from the course. Jamila says their responses were “beyond my most hopeful expectations,” and included everything from screen plays to board games to poems. “Cornell students are amazing when they have some space to learn in more engaged and authentic ways,” she says.
Jamila shares that she was not sure how these new approaches would work. So, she focused on carefully listening:
- to her students to “truly hear them as they express their needs,”
- to her teaching assistants, who “sometimes pick up on problems more readily than I do,” and
- to herself, “even if that means doing things I have not done before or things that my colleagues aren’t doing.”
She also tried to have fun. Jamila’s 10-year-old son, Jace, helped spice up her online lectures by adding music, an intro, and an outro. “It kept the lecture recordings fun and fresh,” Jamila says. When Jace noticed that his mom said “okay” a lot during her lectures, he made a blooper video and asked her to share it with the class. “The students found it hilarious,” Jamila says.
Watch Okay, Jace Michener’s blooper video of his mom.
Jamila says that her experience over the past year has made her a more confident teacher. “I have realized that I can do more than I thought possible, and do it with more grace (for myself and others) and patience than I ever imagined,” she says.
Esteban Gazel: using every available resource to inspire students
“What I thought would be ‘boring online instruction’ evolved into a new way to keep the students engaged by continuing active learning experiences at home.”
“Geology is the passion of my life,” says Esteban Gazel, associate professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in the College of Engineering at Cornell. Esteban is an award-winning teacher, whose mission is to help educate the next generation so that humanity can find solutions to the grand challenges of population growth, climate change, and shrinking water and other natural resources.
Given that there are limited opportunities to observe volcanoes in close proximity to Cornell, even before the pandemic Esteban had adapted his Volcanology class to include as many hands-on activities and experiments as possible. According to Esteban, these activities include:
- injecting ketchup in gelatin scaled to different layers of the Earth
- simulating eruptive plume collapse with different types of soda and Mentos, and
- modeling mass flow processes using sand, mud, and clay mixtures.
When the pandemic required Esteban to shift his teaching online, he made it a priority to retain as much active learning as possible. “Charlotte Devitre, my PhD student, and I came up with a plan to use online resources, such as videos from the USGS mass flow experiments, to replace some of the labs,” he says. “These resources inspired students to produce simple experiments at home with everyday materials like corn-starch and water. This resulted in online learning that went beyond lectures and, for a while, distracted the students from the reality of the pandemic,” he adds.
Inspired by the success of these at-home activities, Esteban designed and launched a new hybrid course in spring 2021, called Earth Materials. He intentionally incorporated resources that students could access at home, such as online microscopes or 3D software, into the coursework.
“Some of these online activities were so cool that I plan to keep them in my regular classes, moving forward,” he says. “What I thought would be ‘boring online instruction’ evolved into a new way to keep the students engaged by continuing active learning experiences at home.”
For his in-person students, Esteban offered labs on campus for small groups of students who chose to participate. “I divided the class into groups of four, rotating new groups every hour,” Esteban says. “While this took a lot more time than normal labs, students who were able to attend were very grateful that I provided this opportunity.”
Esteban also took time to acknowledge the personal challenges that students were facing as a result of the pandemic. “As a teacher, I had to be mindful that while students were attending class, we were all going through a lot personally. So, we took time in class to address some of those challenges.”
Esteban admits that the pandemic pushed him to explore a variety of online resources that he might not otherwise have used. “It opened a world of resources,” he says. “When students told me they enjoyed the activities more than the lectures, it made me feel more confident and resilient as an instructor,” he adds.