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EECS Faculty Going the Distance This Year

By Kevin Bogle

In early 2020, COVID-19 began to spread around the world and eventually grew to pandemic proportions. In late March, in-person classes at UT transitioned to being fully online, and faculty, staff, and administration had just a few weeks to prepare.

Now, the department is in the midst of a fall semester like no other before it. As a significant amount of educational instruction continues online, some of our professors talk here about their experiences with various forms of distance learning technologies over the years.

Professor Michael Langston (CompSci) recalled the days of teaching television college courses.

“My experience with distance learning began when I was on the faculty at Washington State University in the early 1980s,” said Langston. “I sometimes taught my graduate classes interactively at the main campus in Pullman and at satellite campuses in Spokane, Vancouver, Everett, and the Tri-Cities. I could see and talk to students at each remote site. They could see and talk to me.”

However, Langston took things a step further and actually visited his distance education students personally, too.

“At least once each semester, I would leave Pullman and visit each remote site and deliver a lecture to the other campuses from there. I really enjoyed the opportunity to interact closely with everyone in this fashion.”

By the early 1990s, distance learning over the internet was being utilized by what was then UT’s Department of Computer Science.

“In the fall of 1993, a few of us in the department offered our core graduate courses as online synchronous courses that were taught in a studio room in the Circle Park building,” said Professor Michael Berry (CompSci). “We lectured in that room while broadcasting to a satellite classroom in Oak Ridge for employees at ORNL and professionals in the Oak Ridge community.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic unabated, the university’s administration and faculty worked through the summer to plan and prepare for the possibility of more courses being taught online in the fall than ever before.

“As far as spring 2020 goes,” Berry said, “part of the challenge was that faculty had to learn Zoom quickly and try to lecture synchronously or record lectures and use the class period for online office hours. The most immediate take-away lesson I had from the spring term that has shaped my approach for the fall has to do with having more empathy for students taking several online courses. The fatigue factor of having to stare at a screen for a large portion of the day is real and students were able to convey that to me in the spring. I have deliberately tried to keep my Zoom sessions to a maximum of 30 minutes, unless students have more questions, and I try to engage them with polls and clicker Q/questions to break up the monotony and gain feedback on their learning.”

“I’m teaching two classes in the fall, all online, and I’m working very hard to make the experience for the students non-boring and personal,” said Professor James Plank (CompSci), who said that distance learning will likely be woven into the fabric of the college experience from now on.

“I assume there will be a large learning curve,” Plank said, “but I think that moving forward, all classes will have significant online components, so I have to adapt with the times.”