CS in the Time of Coronavirus

The lead-up and planning that took place before the fall semester was a stressful time for students and professors, as big changes to the academic calendar, as well as the shift to remote learning, forced professors to adjust their course plans and students to adapt to them. While each class went remote in its own distinct way, one particularly unique case was that of CS70 (Data Structures & Program Development), whose professors, Prof. Medero and Prof. Talvitie, opted to completely move their lessons onto Sakai, retool how assessments worked, and adjust their curriculum in order to accommodate students during a remote, asynchronous semester. I was able to talk to Prof. Medero about the adjustments made to the course, the processes behind them, and how this switch could impact future semesters.

For Profs. Medero and Talvitie, the decision to go fully remote and asynchronous for the fall semester was a relatively easy one. Even when Mudd was considering bringing students on campus, they knew a lot of students from other campuses would be unable to take an in-person course, and there was always the risk of an in-person semester being canceled. And after their experience from spring (where many students encountered serious time zone challenges for synchronous classes), they decided the best course of action would be to fully commit to a remote, asynchronous course rather than trying to juggle different formats for different groups of students. This choice was also easier due to the nature of the course, as computer science is relatively easy to do remotely.

A screenshot of an online learning activity

An example of a Sakai activity

The most obvious new feature in CS70 has been the introduction of Sakai lessons which take the place of recorded lectures present in many other classes. While students see these lessons in their polished, functional final forms, a surprising amount of work went into getting the lessons up. Lots of trial and error was necessary to figure out what lesson features they could support, especially since nobody at the 5Cs had really used Sakai lessons to this extent before. While Sakai couldn’t support everything the Professors wanted to do, out of an interest in keeping everything in one place for students, as well as some HTML wizardry, they were able to make it work.

While Sakai’s “default” lesson pages were not the most aesthetically pleasing, the professors were able to bring new designs and personalities into the lessons. CS70 students will be particularly familiar with many of the dialogue boxes that were introduced into the course. The professors initially considered using their own faces, but since they wanted their template work to be usable by other professors, they used cows, the nominal CS70 mascot, as well as a variety of other animal, alien, and Jojo Siwa-related pictures to add some variety into lessons.

Word bubble exchanges between dog, cow, and horse avatars

Dialogue among the CS70 representatives

The forced switch to remote learning also inspired some changes to CS70 that better fit the pedagogical values behind the course. One example of this was the proficiency check, which replaced what would traditionally be midterms and finals for the course. Instead of these exams, students take weekly quizzes on various topics throughout the semester, with retries allowed, in a system that rewards improvement and provides lower-stakes assessments. 

While the future remains uncertain, many of the positive effects of remote learning are likely to influence future semesters of CS70. While the switch away from traditional midterms and finals was initially done to reduce the stress during remote learning, as opposed to a bad midterm week possibly ruining your grade, the professors found that it actually fit their pedagogical values better – in terms of treating learning as nonlinear – and are considering retaining a similar concept. Additionally, Prof. Medero was optimistic about continuing to use Sakai lessons as a resource to supplement in-person classes in the future, and suggested that some introductory material could even be moved there entirely. Remote, asynchronous classes certainly haven’t been able to replace in-person learning. However, in CS70’s case, the disruption remote learning has caused may be able to positively influence future in-person semesters.