The outbreak of the novel coronavirus around the world has dramatically affected all aspects of daily life and caused institutions of higher education to move towards remote learning. On 6 March 2020, the University of Washington became the first university to cancel in-person classes [1
]. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization designated COVID-19 a global pandemic [2
]. In response to this and other data, institutions of higher education shuttered their universities and announced mandates to transition to online-only education to protect the health and safety of students, staff, and faculty. Study abroad programs, university events, sports, graduation ceremonies, and other large gatherings were cancelled as the general public was advised to shelter in place and to limit or remove their contact with individuals outside of their household. Students were required to rapidly respond to these mandates by relocating from campus and preparing for remote learning with little time to adjust, sometimes at great personal or financial hardship. As students physically relocated, university faculty, staff, and administrators adapted their in-person curriculum to Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) while they sheltered at home.
Institutions have used multiple terms (e.g., online learning, remote learning, distance education) to describe the rapid transition to teaching remotely during quarantines and stay at home orders (i.e., ERT). However, these different learning modalities such as online learning typically allow for planning, student autonomy and flexibility, establishing teaching presence, care in developing digital literacy and netiquette, managing student expectations, and resolving technical difficulties beforehand [3
]. The primary differences between ERT and online and remote learning are that ERT is intended to be temporary, is enacted in response to a crisis, requires a rapid response in order to develop and implement adjusted course content, and does not offer curriculum in its intended modality [4
]. While online or remote learning may be offered in similar ways and with similar technologies to those used in ERT, unlike ERT these classes were purposively designed to be online and/or remote. Because ERT uses similar tools and methods to online or remote learning, some faculty members have experience with aspects of online teaching or remote working tools, such as learning management systems (e.g., Blackboard) and video conferencing applications (e.g., Skype, Zoom) [5
]. Often, universities already have these tools at their disposal, with some faculty members choosing to utilize them in their in-person classes to support in-person learning. However, because of the crisis, even faculty members who were highly resistant to these technologies have had to use them to finish instruction for the Spring 2020 semester. Additionally, the faculty quickly discovered that ERT has different challenges than planned online learning or teaching in-person (e.g., constrained resources). While universities offered what resources they had to help faculty adapt to the technical aspects of their new reality, they could not completely prepare them for the pedagogical challenges that result from teaching remotely during a crisis.
While faculty members were quickly trying to pivot to ERT, students were simultaneously affected by corresponding difficulties. Some students had limited or inadequate access to resources such as computers, webcams, reliable internet, and learning spaces free of distractions [6
]. Students faced job loss or housing insecurity, or were sent home to unsafe and unsupportive homes [7
]. Other students were in completely different time zones and could not attend class synchronously. Many found remote learning impersonal and challenging. During this time, students still needed resources such as academic advising, career guidance, and mental health support, but there may have been inadequate technological or human infrastructure to scale these resources to an online environment [8
]. Without informal in-person interactions between their peers, students were reliant on the sometimes limited and confusing communication from the university, university staff, and their professors for any information regarding how the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester would be handled, how they would be assessed, and any resources or flexible grading policies (e.g., pass/fail grading) that could benefit them.
These are not novel issues, but they are now occurring at an unprecedented scale and exacerbating disparities that were too often ignored when all students were expected to be within a classroom. As COVID-19 has revealed and heightened existing inequities within society, so too are these imbalances magnified during the global pandemic within higher education. Solutions for providing resources and accommodating students already exist, but barriers can inhibit students from accessing these resources which are exacerbated by the crisis. For example, students with (dis)abilities are able to make accommodation requests for equal access to education (e.g., given more time to complete exams, lecture notes); however, barriers such as stigma, discrimination, lack of awareness of resources, and unwillingness to accommodate students can still prevent students from accessing these resources [9
]. A report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities states that only 17% of college students with (dis)abilities reported utilizing these resources [10
]. After the Spring 2020 semester and rapid pivot to ERT, disability advocates are questioning why remote learning requests were not accommodated for students with disabilities before the pandemic [11
]. As with material resources, students also needed more attention, clear communication, and care during the crisis. The crisis and abrupt shift to online learning have magnified these issues to the point that they must be addressed. How, then, can students and faculty members adapt in this time of crisis?
In this paper, we sought to investigate the ways in which students and faculty members responded to the transition to ERT within a case study of a second-year undergraduate engineering class. We describe the approach the faculty of IntE took in response to the emergency, the pedagogical adjustments intended to make teaching and learning more effective, the compassion-driven approach to education adopted by the department, and the ways in which students responded to these abrupt alterations.
We selected a case study as the qualitative methodology for this study. Case studies are used to explore a phenomenon within a bounded system so that an in-depth understanding emerges from examining an individual, bounded case [41
], and take into consideration the “particular idiosyncrasies of the institution, its resources, teachers and students, as well as its overall culture” [42
] (p. 191). While institutions of higher education across the U.S. experienced the phenomenon of COVID-19 and the rapid implementation of ERT, based upon the literature on crisis management in higher education we believe that the particular way faculty members and students adapted within the department of Integrated Engineering at the University of San Diego (USD) within the United States is a compelling case that it is important to highlight. Given the disciplinary culture of engineering, which is highly technical, emotionless, rigorous, meritocratic, and depoliticized [43
], we wanted to provide a counter to traditional engineering pedagogy that is sociotechnical and grounded in compassion [45
]. Given the large number of engineering students that have reported negative reactions to ERT during COVID-19 [36
], we describe an approach that provides valuable insights about the culture of care and compassion not only during uncertain times but permanently in engineering education.
The purpose of this case study was to illustrate what engineering faculty can do to support students during ERT and, correspondingly, what methods students used to adapt in this crisis. In doing so, we aim to provide engineering educators with insight into what they can do to support students in their classroom as the global pandemic continues to disrupt higher education. As with all case study approaches, the results are not generalizable to all engineering classrooms, however the lessons learned from this case can be adaptable to many different contexts [42
3.2. Case Study Context
For this study, we explored the case of a single second-year undergraduate engineering class, “An Integrated Approach to Energy”, within the Integrated Engineering (IntE) department at USD, a private Roman Catholic institution in the western USA where engineering students receive a BS/BA and take the same liberal arts core curriculum as all other undergraduates. USD has a high tuition and small class sizes, and students expect to receive personalized attention from their instructors. The university strives to develop ethical leaders and compassionate citizens with a global perspective who will make a positive difference in the world. We have included a description of the context of our university’s response to COVID-19 and transitioning to remote teaching, IntE’s response and reactions, and the response of the faculty member who taught the class that bounds this case study.
3.2.1. University Response to COVID-19
The leadership at our university, like most across the USA, struggled to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic during the Spring 2020 semester. Constantly evolving information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal and state agencies required rapid decision-making, prompting the creation of the university’s COVID-19 Action Team, which did not include faculty representation. A timeline of relevant events before and during the transition to ERT at USD is provided in Figure 1
Overall, communication from the administration was sometimes unclear. In early March, the lack of detail and quickly evolving messaging was confusing, contradictory, and heightened the anxiety of faculty and students. Further, official communication from the university through emails and a virtual presidential forum focused on the bleak potential financial implications and a deficit framing of future student enrollments’ impact on the university. The next major issue our university grappled with was the ambiguous implementation of the pass/fail (P/F) option for course grading for the Spring 2020 semester (note that our university traditionally had letter grades of A, B, C, D, and F for most classes required for graduation). In the Spring 2020 semester, if students chose “P/F” and received a grade of “pass” for any class, they received credit towards degree requirements for graduation. If they received a “fail,” they would not receive credit and would need to repeat the class to satisfy degree requirements. Many students were concerned that taking a class with P/F would look bad to employers or were unsure how it would affect scholarships. Compounding on this, inconsistent messages were given to students by faculty (mostly due to the limited information received by the faculty), which led to considerable confusion and anxiety. Some students felt pressured into choosing P/F by faculty members, while other faculty members stigmatized the P/F as failing.
3.2.2. IntE’s Response to COVID-19 and ERT
IntE is a new department within the School of Engineering which includes four untenured faculty and one tenured faculty, who is the chair of the department. The faculty include one Asian woman, one Latino, two White men, and one White woman. This department reframes engineering as a sociotechnical endeavor, places a high value on inclusion in engineering education, and deliberately fosters strong relationships with students to support the academic and personal success of their small student population (the largest cohort being the sophomores described in this paper, which has 18 students). During the week when classes were cancelled to aid in transitioning to ERT, IntE quickly established an online community of practice. The department created new communication pathways to meet both formal and informal, social, and professional needs. They also held sessions to practice new technology such as Zoom to learn together how to better facilitate remote teaching. The department was intentional in their student facing efforts, creating informal and low-barrier ways for students to access them in ways that simulated “popping into office hours” when on campus. The IntE faculty members presented a united front by utilizing the same technologies (e.g., creating a Slack workspace for each of their classes for students); utilizing existing structures that students were familiar with prior to ERT (e.g., Blackboard); and collaborating on a survey to assess students’ remote learning resource needs (e.g., access to internet and webcams), logistical challenges (e.g., different time zones), and well-being (e.g., how they were coping). Concurrently, this also allowed a platform for students to express their concerns and voice their questions before the official start of remote learning. Based on the results from this survey, the IntE faculty developed a comprehensive plan to ease students’ transition to remote instruction.
3.2.3. GENG 294: “An Integrated Approach to Energy” Response to COVID-19 and ERT
When the transition to ERT was made official, the course instructor (GDH) shared a remote learning plan for his course, “An Integrated Approach to Energy”, with his students, which included revisions to the course syllabus, expectations, and procedures for communication. The class was structured with an active learning approach that incorporated groupwork in breakout rooms that GDH could monitor and unobtrusively interact with over Google documents. GDH was flexible in response to the difficulties the students faced during the pandemic. He removed and adjusted the course requirements (e.g., attendance) and provided access to course content both synchronously and asynchronously. He checked in with students to see how they were doing both formally (e.g., surveys, reflections) and informally (e.g., Slack). Through daily student reflections, the students revealed the incredible pressure they were under (e.g., they had family members who were first responders, had lost their jobs, or had passed away). In response to students feeling overwhelmed, he changed his no late assignments policy and allowed more time to complete exams. When students were unsure whether to utilize P/F grading due to the confusion and stigma created by the university, GDH spent class time unpacking what the P/F option meant and clearly communicated students expected grade at the end of the semester. He encouraged students to choose that option if it would benefit them in any way.
3.3. Researcher Position in the Case
The authors of this study consist of four faculty members from the Integrated Engineering department (SML, GDH, DAC, JAM) and the first author (LAG), who is a postdoctoral research associate hired under an NSF Revolutionizing Engineering and Computer Science Departments (RED) grant that the school of engineering received to develop “Changemaking” engineers by redefining the engineering canon as sociotechnical [49
]. LAG was situated closely to the IntE department both in proximity (e.g., housed in the same building before the stay at home order) and in curricular and research interests [50
]. As such, LAG’s expertise has been utilized to conduct observations, interviews, and focus groups for IntE faculty. As a postdoc, the first author did not teach any classes during ERT, but rather observed how the IntE department prepared and adapted to ERT and interviewed students about the class and their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Coincidentally, the new communication pathways created by IntE in response to ERT also facilitated easier connection and the inclusion of LAG.
For the class, “An Integrated Approach to Energy”, the students had been formally introduced to LAG’s presence by the instructor on the first day of the Spring 2020 semester as a researcher who would be conducting classroom observations. LAG was in the classroom on a weekly basis until the transition to ERT. This presence in class along with the instructor acting as a gatekeeper to the students about her presence and role allowed for a measure of trust, credibility, and rapport from the students [41
]. This initial trust was further cultivated into rapport during interviews so that students saw the researcher as an empathetic listener rather than as a detached evaluator [53
3.4. Participants and Recruitment
Participants were purposively recruited [54
] in April 2020 for semi-structured interviews using convenience sampling [41
], based upon being enrolled in “An Integrated Approach to Energy” in the Spring 2020 semester. Convenience sampling was utilized because research interviews were already being conducted for research on other aspects of the class [52
]. The instructor informed the class over Zoom about the research study and provided them with a link to a Google form where they could sign up to participate in a research interview. The first author individually contacted the respondents who wished to participate through email and scheduled Zoom interviews. After the conclusion of all scheduled interviews, the participants were compensated with a $
50 Amazon gift card.
Eleven second-year undergraduate engineering students out of the 18 in “An Integrated Approach to Energy” during the Spring 2020 semester participated in this study. A summary of these students using their pseudonyms is provided in Table 1
. Additional demographic information within the table about the students was elicited through a voluntary survey using Google forms or described within their interviews.
3.5. Interview Procedure
The interview protocol was initially piloted with a fourth-year undergraduate engineering student researcher who was also experiencing ERT at the time and provided relevant feedback. Questions about students’ response to COVID-19 and ERT were added to an existing interview protocol due to the timing of the ERT. Interviews were semi-structured and split into two sections; the first was about their experiences in the GENG 294 class and the second part was specific to their experiences of COVID-19 and remote learning at their university. The second part of the interview was structured to first allow the participants to say anything they wanted to or “vent” about their experiences to develop rapport and promote a therapeutic effect by providing participants with an active listener who was nonjudgmental, neutral, and did not interrupt [55
]. The first author conducted all semi-structured interviews over Zoom in response to the pandemic and stay at home orders. The participants were already familiar with using Zoom because it was utilized for ERT. Interviews were recorded using Zoom’s built-in recording function with an audio-recorder as a backup. Interviews were transcribed using TranscribeMe!, an online transcription service.
3.6. Ethics in Data Collection and Analysis Procedures
This study was situated in a larger research project occurring with the class. Informed consent was obtained at the start of the semester when the class was observed in person. Measures to ensure the confidentiality of participants were utilized throughout data collection and analysis [41
]. The pandemic required several unanticipated changes not covered in the initial informed consent, such as interviews being conducted over Zoom. Before the interviews, the students were briefed about the structure of the interview, informed that their participation was voluntary, informed that they had the right to not answer questions and to rescind participation at any time, and informed that participation had no effect on their grade. The participants were made aware verbally and visually (by the recording icon in Zoom) when and how their responses were recorded and when the recording was stopped.
Pseudonyms were assigned at the start of the semester for classroom observations to preserve anonymity [57
]. Because this is a narrow case study, the participants were also given the option of checking any direct quotes used in the manuscript to ensure that they were not misrepresented or overly identifiable [58
3.7. Data Analysis
Interview data were qualitatively coded and thematically analyzed using memoing, concept mapping, and multiple coding methods [41
]. After each interview, the first author wrote a summary and reflective memo. Memoing was used as a critical reflective process to describe the emergent patterns, themes, and concepts that arose in the analysis [59
]. Following each reflective memo, the interviews were read in their entirety several times while utilizing concept mapping to visually analyze complex emergent phenomena [61
]. This concept map was iterated several times as the data was coded. Open coding was used to explore the data in order to remain open to multiple interpretations and nuances in the data [59
]. This coding was exploratory, utilizing descriptive and process coding to provide a detailed inventory of student responses and actions [59
]. In combination with descriptive coding, concept mapping, and memoing, process coding allowed for the inclusion of actions in the data that can help explain how events dynamically unfold and evolve [63
]. This was important to the coding process because student participants are not passive recipients of ERT but rather dynamic actors in defining how they responded to ERT and the global pandemic.
After initial coding, a codebook was developed by categorizing and reorganizing the concept map into larger categories with codes and subcodes. These categories and codes were discussed iteratively among the authors to provide different perspectives and expertise in the analysis. This process refined the codebook. The data was recoded with the refined codebook using Dedoose, an online application for collaboratively analyzing qualitative data. The results of these coding processes were then thematically analyzed to further winnow codes and categories into larger themes that reflect a more nuanced and summarized meaning than individual codes [59
]. The results of this thematic analysis were triangulated with the undergraduate researchers [41
], who were third-year IntE students who also experienced remote learning within the context of the university and the department.
This study was limited in that it was conducted on a small population at a private institution within the Western USA and the results cannot be generalizable to all undergraduate engineering students. Larger engineering departments at public institutions will have different challenges, but some of the lessons may be transferable and adaptable to their context. Most of the participants were White, and thus the results may not be as applicable to students of other races and ethnicities [64
] and the unique challenges they faced during ERT. Our sample size was too small to fully explore variation in experiences due to gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc. Nonetheless, the goal of this study was not to create a comparative study but to describe how the students experienced ERT. Additionally, the global pandemic necessitated conducting virtual interviews. While this made the interviews accessible both to the participants and the researcher, it was more difficult to develop the same level of rapport as an in-person interview. Finally, the results described in this paper are part of a summative evaluation and not a formative evaluation. Students’ reactions to ERT were not captured in situ due to the lack of online observations. Therefore, instances where students were not responsive to in-class prompts, active participation in online synchronous discussions, or apprehensiveness created by being on camera constantly were not part of the data collection. These factors should be included in future studies that seek to evaluate students’ response to ERT.
The analysis of the student data revealed four themes in how students responded to ERT and how faculty can help students’ ability to adapt. These four themes are: (1) challenges with remote learning, (2) compassionate flexibility of faculty, (3) student self-discipline, and (4) gendered response to ERT.
4.1. Challenges with Remote Learning
Students were given an open prompt to describe how ERT and the COVID-19 pandemic affected them. They did not have to tailor their responses specifically to class, but they offered their perspective of how ERT was handled in different classes, including “An Integrated Approach to Energy”. Their responses reflected unique situations and challenges that affected their ability to learn in this remote setting. For example, some students described how COVID-19 had affected their immediate family members who were essential or front-line healthcare workers and how that translated to increased worry and stress. Not all students elected to share about their home and personal life but instead focused on the challenges specific to remote learning. These challenges were individually specific, and the results will focus on the three cross-cutting challenges: (a) increased workload, (b) inconducive learning environments, and (c) miscommunication.
The participants described their perception of increased workload in a variety of ways, but also struggled to pinpoint why they felt the workload had increased. When asked about how faculty have helped or hindered his ability to adapt to remote learning, Luigi stated that:
“I’ve noticed, the homeworks, even for the energy class, have increased in length. And I don’t know if that was originally planned and that was just going to happen anyway or if that’s a result of the online stuff. But the kind of way that’s kind of worked out isn’t ideal. I noticed a very similar thing with all the other classes. Even when maybe a project at end of the school year is cut off, that percentage of our grade, instead of just them kind of taking that out, they’re like, “Oh, well, we have to still add that in somewhere.” And so that stress really doesn’t go anywhere. They’re still adding to the pile.”
Some students perceived that they were getting more “busywork” and assignments to make up for the week they lost in the transition to ERT. They thought that faculty were continuing their classes as normal with a typical workload, without adjusting their schedules to reflect the current pandemic conditions. When asked about how faculty had helped or hindered her ability to adapt, Lexie stated that faculty hindered her when they “[…] gave us the same amount of expectations. Or tried to make up for the lost time that we had.” Other students hinted that they thought faculty members perceived they had more free time because of the stay at home order, sometimes not even recognizing the pressure the students were under after some of them were asked to leave their dormitories and facing the uncertainty of housing issues. Some students described that they had an implicit expectation that the workload would be lessened because of the pandemic. While the participants struggled to find the root cause of why their workload had increased, Peter offered some insight into the issue—tasks took longer now than they did before. He stated:
“I think in some of my other classes, both labs, they just take longer because you can’t ask professors for help in class. Just figuring stuff out yourself. Like my Circuits lab takes almost twice as long now that we’re just trying to grind it out and figure everything out for ourselves. And I’m sure we’re learning better, but it’s just like I have a lot less free time. Yeah. So, it does feel like stuff takes longer but I have a feeling they’re the same assignments, we just don’t have the same kind of help.”
Another student described that they had to watch asynchronous class recordings multiple times to get the same amount of learning to pass their exams.
This perception that students could not get the same level of help they used to is also tied to another challenge of the inconducive learning environment that remote learning created. The students found it hard to focus during synchronous and especially asynchronous settings. They experienced frequent distractions by roommates or family, and some students described how they would fall asleep as they attended synchronous Zoom classes. What was most prevalent to the participants was how student–teacher and student–student interactions had changed as a result of ERT. The participants described the decrease in student participation. For example, Gloria remarked, “It is kind of weird that no one talks in class. I don’t know. But I don’t feel like…the environment isn’t super like, ‘Oh, let’s just talk about these things.’ And I don’t know how we could change that, but that’s just how it is.” Rachel seconded this feeling and said, “It’s harder to be more interactive and participate. Because it just all goes to silence sometimes and it’s kind of hard to break.”
Zoom was described as being both too informal (e.g., “feels like Facetiming [your professor]”) and formal at the same time and “awkward”. This awkwardness was most apparent when professors pointed out how students are not engaging in class. For example, Gloria said, “I feel bad when the teachers are like, ‘Why isn’t anyone talking?’ But then it’s like- I don’t know—they’re uncomfortable, and I’m uncomfortable […] I don’t really feel that welcome to talk even though I know I should.” The students also described the hypervisibility they experience if they speak in some classes and how asking questions interrupts the flow of the lesson. Peter remarked on this by saying, “To ask a question, you have to unmute yourself and then the whole class stops and everyone’s listening to your question.” The participants contrasted this to their previous classroom experiences where they were constantly working in groups and could easily and unobtrusively raise their hand to ask the professor for help at any time. While students were aware that the faculty members were trying to increase class participation, the new setting was difficult for them to overcome.
The most difficult experience students described was that, because of this new learning environment, they felt they could not get help. This was especially prominent for classes where the students could not attend synchronously whether through their personal situations or because the professor only posted asynchronous recordings. Lexie summarized this by saying, “I think recorded lectures have their benefits but also drawbacks because you can’t ask questions if you’re confused. It’s very much just like reading a book, except someone’s speaking it to you, so you can’t really… I mean, you’re on your own.”
The other major challenge students described was miscommunication from faculty and from the university. The abrupt transition to remote learning caused widespread confusion for students, which was exacerbated by the conflicting communication from the university and their professors. They described the confusion they felt when they received abrupt communication that they had to evacuate their dorms and misleading, confusing, and contradicting information about P/F grading. For individual instructors, they experienced limited (and sometimes zero) communication about assignment deadlines and what to expect during the transition to remote learning. Some professors, Rebecca noted, “didn’t even reach out to us or anything at all.” The majority of these challenges students described in relation to other classes at their university. In contrast, they had highly positive experiences with the IntE faculty.
4.2. Compassionate Flexibility of Faculty
While there was no shortage of challenges for students during ERT, the participants were more than willing to describe how faculty had helped them adapt and persevere. The students mainly focused on IntE professors and the actions they took. For the Spring 2020 semester, all the participants were students in “An Integrated Approach to Energy” taught by GDH and another engineering class taught by SML. The students noticed how IntE faculty attempted to make ERT effective, despite how little time they had to prepare. The faculty not only had to learn new technologies and tools, but also learn how to best teach using them. As Rachel shared:
“Overall, I think, [SML] and [GDH], they’ve done a good job … the breakout rooms were really helpful because it was just more interactive and helped me be not as distracted. Whereas, in my other classes, it’s just a bunch of students watching a video.”
While the students admitted that remote learning was not the same as learning in person, they appreciated the effort and how adaptable the IntE faculty were. This type of pedagogy was fortified with faculty showing compassion and care for students by emotionally supporting them, being flexible in grading and assignments, providing accommodations (e.g., grading policy changes), and being accessible to students. The students described how they believed that IntE faculty authentically cared not only about their academic success but as individuals. Faculty could show this in many ways, one of which was actually asking their students how they were doing. In response to their perceived higher workload, Rachel noted, “[IntE faculty] send out surveys, they see how the online learning experience is going. Based on the surveys, they’ll change their schedule or the workload they give each of us […] my other teachers kind of don’t do that.” Rebecca echoed this by saying that IntE faculty assigned daily reflections to ensure they were not “pressuring us or overwhelming us with too much information or workload.”
The students also appreciated accommodations made by the university or faculty. Accommodations, in this paper, include any official policy changes to classes or grading (e.g., changing assignment grading policies, P/F grading). The main accommodation students mentioned was the P/F grading option. For example, when prompted to “vent” about anything they wanted, Clara described the difficult situation her family was in because of the pandemic and added, “I appreciate that the school’s allowing pass/fail options for classes. I’m taking two classes as pass/fail. … So that’s been helpful, I think, in relieving stress.” Other students mentioned P/F grading and how this option reduced their stress about classes they were uncertain about their grades in. Other ways to accommodate students were to provide more time to complete assignments or tests and grading based upon “effort” or “completion”.
Some faculty showed flexibility by altering their class in response to the new learning format and in recognition of the hardship the global pandemic brought. The students described how some faculty adjusted their expectations or showed leniency. This flexibility even translated to being more accessible to students virtually. For example, when asked how faculty have helped him adapt to remote learning, Luigi responded:
“I know a lot of professors have been more lenient with due dates and stuff, which has really been nice. And a lot of professors that I currently have are very flexible with office hours. If you want to talk about something, you can just email them and then just have a more of a private date if needed.”
The faculty increasing accessibility to students (both in providing curriculum and giving students avenues to access their expertise) was valuable to students. However, accessibility was contingent on how the faculty communicated with students. Students were appreciative of faculty who responded to email promptly, who provided clear and transparent information about their class and what they needed to do to be successful, who personally connected them to resources or people to help them, and for reaching out to them. All the participants described moments where the IntE faculty reached out to them in one way or another. For example, Rebecca ended her interview with:
“I really value how [GDH], [SML], and I’m sure a lot of the faculty, have been really responsive and really emphasizing on student feedback and asking how we’re doing and seeing what they can do for us. And I think that’s something that’s really important right now with our difficult transition.”
Feedback became a way for the IntE faculty to get a better idea of what worked, what needed improvement, but also how to help students create community. Sometimes these conversations extended to how to implement compassionate teaching in other classes outside of IntE.
4.3. Student Self-Discipline
The faculty played a big role in helping students adapt, but the students also felt a responsibility for their own learning. The students had a variety of actions that best worked for them individually such as time management, being “present” in the ways that were possible with remote learning, removing distractions, and setting boundaries. All of these actions were rooted in the overarching strategy of being self-disciplined. Most students could identify time management as an integral part of self-discipline for remote learning. Students described creating and adhering to a schedule, finding ways to keep busy, getting work done right away, and batching time spent on schoolwork. One student, James, prided himself on his time management skills but indicated that remote learning required the additional development of those skills. He said:
“So, I was already big on Google calendar. As soon as I get assigned a homework assignment, I put it as a mark in my Google calendar. And I’ve just been doing that way more forward than I usually like to. […] I’ve been just taking the opportunity to try and learn better time management skills, especially with working in sequence with doing college. It’s been a big experiment in how far I can push my time management skills.”
Time management often went hand-in-hand with setting additional boundaries between school-time and free-time. This was achieved through various ways including attending class synchronously and removing distractions. Students tried to be “present” as much as was possible during ERT without being physically present. The students remarked how it was easier to stay motivated and pay attention if they attended class synchronously with their web cameras on. Peter remarked on the web cameras in particular:
“I mean, think the webcam being on definitely. It just kind of makes you feel a little more present because when my webcam’s off, it’s just way easier to just go on my phone, but when my webcam’s on, it’s awkward to be on your phone in front of the professor. […] I’ve noticed that just when I have mine on, not only do I learn better, but it’s just easier to stay focused and I guess also be respectful to the professor because you have no idea what’s happening when I do this.”
This opinion was not universal, however. While for some students the presence of the camera made them feel like they could pay more attention and be present, other students felt like it was too invasive and contributed to an inconducive learning environment.
Lastly, an unexpected way students found to adapt to ERT was by showing compassion for faculty. The students expressed how they knew that faculty were also facing difficulty in adjusting to COVID-19 and ERT. When asked how faculty have helped or hindered him in adapting to remote learning, Chandler responded:
“I think they’ve been very helpful. I mean, we’re all kind of in it together, so yeah, the faculty have been helpful. They’re just really understanding and trying to help us get the best we can, the best education we can out of this situation, which it makes sense. I totally understand. Yeah, but they’re helpful and understanding, and I realize that they’re going through the same thing too.”
As indicated by Chandler’s reflection, adapting to ERT sometimes required mutual compassion. The students realized that faculty experienced some of the same frustrations and were willing to show compassion in response to how the faculty showed them care and compassion.
4.4. Gendered Response to ERT
One theme that unexpectedly emerged from the data was a gendered response to ERT. The women in this study brought up compassionate and flexible pedagogy more often than men, while men focused on individual actions they could take and their personal responsibility. Women were more likely to mention and admit to utilizing P/F grading in their interviews of their own volition. Additionally, the women in this study described personal challenges they and their family were experiencing because of COVID-19 (e.g., anxiety over family members as frontline healthcare workers, family members potentially losing their jobs). Men described their experience of having more free time during the stay at home order while women found themselves increasingly responsible for domestic duties. When given the opportunity to vent about anything in relation to COVID-19 or remote learning, Lexie first focused on her increased workload but then described how personal issues such as living in a different state exacerbated her stress. She stated:
“I just wish there was a little bit more lenience because if my mom does get sick, what am I going to do? I’m going to have to take care of her. My dad doesn’t live with us, so I don’t want him getting sick either if he comes over.”
Clara also brought up her family and domestic responsibilities when allowed to freely vent about her experience of COVID-19 and remote learning. She said:
“I’m at home. I’m safe. I’m healthy. And my family is healthy. And so, I think that that is the most important thing for sure. Being at home, a lot of people make it seem like you have more free time now that we’re quarantined. That’s not true. I don’t. I think I even have less now. I’m cooking a lot for my family as my mom works […] And so she’s been working 24/7, on calls 24/7, working her butt off, working on the weekends. And it’s been challenging. So, I’ve been there to support her the best I can.”
As indicated by Clara, she felt responsible for providing emotional support for her mother who was also working extra hours. In contrast, Tito remarked “I do have a lot of time, but I don’t want to spend all that time doing more work.” Tito’s experience was not unique. Several male students indicated that they were finding ways to stave off boredom or that they were “[…] always at home, not really doing anything else.” Although the data indicated the emergence of gendered responses to ERT, this theme will require additional research to explore further.
6. Conclusions and Implications
At the beginning of the pandemic, people called COVID-19 the great equalizer because everyone, both rich and poor, young and old, could be affected by it. In truth, we quickly learned that the pandemic simply exacerbated existing inequities within society and within higher education. The university and IntE department pride themselves on being social justice-oriented, and with that comes pedagogies of compassion and care. COVID-19 and the transition to ERT showed us that we all have assumptions about the resources and skills that our students bring to class. When students were with us face-to-face, we did not have to consider that some students may not have technical resources such as personal laptops because they had access to computer labs on campus. We did not have to wonder if they had enough wi-fi bandwidth or cell phone data to meaningfully engage in class. We did not have to consider what time zone students were accessing synchronous instruction from. ERT created a physical divide between faculty and students, but it also required the faculty to pay more attention to their students’ personal lives. This is something that, for many faculty members, is profoundly uncomfortable, but is key to setting students up for success in times of crisis. As educators oriented towards social justice, we aspire to be more aware of what assumptions we are unintentionally making about our students and act to make the classroom more equitable and accessible to all students. As engineering education continues to improve, so must the practices we integrate into our programs and, in particular, into our classrooms. Care and compassion in engineering education should not only be applicable to situations of extreme urgency, but they should become the new norm if we strive to make engineering a more inclusive space.