UC Berkeley instructors reflect on semester unlike any another amid COVID-19

Illustration of a GSI remotely teaching engineering concepts through a platform like Zoom
Aishwarya Jayadeep/File

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With UC Berkeley holding all of its classes for the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters online, engineering, data science and computer science instructors have had to adapt their teaching styles to meet the demands of remote learning.

When campus shifted to online learning during the spring 2020 semester, many GSIs canceled their discussion sections, smaller class discussions led by GSIs and labs due to the short notice. Since then, GSIs across several classes have developed solutions for running their classes completely online, including modifying discussion sections, labs and lectures.

“Designing Information Devices and Systems I,” or EE 16A, UGSI Neelesh Ramachandran enjoys teaching, and he described a typical week during the remote semester as “hectic but rewarding.”

He typically worked 15 hours per week during the fall semester, which was divided between developing class software and preparing for and leading discussion sections.

“It’s always good when someone who understands something can explain something to other students,” Ramachandran said. “The (GSIs) are the bridge between the professors and the students, sometimes. ”

The unique challenges of online teaching

Many GSIs see downsides to the online semester and have found that a lack of in-person interaction with students has made teaching more challenging.

“I hate the online semester,” said Tyler Zhu, head UGSI for “Discrete Mathematics and Probability Theory,” or CS 70. “I miss in-person. I just love being in a classroom, just the general vibe of the students in there, and I think it’s really just a lively time. I think students really enjoy the engagement you have in a classroom that just doesn’t come across online.”

Zhu added that many instructors, including himself, miss being able to read students’ faces while talking with them, as many students do not turn on their cameras in the online class setting. He added that without the back-and-forth interactions he used to have during his classes with students, they are generally less engaged, making his job more difficult.

According to Zhu, this was particularly difficult because students were largely unable to talk among themselves during discussion sections.

EE 16A GSI Jonathan Tyler Reichanadter said shifting to remote teaching has had a big impact on staff operations.

“The lack of meeting in person really impedes the more creative aspects for creating content,” Reichanadter said. “This is mainly because any improvised ideas are tougher to carry through the screen.”

In addition to the obstacles in behind-the-scenes operations, Reichanadter said there has been a “lack of morale boosting” among staff that GSIs usually experience by hanging out with each other outside of class.

Reichanadter added that he met just one 16A course staff member in person during the fall semester.

“We try not to show it too much, but the semester fatigue has certainly hit the staff along with students,” Reichanadter said.

Despite all of these challenges, CS 70 UGSI Frank Wang said the quality of education for many classes has not decreased much.

Wang said the biggest barrier to education during the semester for his class was technical difficulties.

“It’s another thing if it’s harder to focus with everything virtual and other stuff going on,” Wang said. “But in terms of the actual instruction, most people just watch lecture recordings during normal semesters anyway.”

Accommodations for labs: Shipping lab equipment across the world

For lab-based classes such as “Designing Information Devices and Systems II,” or EE 16B, lab kits had to be mailed to every student, according to Steven Lu, EE 16B head lab UGSI. 

Class instructors tried to keep most of their content consistent with past semesters in order to provide students with the same lab experience an in-person semester would. Due to delays in shipping, a shortage of kits and challenges with debugging lab projects remotely, however, some labs were removed or shortened to give students more time to work on individual labs.

“Based on the success of the remote summer session of 16B, we originally intended for everyone to build their own circuits and cars for the project,” Lu said in an email. “But to address student stress and the challenges of working remotely, we relaxed the requirement to just one car per group.”

In order to facilitate a collaborative virtual lab environment, the class placed students in groups of three to four people during three-hour weekly lab sections over Zoom.

“Foundations of Data Science,” or Data 8, labs also changed the way peer collaboration was organized. The class’s lab was redesigned for students to work in pairs as opposed to in-person groups of about 30 students, according to David Wagner, campus electrical engineering and computer sciences professor.

“Our experience is that peer learning can be one of the most effective learning strategies, so we’re hoping that this will help our students get a lot out of the lab,” Wagner said in an email. “If they also meet someone new each week and get to make connections and build community, that’s a bonus.”

This semester, “Principles and Techniques of Data Science,” or Data 100, offered multiple live lab sections to accommodate students in different time zones, according to Ishaan Srivastava, Data 100 head UGSI. During the live session, students watched GSIs work through the lab.

A downside to this, however, is that students received the answers to the labs simply by attending the live lab as opposed to working on the labs themselves, which they did during in-person instruction, Srivastava added.

Keeping discussion sections engaging despite an isolating semester 

Classes such as EE 16A had several meetings early in the semester to redesign the way discussions and labs were executed, according to EE 16A UGSI Sumer Kohli.

EE 16A now offers a variety of discussion sections to accommodate different students’ learning styles. This includes time for individual student work, time for group work and lecture-style discussion section formats, Ramachandran said.

Data 100 adjusted its structure to provide students with more flexibility, according to Srivastava. To support students who live in different time zones, the class has started offering both recorded discussion sections and synchronous sections for students to choose between.

Collaboration was also important to Wagner, who taught Data 8. Wagner added that he shrunk the class’s typically 30-person discussion sections in order to create a sense of community.

“We know that interaction in large groups on Zoom can be unwieldy and intimidating,” Wagner said in the email. “We adjusted the discussion sections so each has just 6 students and one teaching assistant.”

Kohli, who holds an individual work-time-style discussion, said he received significantly less enthusiasm from students when teaching remotely.

In order to keep students engaged, Kohli has found it critical to be enthusiastic and stay in high spirits.

“I try my best to crack jokes or talk about people, talk to people, engage people in the chat or mention funny things so the class basically brings the temperature down from, like, a very formal discussion,” Kohli said.

For Kohli, a very small percentage of students in his discussion regularly turn on their camera.

But this is something he has gotten used to.

“I kind of view it almost like I’m on my mini virtual stage,” Kohli said. “If a (GSI) ever just seems like they’re not engaging with the material, then the students will very, very quickly disengage.”

Ramachandran added that while he prefers to see students’ faces, it is not a requisite for him to “stay engaged and teach well.”

According to Wang, participation in his discussion section has not decreased much since the class moved online.

“The reality is that even during a normal semester, the amount of participation in the discussion section is, to put it as succinctly as possible, very minimal,” Wang said.

The work behind the scenes of an online semester

For GSIs who worked behind the scenes with the software for classes, the workload increased, according to Ramachandran and Kohli.

“There were a number of innovations that had to be made for remote learning,” Ramachandran said. ”We were all sort of figuring it out together.”

During the fall semester, a team of software GSIs created a group-matching algorithm to help students form study groups in remote environments, Kohli said.

Kohli added that the matching criteria divides students into groups based on best effort-matching, which takes into account various characteristics, such as grade and gender, in order to place students into groups.

The “COVID-special” algorithm was piloted in about four or five classes during the fall semester, according to Kohli. Additionally, GSIs had to upload recorded discussion sections, lectures and other material to course websites every week.

“We have to record sections, and we have to post the recording notes. That’s not something we used to do,” Ramachandran said. “It’s good that we are able to record and post now, but it also means that someone on the back end has to actually push those materials.”

One of the biggest changes to Data 100 was the lecture format, according to Srivastava.

The video lecture format consisted of many smaller videos and quick checkpoints to keep students more engaged, Srivastava added. He said students in the class have been very appreciative of this format, and  all these changes have made the fall semester go “very smooth.”

This has, however, increased the amount of time GSIs had to spend on updating the class website. This was especially true in preparation for the class — Ramachandran said he spent 80 hours setting up EE 16A’s website infrastructure during the three weeks leading up to the semester.

“This semester, because we knew we were heading into asynchronous instruction, we planned ahead, and we actually don’t have live lecture at all,” Srivastava said.

The bright side to an online semester: “There’s a comfort in the amount of humanity we can share across Wi-Fi.”

Despite all the challenges of a virtual semester, there were a few ways GSIs have been able to better support students.

“A small benefit of our remote landscape is that we are all more responsive over Slack, email, etc., which makes last-minute fixes or panics easier to manage,” Reichanadter said.

For example, Srivastava said he often found himself answering questions on Piazza, an online student and GSI Q&A forum, as late as 3 a.m. to help accommodate students living in different time zones.

According to Wang, the online semester went about as well as one could expect given the current situation. He added that an upside to remote learning is that he has been able to spend more time answering questions at the end of class without needing to leave a classroom on time.

Wang added that students in discussion sections have more opportunities to participate through features such as polls and the chat feature on Zoom than during an in-person discussion. He said this gives everyone a chance to participate in whatever way they feel comfortable.

“Overall, I definitely wish we could do everything in person, but there’s a comfort in the amount of humanity we can share across Wi-Fi,” Reichanadter said.

Aryia Dattamajumdar is a student life reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AryiaDm.