By Adina Bruce, Website Manager
Following the shutdown of YU’s campus and the transfer of classes to fully online for the second half of the Spring 2020 semester through the summer, the YU administration announced plans to begin all Fall 2020 classes online and transition some courses to in-person after the Chagim (High Holidays). Class formats for the Fall 2020 semester were announced with contradictory messaging and inconsistent implementation which has led to confusion among students.
Universities in the NYC and Tri-State area have made plans to open in the Fall 2020 semester under all-virtual, fully reopen and hybrid models. YU has released details following a hybrid model.
“Face-to-face,” “blended,” and “online” course formats, composing the hybrid model, have been defined on the Office of the Registrar page on the university website, through emails, and a community call. The definitions of the three formats seem to have some overlap and have not been consistently applied to courses — listings of classes that have been released on YU Banner do not necessarily reflect the reality of faculty plans.
Some students have expressed confusion at the different course categories and how the categories should affect their choice of whether to take the class. Yosef Rosenfield, YC ‘21 initially told the YU Observer that he “avoid[ed] [“face-to-face” classes] despite [his] interest in the subject matters,” but after reaching out to the professors of those classes, found that they would be offering online options. “It was a bit misleading how YU offered the course type options … courses were simply marked by ‘online,’ ‘blended’ or ‘face-to-face’ instruction,” Rosenfield explained, expressing frustration at the lack of communication.
“Online” classes will take place virtually for the entire semester and may utilize a synchronous or asynchronous format.
“Blended” courses have been defined in multiple ambiguous ways. The way courses will integrate virtual and in person learning will vary between departments. In her email to undergraduate students, Karen Bacon, the Mordecai D. Katz and Dr. Monique C. Katz dean of undergraduate faculty of arts and sciences, defined “blended” courses as ones that “will be online for the semester but the faculty member hopes to be on campus for optional meetings with students.” This definition is similar to the Sy Syms School of Business plan to hold courses fully online while offering optional in-person enrichment sessions by professors who chose to do so. On the other hand, the Registrar page defines a “blended” course as one that “contains a blend of both face to face and online instruction, whereby online instruction replaces or supplements face to face meeting time.”
Bacon clarified the discrepancy as being due to the fact that the “blended” category will encompass “a wide range of options all of which include both online and in person modalities.” Bacon then went on to give examples of how a “blended” class might be formatted. Examples included lab classes where some students would participate in the experiment on campus in a laboratory while others simultaneously participate from home using “kits.” Students in Judaic classes might have opportunities for in-person “informal learning opportunities.” Other classes might have the majority of class taught online with “optional conversations or projects” done in person. Bacon also suggested the possibility of technologically fitted classrooms with “a microphone, projection equipment and zoom” that would enable easier interactions between teachers and their virtual and in-person students.
According to the Office of the Registrar, “face-to-face” courses will take place fully in-person within a classroom setting. However, students who are unable to take the class in person would still be able to take it online. When asked to clarify the definition of which classes would be considered “face-to-face” as opposed to “blended,” Bacon defined “face-to-face” courses as those in which “all the enrolled students and the faculty member are on campus, and the total of students and faculty remains small enough that they can meet in a typical classroom and maintain social distancing.” As of the time of publication, the only “face-to-face” class listed on the Beren Campus is Money and Banking, an economics course to be taught by Professor James Kahn. However, Kahn plans to partially offer his class virtually for students who will not be on campus, meaning that this class would practically be considered a “blended,” not “face-to-face” course. “When some students have not yet made firm decisions about returning to campus,” explained Bacon, “it is near impossible to define any course as exclusively face to face.”
While currently there are virtually no “face-to-face” classes listed on the Beren Campus, many of the Wilf Campus Undergraduate Torah Studies (UTS) shiurim (Torah study courses) are set to be offered as “face-to-face.” Students are able to choose between “online” and “face-to-face” shiurim options for their morning shiur. Some rebbeim have confirmed that although they will be teaching face-to-face, they are also planning for their shiur to be available virtually on Zoom. Although these shiurim would therefore seem to operate similarly to a “blended” class, their course listing categorizes them as “face-to-face.”
At least eight of the UTS classes listed as “face-to-face” currently have over 30 students registered. Rabbi Dr. Yosef Kalinsky, dean of Men’s Undergraduate Torah Studies, confirmed that the university was “identifying socially distanced locations for learning” for shiurim with large class sizes. In a community call with YU’s undergraduate student body, Kalinsky described that the batei midrash (Torah study halls) will operate safely “with social distancing, with masks and plexiglass between chavrutot” to accommodate in-person learning.
Regarding the discrepancy between the number of “face-to-face” courses being offered on the Wilf Campus compared to the Beren Campus, Mrs. Shoshana Schechter, associate dean of Torah Studies at Stern College for Women, explained that “it’s easier with the uptown Shiur [UTS Torah learning program] structure for a student to switch from a virtual shiur to an in person one. On the Beren [C]ampus there is no morning shiur [UTS-like Torah studies program] just classes throughout the day so students can’t just switch seamlessly.”
Schechter stressed the importance of accommodating all while still providing in person opportunities for those on campus. “We want to be able to accommodate everyone which means that unless every student in the class is in person, the class has to be virtual,” she said. “Since most classes are virtual as a result we are trying to supplement with in person enrichment [f]or the benefit of the students who will be on campus.”
Explaining how the decision of categorizing each class was made, Dr. Selma Botman, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, cited factors such as the number of students enrolled in the class, the maximum number of students who would safely be able to fit into a classroom, how many students would be “in person” or “remote,” and the “ability and preference” of faculty to be on campus. Whether students would be on campus was determined through student surveys. Surveys were sent to the undergraduate student body through the Office of the Provost on May 7 and June 12, asking students to state their plans for the fall, and list their preferences for class formats. Bacon cited student surveys as showing that “online instruction is preferred by a significant number of YU students.”
While some students, such as Raphaela Hyman, SCW ‘22, said that they knew from March that “having the option to stay online … would be wise,” other students such as Sarah Brill, SCW ‘21, had originally expected to be coming back to semester this fall but decided against it as the semester drew closer. “At the end of last semester I … was excited to finish summer and go back to school to see my friends and professors,” she said. “Unfortunately, the virus did not go away. By early August I had made the decision not to go back to school because it is a health risk not only to myself but to others, including professors, as well.”
Despite the challenges in creating a campus life that has both virtual and in-person components, Bacon remains positive. “The faculty are fully engaged in making this a successful experience, and I believe that students can look forward to a ‘different’ but nevertheless strong semester,” she said.