“COVID keepers” may reshape graduate education at Purdue

Wayne Wright and Students
Before the pandemic, Wayne Wright (center), associate dean, professor, and the Barbara I. Cook Chair of Literacy and Language in the College of Education, enjoyed having meetings with doctoral students over lunch, and looks forward to returning to more in-person events as pandemic restrictions ease. (L-R: Haiyan Li, Wan Hee Kim, Wayne Wright, Sungae Kim, Chen Li)

In a year that was defined by a global pandemic, Purdue adapted its delivery of graduate education. Research, classes, and countless seminars, exams, defenses, and advisor and lab group meetings shifted to virtual spaces.

As the country moves into pandemic recovery, formal and informal efforts are already underway to try to fully understand how the higher education sector was impacted by the pandemic and how it might permanently change as a result.

The answers will likely be unfolding for years to come.

Meanwhile, Purdue is proceeding with full restoration of its normal residential instruction model for the 2021-22 academic year. While graduate students and faculty look forward to reclaiming a sense of normalcy, the question remains, should we return to the status quo? Some say, not so fast.

There might be some “COVID keepers,” changes that were inspired by the pandemic that are worth retaining. These changes could reshape graduate education at Purdue in both significant and subtle ways.

Research setbacks and serendipity


The pandemic required some researchers to postpone or pivot research projects, but by July 2020, many of those who worked in labs were able to shift schedules to allow students back into the lab one at a time.


One of the challenges of the pandemic was pivoting the half a billion dollar Purdue research enterprise, much of it led or supported by graduate students, to a virtual environment. By July 2020, many of those who worked in labs were able to shift schedules to allow students in the lab one at a time, allowing some bench science to continue under new COVID safety protocols.

“I was amazed by the resilience of our faculty and students that the research mission in our college really didn't slow down at all,” said Wayne Wright, associate dean for research, graduate programs and faculty development and Professor and Barbara I. Cook Chair of Literacy and Language in the College of Education.

“People found creative solutions to continue their research. We actually had an increase in the number of people applying for grants, and we had a record year in grant funding.” Naturally, there were setbacks. Some research had to be reconfigured, and some research had to be postponed. But, there was also serendipity. Faculty and students found new ways of conducting research in virtual spaces, and deeper exploration of those online opportunities will likely continue.

Wright’s research team had $3.8M in grants from the US Department of Education to work with school districts to train teachers to work effectively with English language learners. The project entailed observation of teaching in schools. While one district allowed a smaller team into the schools, another district didn’t and offered instead to videotape the classes. In another instance, the researchers got permission to join the Zoom session of the class. In both cases of videotaped and Zoom classes, graduate students were forced to consider how best to collect and evaluate data in virtual formats without the benefit of in-person observation.

In Wright’s technology for qualitative research course, he has expanded his coverage of how to use digital tools for qualitative research and how to shift to those during the pandemic.

“It was very timely,” Wright said. “Students went from observing in the space to thinking about how they could observe in an online space and collect those kinds of data. This was already an issue before the pandemic. Lots of things are happening in online spaces now. So, I think the pandemic is forcing graduate students to think more deeply about the possibilities of those spaces for their research. I think increasing uses of digital tools for research is something that will continue post-pandemic.”

Focusing on outcomes over delivery models

Shawn Donkin, assistant dean for research and graduate education and professor of animal science in the College of Agriculture, said that the pandemic offered an opportunity for faculty to focus on outcomes over time-honored delivery models that weren’t possible during the pandemic. During the pandemic, he encouraged faculty to “take a step back” and consider what constitutes the objectives of a PhD in terms of the outcomes and if they can be achieved in a different way.

“It depends on our imaginations as graduate educators and really going back to the basics,” Donkin said. The general outcomes of graduate education for College of Agriculture students, according to Donkin, are that students develop and demonstrate skills in critical and creative thinking, advance discipline-specific knowledge, be exceptional communicators around their knowledge of science, use their knowledge to identify areas of science that still need exploration, and act ethically in experimentation.

“Those are the areas that we've worked at in graduate education overall. How we do that, whether it's coming into the lab, working with a tangible experimentation tool, or whether they're doing that in a way that's more virtual, that remains to be seen. And in some ways, it's up to the discipline that they're in,” Donkin said.

Surprising benefits of virtual classes

in person instruction

While spaces were reorganized and outfitted with Plexiglas shields and other safety features during early summer 2020 in preparation for in-person instruction, some courses remained virtual during the 2020-21 academic year.


Pivoting classroom instruction to virtual formats kept students and faculty safe during the pandemic, but there were other surprising advantages, along with hurdles to overcome.

Wright’s course on technology for qualitative research, typically taught in a lab, was moved online during the pandemic. Wright had to do a “ton of work” to pivot the class to an online format. In addition, there were technical “gymnastics” to overcome so that students could access licensed software that previously was accessible only via the lab or by remoting in to a university computer.

Wright estimates that preparing and conducting the online course, including recording over 40 instructional videos, took him twice as long as teaching the course in-person.

But there were many advantages, including the opportunity to expand the course. The lab allows only 15 students, but by moving the course online, Wright was able to open it up to 25 students. In addition, the course was in asynchronous format. Students who previously had been unable to take the course due to a recurring schedule conflict were grateful to have access to the online course.

Another benefit was that the online format enabled students to more easily review material that they didn’t understand.

“In the end, that turned out to be an advantage because in class, if somebody didn't get something, I’d have to stop, go back and explain,” Wright said. “I was constantly walking around the room to see if everyone was keeping up with me. If one student had a trial, I might have to stop the class. With the videos, they could go at their own pace. Someone told me they watched the video several times and that they could go back and watch certain parts.”

Another puzzle that Wright solved while designing the online version of the course was how to recreate the invaluable in-class discussions. He used a technology that enabled students to upload a presentation slide and narrate it. Classmates were able to narrate comments or questions and post them to each other’s slides.

It worked to create dialog, perhaps even better than before.

“It's done in an asynchronous manner, but the students can hear each other with responses back and forth,” Wright said. “What I like about this in the online format is that if we were to do it in a face-to-face class, you could have the quiet student who never says anything during someone's presentation. In this format, everybody is supposed to have at least one comment. You get to hear what everybody thinks about every topic. It gets more interaction than you might in an actual face-to-face classroom.”

The downside is that the presentation that lasted 20 minutes in the live course format became much longer in the virtual format; each presentation grew in length as students left voice comments and questions for each other.

But, students also liked the flexibility of asynchronous courses that they could do on their own time. Donkin noted that students sometimes wrestle with the timing of setting up and running an experiment and having to stop the experiment at a critical stage to catch a class that can’t be missed.

Having the flexibility to participate in an online version of the class later would be helpful to the student in such a case.

“That flexibility in the program, in terms of accomplishing research and also connecting it with the coursework, that's important in how we do that effectively,” Donkin said. It’s a balance between “how we continue to use the instructor-facilitated learning in an online environment, especially in an asynchronous environment; give the student that flexibility to be able to control their time and when they're actually in class; and retain some of the things that are at this point more effective in a face-to-face environment.”

The value of happenstance interactions

When seminars, exams, defenses and group meetings moved online, there was one component of exchange that was not as well executed in the virtual space: chance meetings and social hours. A lot of teaching, learning, mentoring, and connecting happens in unscheduled times, and that was sorely missed during the pandemic.

“Graduate education relies on a mentor-mentee relationship—a day-to-day learning, growing, doing, asking, making, and recovering from mistakes kind of relationship,” Donkin said. “I think one thing that was highlighted during this time was that our graduate students felt that they had lost that ability to just bump into either their faculty mentor or other faculty in the hallway when they were working through something and in just 15 seconds get the guidance that they needed to move on. That became a real challenge for our students.”

For simple questions, making a Zoom appointment just didn’t seem to work as well.

“We didn't value those happenstance interactions as much as we should have,” Donkin said. “We're having coffee and donuts and it's kind of a time fill, or maybe you think it's not the best use of our time and we're not being productive, but those kinds of small social interactions have real value. Going forward, I think it gives us good cause to find ways to make those happen.”

Online exams, defenses and research group meetings had mixed reviews. The convenience factor and the ability for distant VIPs to attend landed these types of online events in the pro column for some.

“We had a whole bunch of final exams, defenses, and so on that were online,” Donkin said. “We had some fun working with students on using Zoom to present those. That's one thing that we will retain, especially with visiting faculty, faculty who are not on campus, whether they're away on sabbatical or whether they were Zooming in from another university. I think that's one of the things that we learned to do very effectively. I was on a couple where I was participating from afar with another university, and they seemed very seamless because everybody was on Zoom together.”

While effective and advantageous in some ways, there also seems to be a tangible loss with online meetings and events.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” Wright said about retaining virtual meetings. “It's absolutely more convenient for faculty and students.” He had one doctoral student who lived in Chicago who drove two hours to West Lafayette pre-pandemic to attend a 40-minute meeting. Now that her research group is meeting virtually, it saves her that time.

“But you don't get that back and forth as much as you would in a live meeting because Zoom kind of reinforces staying muted until it's your turn to speak,” Wright said. He missed the banter that sometimes builds toward a move in a good direction. “I just feel like discussing broad grand ideas of a student's work benefits more from that face-to-face when we could have that back and forth and the paralanguage and non-verbal cues and other things that are part of that.”

He echoed the same sentiment for virtual research seminars.

“We had some really great turnouts for our online virtual research events,” Wright said. “But what’s missing is the socialization before, during, and after. You log in, you hear the guest speaker, you post some questions, then it's over, and you’re sitting alone in your apartment.”

Wright noted the emotional distance created by virtual meetings, as well. For graduate students coming to the end of their graduate journey, it is a time for celebration, something that just wasn’t the same virtually.

“When we have a final exam for the PhD dissertation, when you have everyone in the room, the student presents, and there's that closure for the student. You get to celebrate them, give them a high five. We're missing that kind of personal element at the end, which I think is unfortunate,” Wright said.

Ultimately, the search for “COVID keepers” for graduate education will entail finding the right balance between the new and the tried-and-true. The pandemic brought extraordinary challenges to overcome for graduate education, but it also offered a rich experience to mine for positive change to come.


Source: Shawn Donkin, sdonkin@purdue.edu

Wayne Wright, wewright@purdue.edu

Writer: Korina Wilbert, kwilbert@purdue.edu

July 21, 2021

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