Two years ago, in fall 2018, there were close to 3.2 million students in the U.S. enrolled in fully remote post-high school classes, representing roughly 17% of all students at that level. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic flipped this ratio, forcing the vast majority of students into virtual classrooms and bringing remote learning to the mainstream of traditional education.

As schools shuttered across the country in March, educators and students scrambled to piece together solutions to the emerging crisis. Months later, some in-person learning has resumed, but many students and teachers — at all levels of our educational system — find themselves conducting most of their classes via Zoom and other online platforms.

This sea change has unleashed a torrent of challenges for everyone, from parents struggling to cope with the new work-life-school balance, to school administrators trying to figure out how to operate safely while staying financially afloat. In the engineering world, where much of the curriculum is built on in-person collaboration, hands-on problem-solving and projects that require human interaction with physical, technical equipment, the switch to remote learning has been particularly arduous.

“Teamwork is a huge part of engineering; once you get out into the working world, that’s what engineers do,” said Maura Borrego, a professor in the Cockrell School’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and a national expert in engineering education research. “But when you’re teaching remotely or even in a socially distanced classroom with a few seats between each student, it’s tough for faculty to say ‘turn to your neighbor and work out the problem.'”

Having the summer break to prepare for the next phase of this remote learning experience gave students and teachers room to adjust. Across the spectrum, a yearning remains for some sort of return to normalcy. But the uncertain timeline for such a change, and the potential that we may enter an entirely new normal once the pandemic is more under control, has educators looking for ways to blend traditional techniques with lessons learned from virtual learning.

Leaders of Texas Engineering Executive Education (TxEEE), the Cockrell School’s professional engineering education and training division, have confronted the challenges of remote learning as they transitioned in recent years to an online focus to appeal to a wider variety of students. The program aims to help engineers hone their skills throughout their career, offering flexible master’s degrees and online certificate programs.

TxEEE played an important role in helping engineering faculty shift to remote learning. Some faculty members who returned to classrooms in the fall use rooms in Ernest Cockrell Jr. Hall that TxEEE had already set up for remote classes.

“A lot of the things you saw during the shift in the spring are technologies and methodologies vetted by our group,” said Eric Roe, executive director of TxEEE and Cockrell School assistant dean for continuing education. “We’ve had an opportunity to be an innovation sandbox for virtual learning and how you transform the traditional classroom to meet the needs of the learner.”

That tech includes livestream software, cameras that track professors as they walk around and a monitor in the back of the room that can let them see remote students.

One of the most important problems for Roe and the rest of his team was the need to consistently switch things up in online classes to avoid a problem that has entered the popular consciousness because of the pandemic: Zoom Fatigue. Instead of long lectures and passive learning, Roe advocates for shorter, “bite-sized” modules that take 15 to 20 minutes to complete.

Solving the “turn to your neighbor” problem remains an ongoing challenge, Roe said. Zoom breakout rooms and virtual icebreakers help, but it’s tough to replace things like seeing people before and after class, creating bonds that lead to partnerships on projects.

“There’s value in building a self-directed cohort of people that you’re learning with, and when you shift to fully online, that gets a lot harder,” Roe said.

At the high school level, the pandemic has forced leaders to re-evaluate their engineering programs. Cheryl Farmer, director of pre-college engineering initiatives at UT, oversees multiple K-12-focused programs, including Engineer Your World, a project-based high school engineering curriculum designed by Cockrell School faculty, NASA engineers and secondary educators. The curriculum was designed to be done entirely in the classroom, with a focus on group engineering projects and no homework element. The pandemic forced the program team to make major adjustments to make the curriculum work remotely, shifting engineering projects to use primarily household materials and very little technology.

“When you go virtual, you have to design the unit for the student with the least access to technology, equipment and material in mind. So, the question for us became, ‘How can we create authentic engineering challenges that every student can do successfully?’”

—Cheryl Farmer, director of pre-college engineering initiatives at UT

Roe hopes that coming out of the COVID crisis, institutions re-think their curricula. He would like to see them follow a model that is becoming more popular online, which involves eliminating the linear track toward a degree. For example, a student should not have to take a 101-level class if they’ve already shown they know the material.

“I think we need to start looking further at decoupling learning from seat time and the traditional credit hour and push toward competency-based education,” Roe said. “If you demonstrate the knowledge you should be able to advance, you shouldn’t have to sit in a room, or online, for an hour before advancing to new topics or deeper levels of complexity.”

The pandemic has created uncertainty in education, but that also leads to opportunity. Borrego notes that the shock of going remote has worn off somewhat, and now Cockrell School faculty are thinking about how they can improve their classes and apply lessons learned from the online experience.

“A lot of faculty had things in the backs of their minds and knew they wanted to change things about their classes,” Borrego said. “There’s so much happening right now that it’s a good excuse to make a big change.”

Here is a look at how several different members of the education equation have adjusted to the pandemic.

Entering her senior year, Shelby Hobohm never thought she’d have to start all over again. She’s just a few courses away from finishing a double major in government and mechanical engineering and is already getting started in the Mechanical Engineering Integrated Master’s Program in Nuclear and Radiation Engineering. Eventually, she plans to attend law school to specialize in the intersection of technology and policy.

But when the pandemic hit, instead of going to class, she, like thousands of other students across the U.S., transitioned to learning complex topics via Zoom. Instead of going to UT football games this fall, she is watching along with friends online.

“This has been like no semester I’ve ever experienced,” Hobohm said. “It’s kind of like starting college all over again, except with much harder classes.”

Hobohm considers herself one of the luckier ones. She’s got a job offer in the aerospace industry, and she will still be able to pursue her long-term plan. But some of her friends haven’t been as fortunate, wading into a shaky job market riddled with uncertainty.

Hobohm’s struggles resemble those of many people both learning and working remotely. It’s tough to stay engaged during long Zoom meetings. And boundaries between personal time and school and work time are hard to maintain when everything happens in the same place.

She is kicking off a senior project for her design methodology class this fall, and because so many people remain stuck at home, the students were tasked with designing a DIY exercise machine. Most groups, Hobohm said, decided to build a version of a rower or bike. But Hobohm’s team went a different direction, creating a technology-infused stepper. The best way to describe it is a mash-up of Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution.

The team is working on the prototype now, but the plan is to have adjustable heights — to satisfy the project requirement of moving parts — as well as lights and sensors to help users step to a beat and get feedback on their workouts.

Coming up with an idea and designing it over Zoom worked fine, but creating a prototype is a different story. The team is kicking around several solutions, like building a part and then shipping or dropping it off with the next person to build the next component.

“Things that are normally pretty simple, like building something together, require a lot more logistical coordination these days.” Hobohm said.

But Hobohm also noted that she has interned at several companies with engineering teams distributed across the globe. So, she sees learning how to solve engineering problems virtually as good training for working in a large organization.

Though the switch to virtual learning has proven challenging, Hobohm identified several things she’d like to see adopted permanently. She’s had more exams that allow books and notes. That makes more sense for preparing students for professional settings, she said, where knowing how to find an answer is more important than just knowing it off the top of the head.

Hobohm also likes recorded lectures, and the increased flexibility of Zoom office hours. Professors have gotten more creative in assignments. In one class, for example, Hobohm produced a full-length instructional video on how to create and use a product.

"The pandemic has forced every professor to embrace virtual tools," Hobohm said. "It’s been a long time coming, and I hope it's here to stay."

When Seth Bank moved his class on lasers and how they interact with light online, it was pretty awkward at first.

The professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering hunched over an old kitchen table from his days as a student that served as a makeshift desk in the corner of his home office, teaching students remotely. He couldn’t walk around, or make gestures with his hands, because the movements didn’t fit inside the tiny laptop camera.

“The lighting was terrible, and the technology was so cumbersome,” Bank said. “It was unnatural for me to teach looking in the corner of a monitor.”

Seth Bank Home Office Setup
Bank’s Home Office

So, over the summer, he adjusted. Bank said he “basically built a little recording studio,” in his home office, complete with a three-point lighting setup that his daughter helped him install, a white backdrop and adjustable desk and monitor.

He also spent that time working with fellow faculty members across the Cockrell School to re-think introductory classes for first-year students. Labs for the Introduction to Electrical Engineering course this semester rely heavily on a $100 Arduino development kit from Spark Fund that is basically a miniature version of a computer.

These widely available devices make it possible to run labs virtually, but it hasn’t been simple. Debugging device problems over Zoom can be a challenge.

“The hardest thing with the labs is there is no substitute for being able to stand over a common setup, look at it together and point to things to troubleshoot,” Bank said. “You lose that; it’s very difficult to troubleshoot a wired-up circuit over a virtual meeting.”

In addition to using Zoom, instructors set up a server on Discord, the communications platform popular among gamers. There, students work together on labs, discuss homework assignments and more.

Bank says he is eager to get back to regular in-person instruction, but he has learned a few things from this time of remote classes. He plans to continue holding extended office hours on Zoom, which means they can be done on students’ timelines rather than right before or after class.

“If a student has a question I can say, ‘let's jump on the Zoom link’ and, we can quickly solve it,” Bank said. “That’s been nice.”

When graduate research labs began to shut down in March, Julia Lamb was relieved. Lamb, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Cockrell School studying sodium-ion batteries under Texas Materials Institute Director Arumugam (Ram) Manthiram and the president of UT Austin’s Graduate Engineering Council, welcomed the break in routine and the much-needed breathing room to focus on her writing.

But, when the reality set in that this “welcomed break in routine” was here to stay, she started to become anxious. She had already written a handful of perspectives and was ready to return to her research.

“Maybe a week before I was allowed back into the lab, I really felt the cabin fever and was at a loss for additional at-home work I could complete. I needed to go out,” Lamb said. “I was eager to make progress toward my Ph.D., and I was not doing that while sitting at home.”

Since the re-opening of labs under UT’s new COVID-19 restrictions — including scheduled lab hours operating around a strict cohort system — Lamb has noticed some new challenges that weren’t present pre-pandemic.

“I’ve found that the random, every day interactions with other graduate students are sparse,” she shared. “Typically, there are so many activities going on where graduate students can mingle, chat about their projects, collaborate and idea-share. But, with everybody more isolated, we’re devoid of those casual interactions.”

Unfortunately, Lamb’s observations may be early predictors of the inevitable shift in how graduate education — and the workforce in general — operates in a post-COVID-19 world. Although she doesn’t fear finding a job following graduation, she does think job options will be more limited and the nature of workplace dynamics will change — and possibly not for the better.

“I have a suspicion that more people will be working from home, even after COVID is over, which has its perks,” Lamb said. “But, I think it could be potentially detrimental in the long run. While you’re able to focus more on your own work, it is more difficult to collaborate with your colleagues, be it your coworkers in the lab or people from other labs you would normally interact with in person.”

"In my opinion, collaboration is crucial to success. People, and their ideas, are stronger together.”

Audrea Moyers teaches design and engineering at McCallum High School in Austin, and just like thousands of teachers across the nation, she scrambled to adjust to the new world starting in March. The UT alumna was tasked with helping transition engineering students that did in-depth, team-based projects using highly technical software to learning at home, where many only had access to school-issued laptops and rudimentary supplies.

“At first, we were just treading water to see what would happen, but then it became apparent we weren’t going back anytime soon,” Moyers said.

McCallum has a four-year engineering program for students, which includes a project-based course from UT’s Engineer Your World program that comes during the junior year. Along the way, students learn the basics of different fields of engineering and how to use industry-specific software before developing their own projects.

In the spring, Moyers and fellow teachers quickly shifted their teaching strategy, focusing less on rigorous school work and more on simply keeping students engaged. But with forced remote learning for many lasting into the fall, and potentially longer, educators had to switch back to more traditional teaching techniques and deploy them remotely to ensure students don’t fall behind.

Some students are back in classrooms, but it’s not the same experience as before. They sit in a classroom, in reduced numbers, but still learn digitally on Zoom to stay linked with their online classmates.

Moyers has managed to tweak the curriculum to delay work using technical software such as AutoCAD until the spring semester, when she hopes classes will resemble the pre-COVID environment. Bedrock engineering principles of creating things and taking them apart are instilled using everyday household materials such as duct tape and cardboard.

Zoom breakout rooms give students the chance to talk about projects in a way that wouldn’t work if all 30 students in a class were together in the same virtual gathering spot. They work together on shared Google Docs, rather than physical notebooks. Moyers can see what’s happening in each breakout room and pop in to chat with students.

“This is trying to take the place of that authentic work when I am walking around the room and I can stop at a desk and ask questions and overhear conversations,” Moyers said. “It’s hard to substitute for that natural classroom dynamic, but it does give me a way to keep my hand on the pulse of the work happening across multiple rooms.”

Remote learning presents plenty of challenges, but it can also help teachers, even when everyone returns to the classroom. They can pre-record lectures and reserve precious class time for discussion and collaborative work.

This experience has helped teachers become more familiar with tech tools to help manage the student experience. And Moyers can see recorded lectures and online work coming in handy in the future to make sure students who have to be absent for long periods of time can keep up. But she, like many other teachers, are hoping to a return to normal, with an educator walking around the room working with tables of students collaborating.

“I do think vast majorities of teachers just want to go back to normal,” Moyers said. “It’s honestly just so much easier to teach in person.”