Community without a classroom: 'We will try everything we can to make a difference'
In 20 years as a professor at Illinois, ITI faculty member Robin Kravets never had to adjust her teaching methods like she did last spring semester. Now, in her first semester as Illinois computer science’s Director of Graduate Programs, Kravets is exploring ways to connect with first-year PhD students as they begin their experience in the department.
In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, classes at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign went remote. Distance learning greatly lacked the in-person camaraderie and cohesiveness that allowed students to thrive. Yet, Kravets dedicated herself to keeping students in her Communications Networks course connected despite the difficult circumstances.
To add some levity in a difficult time, she donned various hats and costumes that paired with matching Zoom backgrounds during class sessions. Kravets wanted nothing more than to prove to her students that they should still attend her classes live and not through a recorded option. She could still make learning fun. She could still help her students feel empowered during classroom sessions, even if they weren’t in-person.
Not only did her students attend the live Zoom sessions, they also dedicated a thread to her on Reddit – proving that people do sometimes say nice things about others on the internet.
“I mean, that’s the first time I’ve ever been on Reddit – especially for a positive reason! It was fun, but the whole point was trying to engage the students,” said Kravets, who teaches graduate and undergraduate networking courses, as well as the seminar for new PhD students. “Our faculty were desperate to figure this out, and I'd provided a recorded option before. I knew that, if given the choice, students wouldn’t attend the synchronous lectures because they could fall back on the recorded option.
“The fact that they did like the hats and costumes meant that I connected during a time in which that was difficult to do so.”
The entirety of her effort went well beyond a gimmick. It was about the art of teaching online to keep students engaged.
It began with Kravets in a safari hat, but she soon realized the costume would be better if paired with a Zoom background. She then tried other ideas, like both Mario and Yoshii from the popular Nintendo video games. There was one class session in which she wore orange and blue Illini gear with a hooligan soccer hat from her Dutch in-laws. She also sported her son’s wizard hat from his younger days along with her old martial arts clothes.
Her favorite effort paired an Elton John costume with lyrics to the popular song “Rocket Man”; in a twist she substituted some computer networking terminology in the lyrics:
And I think it's gonna be a round trip time
'Till slow start brings me round again to find
I'm not the rate they think I am at all
Oh no no no I'm a packet man
Packet man clocking out his TCP flow for all
Students expressed their appreciation for her creative engagement on Reddit, saying things like:
- Why aren’t my professors this cool?
- This is super cute
- OMG this is so cool!! I miss her class so much :(
- Robin is so cool!!! I love her.
“I had to be willing to make a fool of myself a bit,” Kravets said. “That was challenging because you have to let go a little bit. Luckily, I’m at that stage in my life now where I don’t care about this as much as I used to.”
Beyond the costumes, Kravets said she also stands in front of the camera rather than sit, so as to avoid becoming yet another talking head on Zoom. She lectures while moving about, as if she were in a classroom.
One student who found her efforts effective is first year PhD student Daniel Kiv.
Kravets connected with students last spring on Zoom by donning different hats and costumes - from Mario and Yoshi to Gandalf and Leia. This fall semester, the professor uses her passion for photography to engage students on Zoom.
Kiv noted that this semester, Kravets hasn’t used the hats and costumes in her Wireless Networking course. Instead the professor is starting each class session with a different photo that she’s taken from her travels set as her Zoom background. This photography also happened to be the first thing Kiv noticed about Kravets when he visited Illinois CS in-person during his recruitment period and before COVID-19 restrictions.
He shares Kravets’ interest in photography and likes that she pairs these pictures on Zoom with students’ hometowns to have them guess the locations.
The professor then explains her connection to the location or a fun story she’s learned about the place during her travels.
“I first met Professor Kravets during the CS PhD visit day,” Kiv said. “Her photography skills amazed me, as she has award winning photos all over her office. Now that I have her as a teacher, it’s clear that her personality is quite energetic, and she always engages students by asking questions.
In fact, a large portion of her class is still based on student questions and her responses. It feels as if we are in the classroom.”
Kiv left his home state of Texas to attend Illinois CS, but he said the distance hasn’t had a huge impact on him. Considering he will spend the next five or six years in the PhD program, Kiv said he chose Illinois because of the friendliness exhibited by the people he came to know during the recruitment period.
Now a couple of months into his first semester, Kiv said he’s still found that friendly and welcoming environment – despite the realities of remote learning.
“COVID-19 presents a unique challenge, something that I wasn't expecting during my first year as a PhD student,” Kiv said. “Thankfully, I've built some relationships with students and faculty, so it has turned out much better than I expected.”
He also acknowledged that Kravets’ effort has meant a lot to him. It doesn’t hurt that they have a similar research interest, in wireless networking, while he also enjoys learning about the Internet of Things (IoT).
This first year is especially important as he finds a faculty adviser to pair with for the entirety of his time as a PhD student. They will conduct research together, work their way through several research papers, seek publication and strive to alter computer science as it is currently known.
He doesn’t have an adviser yet, but Kravets – as the department’s Director of Graduate Programs – set up virtual events to spark the necessary conversations.
There has already been a faculty mixer on Zoom, in which students could find faculty in a get-to-know you type event that Kravets compared to speed dating. Next up with be the first-year PhD student seminar, in which faculty from each research area will spend more time with each interested student.
In her role as Director of Graduate Programs, Kravets has also set up virtual office hours to address any questions or concerns once per week.
“One of the biggest challenges that I noticed is with our new PhD students – who could easily feel disengaged,” Kravets said. “This is such an important effort, because the first year sets them up for everything. When I was a PhD student, I met the people I would remain connected to forever during that first year.
"We can’t replicate the experience right now, but we will try everything we can to make a difference.”