Remote teaching and outreach lecturing while in a sabbatical

I am now arriving almost at the end of my one-year sabbatical in MIT, generously sponsored by Fulbright. As expected, research was vibrant and exciting, and results are piling up. But there is another, not expected outcome of my sabbatical experience in the USA: it concerns students/teacher interactions, and shatters to pieces my previous stereotyped views on the matter.

When spring at last started in Cambridge, not only tulips and blossoming trees came back to my memory, but also the odor of chalks and blackboard of my home University. Indeed, I had agreed before leaving Belgium to continue delivering lectures to 450+ first year engineering students eager to learn the bases of chemical thermodynamics.

The good news: this can be managed across the Atlantic ocean. Apart from a quick one-week trip back home to start the process, the rest of the class was done remotely, using podcasts intertwined with computer-corrected exercises and problems. And of course a full staff of teaching assistants still working at home for tutorial classes. The exam was a machine-read quiz, which was passed a few days ago.

The bad news is that I am now almost useless: according to a rapid poll, the students actually prefer this distance-learning system compared to real classes: podcasts allow them to organize their time as best they wish, to fast forward when the lecture is less useful, or to repeat parts that are more difficult to them, and the division of the total lecture in small podcast units interspersed by exercises helps them seize better the structure of the lectures. As for the exam, the average score was similar to previous years – even slightly better.

So, being pushed out of human teaching work, it was only fortunate that I was contacted at about the same time by Prof. Juan Arratia of Ana G. Mendes University System (AGMUS) in Puerto Rico. He asked me to deliver small lectures on my research work to minority students at the undergraduate and graduate levels, under the sponsorship of the Fulbright Outreach Lecturing Fund. So I came to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and had a chance to chat and discuss my research with students in a class of organic chemistry, in the comfy setting of a research library, and in a classroom of second year students who were actually – amazingly! – struggling with some of the notions I have to teach at home in my lectures on thermodynamics.

I thus came to realize that, as a human being, I am probably more useful in a close interaction with small groups of minority students in Puerto Rico, showing them other approaches and places to work, than in front of an anonymous, gigantic group of 450 students at home, for whom podcasts and computer interactions are apparently a better way to efficiently interact. This was certainly not something I would have guessed before leaving!

– Dr. Alain Jonas
2016-2017 Fulbright scholar