This Month’s Q&A: August 2020

A headshot of an old man with gray hair wearing a black suit jacket and a blue shirt.

Albert Baker, Ph.D.

Interim Chair,

Department of Computer Science

U.A. Little Rock

THESE ARE FRAUGHT times for school communities, communities being the operative word. The immediate question is how to keep everyone safe when classes start again, but there are also long-range questions in the air. We sat down with Dr. Al Baker, interim chair of U.A. Little Rock’s Department of Computer Science, to find out how he and his colleagues have been preparing for the new school year, and what he sees as some of the ongoing challenges ahead.


I’m interested in the kinds of discussions you and your colleagues have been having over the summer.

Well, absolutely, and I want to preface any remarks by saying that I don’t speak for the University. So nothing that I would say has any weight or authority.

Then why am I talking to you?

That’s a perfectly legitimate question.

I’m joking. But you can speak for the computer science department, can’t you?

Sure, no doubt.

Well, as we get closer to fall, we’ve all been reading more about re-opening schools. So I wanted to know what kinds of meetings you’ve been having, the issues you’ve been wrestling with, the questions you’ve been trying to answer.

Maybe the first thing to note is that I think UA Little Rock did a really sharp thing last spring: The administration asked us all to identify those courses that necessarily must be taught face to face.

And they’re keeping those on the schedule as regular, face-to-face classes. But I would say that close to 90 percent of the classes we now have on the schedule are listed as “hybrid.” I understand there’s some variability in the meaning of hybrid around the country, but what it means to us at UA Little Rock is that there may be some synchronous component of the class. A hybrid class, for example, could insist that all students take an exam or do an exercise between 10:00 and 12:00 on such and such a day.

It might be online synchronous or face-to-face synchronous. So in the new C-STEM college, we’ve got chemistry, for example, and physics. There are some classes that have laboratory components that mean it’s really going to be better to actually bring students onto campus. If those courses are listed as hybrids, all the lectures and presentations have lab sessions that would be face to face.

So the administration worked this out early on, and as the summer’s worn on, I think it’s been brilliant—because we didn’t have, for example, any issues with the ICE announcement that foreign students could not have all online classes. Because our hybrid classes aren’t all online and may have a face-to-face component.

Just for background information, I want to say that I believe Chancellor Christy Drale is doing a brilliant job of leading this University. We’ve been through retrenchment, which is an official status for a university that basically comes down to being able to fire tenured faculty, and she’s made strategic decisions eliminating some degree programs. We’re presently dealing with COVID-19. Also, Chancellor Drale recently participated in what was called the “Racial Climate at UA Little Rock Forum,” so she’s been paying attention to that issue as well. She’s been making hard decisions, really making the University leaner.

I’m an outsider. I don’t have a long history here. I was here for one year under the old administration. And then I’ve had one year under the current administration. And I think the tone on this campus is completely different. There is optimism. There’s a huge sense of collaboration. It’s remarkable.

When you say collaboration, do you all get in meetings together?

Well, let me do it bottom up. I’ve been holding some weekly “department discussions” for faculty and staff in computer science. Mainly, I wanted to make sure we had an opportunity to touch base with everybody, just to see how they’re doing. I’ve got to believe that there are people who are, because of COVID-19, depressed or are having other sorts of emotional issues. This is a strange thing to do to social animals like human beings.

We’ve also had twice-weekly meetings with what was EIT and is now the Donaghey College for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Dean Whitman, Larry, has been holding meetings with department chairs on Monday and Thursday mornings. And he’s been doing a really good job of reporting to us what he hears in what they call the Dean’s Council.

Then this afternoon there’s a unit-heads meeting, and it’ll be focused on reopening and general discussion of things related to starting up classes in the fall.

Is everybody on the same page generally, or do people have different concerns?

The overarching question is, Can we bring students back to school safely? The campus is to be fully reopened on August 17. And that means administrators and staff employees are supposed to be back working on campus. I believe the mandate for faculty is still under consideration.

Masks are mandatory in all buildings and in any space where social distancing is problematic. But drilling down a little bit further, suppose I’m doing a face-to-face class, or say somebody walks into the department office without a mask and refuses to wear one, what can we do? In terms of authority and how we’re to respond, that was a topic of conversation in the meeting. At least if this occurs in a classroom and a student refuses to wear a mask or to leave the classroom, this can be classified as classroom disruption and the student can be administratively dropped from the class.

If I happen to be in the office and somebody walks in and refuses to wear a mask, I’m leaving. I’m old enough to be in that real high-risk category. So to me, it’s just not worth it.

This whole mask thing is crazy, isn’t it?

The governor of Florida said yesterday, “Florida’s doing fine.” No, they’re not. If they were a country, they would’ve been the third highest incident of cases in the world yesterday. How can people continue to do that? I think it’s misguided. For those who’re taking those kinds of stances, I think it’s morally reprehensible.

Masks aside, a lot of people are saying that remote learning, over this last few months, has not been successful. How do you feel about that?

That was not my experience in the courses in the computer-science department. Now, the context here is that we’re dealing with students who have opted for a high-tech area of study. They are likely to have decent laptops and Internet connectivity.

So our department was as well suited as any to confront this immediate switch to online in March. I did notice that we had a little higher incidence of incomplete grades given at the end of the semester. One of the things that the University did in the spring was to give every student in every class the option to select credit/no credit grading.

And it’s funny. In the classes that I teach, I had several students who were thinking, Oh, well, this takes some pressure off, I’m going to go with credit/no credit. They did fine. They got credit and realized that if they’d stuck with regular grading, they would have gotten an A. It would have helped their GPAs.

So what do you think brought about the larger percentage of incompletes?

In a couple of cases some students were having difficulty with their connectivity, and we had one class in 3D modeling where you really had to have some beefy equipment to be able to run that software. So we ran into some of those. But the advice we were getting from the University was to try to be as empathetic with students’ situations as we could. I’m sure we’ll continue to do that through the fall. We’ve got to be light on our feet here.

I’ve heard anecdotal horror stories from other schools where old faculty, people like me, are saying, “No, no, no, I’m not changing anything. Students have to come onto campus this fall. I won’t do it any other way.”

What kind of impression does that leave, not just with the students in general but also with their parents? I think the messaging should be, “We’ve got to pull together on this. There are going to be some bumps, but let’s get over them together.”

I don’t know that we have the science yet, but my hypothesis would be that if you could measure the volume of learning going on when you move to online—particularly in the early semesters where you’ve got an instructor who hasn’t done it that way before—there’s going to be a dip in the overall effectiveness of the education. But you know what? In the long run, I think I’m at the point now where we can start looking at making proposals for a strictly online degree program.

I have a hybrid class, but I video every single presentation, and I ensure that there is a way that a student could do assignments, take exams, and so on, asynchronously. Therefore the Department could launch an online degree program. So in our scheduled classes, I could have a hybrid section and an online section; and online sections are completely asynchronous.

You mentioned exams—how do you administer those online?

That’s actually one of the issues that we’re facing all across higher ed and, I’m sure, in secondary school as well. If you have an online class, you can’t require that students take the exam at a particular time, and in today’s world I can guarantee you that the first person who took that exam is posting notes on Reddit about what the exam was like. Then there’s academic misconduct. If you really want to have some sort of closed book exam, how do you ensure that people won’t just look up answers on the Internet?

There are online services that will allow you to monitor students taking a test. It will lock down, or at least monitor, any online searches that they do. They’re on video while they do it. But these services are expensive. The cost per seat per test of doing that extensively at UA Little Rock is just cost prohibitive.

Ultimately, I think the old mindset on testing is just going to have to die out. In computer science, particularly anything that has a significant software-development component, nobody keeps all that stuff in their head anymore. Nobody remembers all the details of every single API. You can’t. So the test shouldn’t be about what you’ve memorized; it should be about how good are you at pulling together little pieces to make things work.

You responded to a piece in our June newsletter quoting statistics about high school seniors rethinking their approach to college during the pandemic. Has that been an important topic at UA Little Rock lately?

As a matter of fact, yes. And I’ve started an outreach program for incoming computer science students who’ve been admitted to UA Little Rock but who have not yet enrolled. I’m the faculty advisor to the student chapter of the ACM [Association for Computing Machinery] here on campus. They’re meeting every week, and it’s a pretty darn active student chapter for a summer semester. So I got a list of those students that I just mentioned, and the ACM members are calling them. It’s not a sales pitch. It’s, “I’m a student in the department; here are some observations I’ve got about it. Do you have any questions? What can I do to help you?”

And what we’re finding is, about 50 percent of the people we contact have decided already where they’re going to go, so basically there’s not a lot of conversation to be had. But even there, I’m getting the sense that we’re leaving a pretty positive impression. Then with the other 50 percent, there’s a bit more involved discussion. It’s about campus life, and life in the computer science department. What kind of student community do we have here?

I have no idea whether this outreach is going to have a measurable impact on enrollments this fall. But it just feels to me like a good thing to do. It’s good messaging to come out of the department and the University.

How would you say your colleagues are feeling about the coming school year? You seem to be handling it well.

I’m faking it. I think there is some angst about what things are really going to be like. In the end, what will the reopening guidelines be? Will I be okay to teach my hybrid classes online, and is that going to be acceptable to the powers that be?

I think we’ve intentionally left some of this a little fuzzy right now, here in the middle of July. Two weeks ago there was a reopening guide and date, and of course with the increase in COVID cases, they just moved it back. One of the things that we still don’t have a definitive word on is what we’re going to do about providing COVID testing to students. Our student health-services building doesn’t have a place they can set up a clean room that people can go into. So the thought is, Let’s set up a tent. Let’s do it outdoors.

But are we going to have enough testing equipment? What are the criteria for the students to get tested? All of that is being worked out. But I think the good news here is, it’s on the table and being discussed.

What’s your personal goal for this next semester?

Just to be as safe as I can be for myself, for the faculty and staff, and for the students. And secondly, to do everything we can to improve the quality of the online educational services we’re delivering.

I think the huge open question for everybody isn’t just what enrollment is going to look like in the fall of 2020; it’s what enrollment is going to look like two or three years down the road.

Because it seems to me this is a huge inflection point. We will never think about higher ed exactly the same way again, and it’s going to be more online, more remote—teaching, advising, and everything else. So if we’re doing more of this online, then of the tuition that students have been paying, what part of that is for the campus experience?

I saw an article yesterday that said the University of Southern California is actually doing grants to every single student who wants to not come back and live on campus. They’re doing it for everybody. You don’t have to have been a resident in the residence halls before. You can live in an apartment, or particularly if you’re going to live at home. And I think it was $4K a semester.

If I were a parent of a college-age student, the message I would get from that is that USC is supporting remote, online education to the extent that they can. They’re putting their money where their mouth is.

So it seems to me that we’ve got some unknown times in front of us. What’s the impact of COVID-19 and the pandemic going to be on enrollments? And if we’re doing so much more of it online, can we continue to charge the same amount of money for the services?

Now, once again, this is coming from me. I’m not speaking for UA Little Rock.

I understand. Are you personally worried about the future of higher ed?

I don’t think worried is the right word at this point, but certainly we do have some anxiety about what this is going to mean on into the future. These days, if you don’t have anxiety about what’s going to happen, you haven’t been paying attention.