Logistical response to Whitman’s move online

In my last post, I shared my colleague John Stratton’s response to Whitman’s move to online learning. In this post, I share our departmental response addressing logistical concerns. The major headings: lab access; lab aides, class mentors, and virtual office hours; departmental community; information for current and rising seniors; advising and major/minor declarations; the silver lining.

For now, we are on spring break. In two weeks, I look forward to seeing how my colleagues and our students cope with these changes, and I plan to support them however I can. Look for further reports here.

See notes (*) for updates as the situation has evolved.

Dear CS students,

The computer science faculty met to discuss logistics for Whitman’s move to online learning. You should expect to hear from your instructors over the break about topics specific to each course, including:

  • Changes to the class format, such as online class meetings. Classes that continue to meet synchronously will meet during their regularly scheduled timeslots.
  • Installing tools and programming environments on your own computer.
  • Advice on tools for remote collaboration with groups or partners.

Lab access 

Effective immediately, the computer science labs (Olin 124 and 228) will be locked, with keycard access granted to individual students by request. We plan to assign students to particular workstations to minimize viral spread via shared mice and keyboards. (If you always use the same computer and no one else uses it, you will get re-exposed to your own germs but not anyone else’s.) Before classes resume, we will share a form that will let you sign up for access to a lab and a workstation assignment.*

If you are off-campus or prefer to work from your room, you can connect remotely to lab workstations following the instructions in the Math & CS Lab Manual.  These include instructions on remotely retrieving files from the lab machines if you need to save copies of your data on your personal machines for easier access.

Lab aides, class mentors, and virtual office hours

We have been authorized and encouraged to continue employing student workers. As classes resume, lab aides and class mentors should look forward to special training sessions to help students make the transition to new tools for online learning and to practice remote debugging using screen sharing tools.

All the department faculty plan to schedule regular online office hours and will be available for appointments at other times. We will share instructions for accessing office hours for faculty, class mentors, and lab aides as we set up the appropriate tools. We will try to make this as simple and clear as possible.

Departmental community

We regret the loss of the informal encounters that normally take place in the labs and the CS Commons. Maintaining social contact will be important for everyone’s mental health.

On the advice of some students, we will expand our use of the departmental Slack organization to keep in touch.** Please join us there and consider keeping Slack open whenever you are working on a CS assignment or otherwise willing to interact. Here’s a link to join: https://join.slack.com/t/whitmancs/signup

Note you must sign up with your Whitman email address. Please add a photo to your profile so we can connect your name to your face!

Some key channels:

  • #general_aka_cscommons is where you’ll find announcements and casual discussions.
  • #virtual_lab is the place to share what you’re working on or find out what others are doing.
  • #random is the place to post memes and other humor. Please remember that many classmates will be working from home and keep it family-friendly.
  • You can also subscribe to a channel for each of your courses. Everyone is subscribed to #cs167 by default, since most students have taken CS 167 or are taking it now.
  • You are empowered to create new channels if you think of others that would be useful to our community.

After the break, we will resume CS Lunch at the usual time on Thursdays at noon. There won’t be free sandwiches at our online meetings, but we wanted to keep this regular opportunity to see each others’ faces and discuss topics of shared concern.

If you have more ideas for keeping in touch, please share them on Slack in the #general_aka_cscommons channel!

Information for current and rising seniors

While the Whitman Undergraduate Conference has been cancelled, we still want every senior to have the experience of presenting their capstone project to a live audience. Please watch for further announcements about a virtual CS Capstone Symposium. If possible, we will record presentations for the online Undergraduate Conference materials.

Oral exams are not cancelled. Seniors have been asked for their updated availability in order to schedule the exams. Unless prohibited by the administration, we intend that students on campus will have the option to take their oral exam in person, in a classroom with plenty of space to spread out.* We expect to administer most exams online via Google Meet, with pencil and paper substituting for a whiteboard as necessary.

Professor Stratton will follow up with current seniors very soon with details on team presentations and oral exams.

Professor Davis plans to be in touch with rising seniors just after Fall 2020 Pre-registration with information about next year’s capstone projects.

Advising and major/minor declarations

Your academic advisors will continue to be virtually available by appointment, and as we receive more health and safety guidelines, possibly in person for those still on campus.  We are still waiting for information from the registrar’s office regarding new policies and procedures for major/minor declarations and registration for next year’s courses.  At minimum, the registrar’s office has traditionally accepted digital signatures and scans of forms, so you should be able to make contact with your advisor and complete any required forms remotely.

The silver lining

After this semester, you will all be able to put “experience with remote collaboration” on your résumés. The CS faculty also look forward to experimenting with online tools and hope that we might learn something useful for future classes or our departmental community.

While we hope the transition to online learning will go smoothly, there will be hiccups and there may be disasters. In this difficult time, we hope to build an online community based on patience, good humor, forgiveness, and mutual support.  We will do our best to be present for you, and encourage you to be present for each other.

Your professors,

John Stratton, interim CS department chair
Janet Davis
Andy Exley
Ro Loveland

* The College has prohibited student access to academic buildings, and all in-person meetings between students and faculty. Division III chair Kurt Hoffman wrote in an email to all Science faculty:

At this time, the decision is that there will be no face-to-face interactions with students and students are not to be working in physical spaces in campus buildings: research labs, computer labs, playing instruments in practice rooms, forming clay into works of art, and so on. I know we have many students who can work independently; however, the decision reflects an effort to have a clear message to students — that at this time we are trying to isolate faculty, staff, and Walla Walla from contagion. If we were to allow some students to complete their academic work in campus spaces, we send a mixed message as to who can or cannot be present, and we might be implicitly inviting students to return to Walla Walla who might otherwise remain at home. This outcome undermines the primary objective of dealing with a national and local health crisis.

What is not being said is that contact with students may put faculty at significantly greater risk of contracting COVID-19. The temptation to meet with students is great: we got into this profession because we enjoy working with students and we want to help them. This policy will help to protect us from ourselves.

** An alumnus suggested supplementing Slack with an open Google Meet channel for casual face time. His organization has been doing this, he said, and he rated it as about a 6/10 in terms of substituting for being at the office together. I’m not going to do this right now – it is still spring break – but I’ll start it up next Friday or so.

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