Alex Gates measuring rock [video still]

Learning From Afar

When Rutgers sent faculty and students home for their safety during the COVID-19 crisis, the academic year continued through remote instruction, a new learning experience that proved to be effective, even for courses normally requiring fieldwork like Alexander Gates' Structural Geology course. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic gathered force in early March, Rutgers took the precautionary step of canceling on-campus classes and sending faculty and students home to resume instruction through remote learning. In just two weeks, from March 10 to March 23, faculty, with the assistance of the Office of Information Technology and other IT units across Rutgers, successfully moved 12,600 sections of Rutgers courses to online instruction. Meanwhile, close to 70,000 students adapted to the new format as well. The swiftness of the switch was startling: Webex, a web conferencing software, was used for 278 daily video meetings before February 12; just two months later, that number skyrocketed to 5,213. In managing to complete coursework for the spring semester, faculty and staff shared common challenges, such as corralling the right technology and establishing routines that would help students continue to learn under extraordinary circumstances. With course content and methods of instruction varying widely, instructors faced how best to get information to students and assess their learning. Most professors conducted their classes from their own homes; some of them returned to campus and led classes, safely, from empty instructional spaces featuring the latest technology allowing the rooms to function as studios in which they could video conference, stream, or record for class.

A particularly thorny question was how to compensate for courses with significant hands-on components. What do you do when your classroom is a geological site in the New Jersey Highlands, a sculpture studio, or chemistry laboratory? For Rutgers University–Newark geologist Alexander Gates, trips to geological formations in New Jersey are key to teaching “Structural Geology.” On fieldwork days, students normally spend hours outside taking measurements to collect data. With that option off the table, how could he teach his students about measuring, for instance, structural characteristics of a Ramapo Fault outcropping between the Piedmont and Highlands provinces in North Jersey?

Having never taught remotely—“I thought I was too old to do this,” Gates says—he used online tutorials and consulted with the department’s IT staff to master the basics. Gates also hit on the solution of purchasing a GoPro camera, popping it on his head, and going into the field alone to create virtual field trips from a student’s point of view. “They just see my hands collecting data as if they were their hands,” Gates says. “They watch the video and write the data in field notebooks as if they were in the field working in a small group. They analyze the data and perform operations on it with all the uncertainty of a real field trip.”

Alexander Gates, a professor of geology in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, used a GoPro video camera mounted on his h­ead to create a virtual fieldwork experience for his class “Structural Geology.”

Geology student Nikita Bendre says the videos were a very creative solution, sometimes feeling like she was wearing a virtual reality headset. Although a video accurately maintains the educational aspect of the field trip, she really missed having the chance to “physically feel different rock textures and collect the measurements—a fun learning process that gave me the opportunity to apply the theories learned in the classroom to the real world.” Gates agrees, saying, “Nothing replaces person to person.”

Bendre encountered other complications. “Internet and Webex conferencing connectivity issues are the common ones,” she says, “but the most difficult challenge is finding a quiet place to sit and ‘attend’ classes. My dad has daily business calls when I have my classes, so it is very easy to get distracted by the littlest noise.”

Whatever the coming months bring, there is little doubt that the learning access and options powered by high-tech innovations will play an increasingly important role in university life. “Information technology has been and will continue to be a critical, strategic component to this institution, no matter what mode we operate in,” says Michele Norin, senior vice president and chief information officer, “especially remote mode.”


This story is excerpted from Rutgers Magazine Spring 2020 feature, Learning from Afar, which interviewed faculty from all across Rutgers about their remote classroom experiences in the last several months. Read the entire feature at