Date Posted: 10/07/2020

In an article by Linda Copman, N. Rama Rao Professor of Computer Science, Ken Birman is profiled, along with a handful of other Cornell faculty, to discuss teaching in Fall 2020. In the piece, "Green is the New Normal," Copman nods to the university's covid-related marker of health, but also notes how faculty "have had to quickly master new technologies and new modes of instruction as they’ve transitioned from whiteboards to online polls. They’ve had to think through questions of equity and inclusion, as they attempt to balance the needs of remote and in-person students. And they’ve had to create new ways to engage with students who are socially and/or physically distanced from both their teachers and classmates. In short, Cornell faculty have invested extraordinary energy to reimagine their curricula—to ensure that students have the instruction, resources, and support they need to thrive."

From Copman we learn that Birman "created a completely new course this fall: Systems Programming (CS4414). There are 118 students currently enrolled from a mix of majors, including Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering, as well as Master of Engineering students who are hoping to broaden their programming skills. The class teaches students to build large software systems."

“Today, most jobs involve big data,” Ken says. For example, a student working at Facebook might be tasked with designing a program that analyzes uploaded photos to select the best ones for a memory book or for sharing with someone else in the photo, he explains. Ken’s new class aims to teach the skills and concepts to enable students to do this sort of big-data programming.

The class is offered both online and in-person. “For those who feel comfortable sitting in a large lecture space with other people in the room, I’ve encouraged them to do so,” Ken says. “The room is very safe and well ventilated, and I think it really is important for the students to have chances to interact with other people in a more direct way,” he says.

“Because online lectures can be somewhat distancing,” Ken says it’s been challenging to create a back-and-forth dialog between himself, his TAs, and the students in the online format. “As a professor, I worry that students might be lost, but too afraid or embarrassed to ask a question,” he says. “Some students have the extra burden of not being completely comfortable in English.”

To address this challenge, Ken has been relying on the chat feature of Zoom to help keep the dialog flowing. The chat function allows students time to compose their questions and post them without drawing attention to themselves.

“Using the chat function is less of a barrier than raising their hand in class for these students,” Ken says. Additionally, his TAs can respond to student questions while he is talking. “The dynamic is very fluid,” he says. “Some aspects of the online tools are quite valuable, and I’m starting to think about how we could take advantage of them even when life returns to normal,” he adds.

This semester, Ken is most concerned about the emotional health of his students. “It worries me to think of a young person, far from home, who may have returned to Cornell but now finds themselves spending all day every day in their dorm room or rental, and perhaps afraid to set foot outside of their room.”

To counter this, Ken and his TAs are conducting periodic check-ins with their students, “so that we would have a chance to notice if someone is having difficulty,” he says. He is also encouraging his students to get outdoors for a walk, or to study in the Botanic Gardens or in a safe indoor study space, as often as possible.

For more discussions of teaching in 2020 by CS faculty, see also CS News coverage:

"David Gries and Michael Clarkson Adapt to a New Teaching Reality: Notes from Their Experience"


"What's Behind the Zoom Curtain? Curran Muhlberger and Students Reveal Distributed Labs"