Since the onset of the pandemic last spring, the Communication Sciences and Disorders department has adapted its program to function remotely, despite its highly hands-on and equipment-heavy pedagogy.
Because of hybrid learning restrictions, the department—whose 35 undergraduate students make it the college’s smallest major—shifted all its American Sign Language classes online, introduced simulated clinic computer programs, and shifted to telepractice for the Robbins Center clinic.
The CSD department houses an undergraduate program and two graduate programs, both of which earn students a Masters of Science in Communication Disorders with options for concentrations in speech-language pathology and audiology. One of the graduate programs, Speech@Emerson, which currently enrolls over 600 students, was designed in 2018 for a completely online modality.
Ruth Grossman, associate professor and Chair of the CSD department. said the department’s shift to pandemic-era learning has been a process of trial and error.
“This is a bad situation,” she said. “It’s a particularly bad situation for a hands-on, clinically focused program. Everybody recognizes that there’s only so much that we can do to adapt. People generally appreciate the effort that has gone into making those adaptations.”
The majority of the classes in the CSD undergraduate program have moved to a hybrid learning model, which includes an in-person class as well as a Zoom or asynchronous portion. Grossman said the department shifted the entirety of the ASL program online due to the difficulties of teaching the language while wearing masks and socially distancing.
“[We] basically came to the conclusion that there was no COVID-safe way to teach ASL in a room appropriately,” Grossman said. “Because if you sat far enough away from each other you were safe but you couldn’t see each other’s faces anymore, you couldn’t see the nuances of the sign, it just wasn’t feasible.”
First-year CSD major Caroline Davis said she has been pleased with her experience in her ASL class despite the online format.
“My teacher is actually deaf, which is really cool because he speaks fluent ASL,” she said. “I’m still learning the same amount that I would be learning in person.”
In other cases, Grossman said, the department has had to completely halt field experience electives in clinical environments, which can take place in clinics, hospitals, and rehab centers, due to complications with having students shadow medical staff.
“Shadowing somebody in a clinical environment for an undergraduate, credit-bearing class is a complicated thing to set up right now,” she said. “If you want to be in the hospital and shadow a speech pathologist, that’s tricky business … we don’t currently have anybody doing field experience.”
Along with field experience electives, all clinic preparatory classes that prepare students for working with patients and clinical equipment, have been halted due to safety concerns.
“Introduction to clinical practices relies a lot on working with assessment tools, learning what the different assessment tools are, and how they’re used,” Grossman said. “It involves people clumping around a test and handling it and sharing it, and that’s also something that we decided that just couldn’t happen right now.”
Grossman said while some courses have been forced to pause, the department has worked with students on a case-by-case basis to ensure their path to graduation is not disrupted.
Robin Danzak, an associate professor in the department said adapting to pandemic-era teaching has been a challenge. This semester, Danzak is teaching an interdisciplinary course designed last year called “Arts, Health, and Community.”
The course allows students to work with community organizations in Boston—including Emerson’s own Robbins Center. The Robbins Center, a clinic within the Union Savings Bank opened in 1953, “provides evaluation and treatment for children and adults with communication problems as well as support programs for family members and caregivers,” according to the college’s website.
“Pretty much every week I think about things that we could be doing if we were able to really be live in person and engaged with these community partners,” Danzark said. “Instead of doing online interviews, my students could actually be going to the sites and volunteering or spending some time observing how these organizations work with their clients and the community.”
Danzak also teaches a language and literacy disabilities course for both of the graduate programs. She designed the course to fit the Speech@Emerson online format, but said she was taken off guard by the in-person to remote transition.
“Students choose an on-ground program for a reason versus an online program,” she said. “It’s not an easy translation, even though that online version was built. It was definitely very helpful, but not a one-to-one translation.”
Davis said her experience as a first-year CSD major was vastly different than she expected due to the online format.
“Because learning is very different online than in person and because our major is so hands-on it was definitely harder… but I think they did a really good job,” she said.
Previously, graduate students enrolled in the Speech@Emerson program were typically required to come to campus twice during the program, each time for a three-and-a-half day immersive experience. Since the pandemic, this in-person aspect has been suspended as travel is not feasible.
“We created a virtual immersion and the virtual graduation celebration and those have been nice, but it’s not quite the same,” Grossman said.
The MS in Communication Disorders graduate program, typically in-person, has shifted to a hybrid model. The 76 graduate students currently enrolled in the program are required to collect a total of 375 “contact hours,” or hours spent working in a clinic, before their graduation. Graduate students begin collecting their hours at the Robbins Center, which has moved now fully to telepractice, and then move to working at local schools, hospitals, nursing homes, rehab facilities, and private practices, where they collect the remaining hours needed to graduate.
Grossman said the department has been working on a one-on-one basis with graduate students to determine how to complete their required clinic hours. Some have received clinical placements, while others chose to complete their requirements through computer-simulation hours.
Jesse Cohen, a senior CSD major, said since the department has shifted to a hybrid learning format, she has felt cared for by the close-knit community.
“I think the department did really well with making sure that we knew that they were still there if we needed anything,” she said.
As she waits to hear back from the graduate programs she applied to outside of Emerson, Cohen said she feels confident moving on from Emerson to begin her masters degree despite not having as many observation hours as she would have liked.
“There are some people coming in that have a business background, they don’t even have any CSD background, so I think having hopefully about 15 observation hours at the end of this semester… I think I’ll be okay,” she said.
Along with seeing patients, The Robbins Center also serves as a training facility for students in the CSD Department. Last March, when students were sent home to finish the remainder of their semester online, Grossman said she was proud to see her students care for their patients at the Robbins Center during the difficult transition period.
“They were really incredible in how thoughtful they were about their clients and knowing that the session that they were about to have with our client was going to be that client’s last session in-person and maybe last session for a while,” she said. “The students were just extraordinary about putting their clients first and thinking about their needs and what they needed in that last session … that was a really powerful and impressive moment in time from the perspective of seeing our students really blossom in the work that they’re doing—and that we are training them for it.”