The Coronavirus Has Pushed Courses Online. Professors Are Trying Hard to Keep Up.
Rebecca Barrett-Fox saw panic spreading across academe as colleges were shifting abruptly to remote teaching to stem the spread of the coronavirus. She felt she had an important message to send, to settle people’s nerves and make sure they put students first.
“Release yourself from high expectations right now,” she wrote in a blog post, “because that’s the best way to help your students learn.”
The post, titled “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online,” has been viewed more than one million times. It was informed by her experience as an assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University, where many students are lower-income and hold down jobs to put themselves through college.
Barrett-Fox issued a call to instructors everywhere: Ditch the fancy technology and intensive demands on students. Don’t rely on real-time-video classes or proctored exams. Don’t assume your students understand, or have access to, the latest technologies. And remember that students’ and professors’ increased responsibilities with work and family mean it’s not realistic to expect the remote-learning transition to be seamless, let alone pleasant.
Keep it simple. Tell your students you care. Those two messages have been echoed and amplified across higher education in recent days, as professors, teaching-center directors, deans, technology specialists, and others have wrestled with what it takes to move millions of faculty members and students out of classrooms and onto the internet.
Whether the crisis over the coronavirus lasts a few weeks or several months, colleges are navigating change on an unprecedented scale and at an astonishingly rapid pace. As they do, they’re confronting obstacles rooted in systemic and social inequities, logistical challenges presented by geography and technical capacity, and knowledge gaps revealed by many professors’ lack of preparedness for their new online reality.
Many questions surround students: Do they have reliable Wi-Fi access where they are now living? Are they working on laptops or just their phones? Do they have the privacy, and time, they need to learn?
Professors, meanwhile, are trying to figure out the intricacies of their learning-management systems, unfamiliar conferencing technologies, and new protocols for coursework and tests, even as they reach out to students to find out where they are and what they need. And they are having to do it in a matter of days.
The learning curve for some of them may be steep. Learning-management systems are nearly ubiquitous. About 74 percent of all courses use one, according to the annual Campus Computing survey of chief information officers. But many instructors don’t know how to do much more than post a syllabus, a few assignments, and grades.
Fewer than 15 percent of courses use audio or video lecture capture, for example, yet shifting to remote instruction could involve creating videos, offering virtual office hours, conducting online testing securely, and finding or developing supplemental materials to replace a lecture or discussion section.
“Faculty members are scrambling, saying: ‘Wait a minute. I didn’t design my course this way. In 24 to 48 hours I have to figure out how to do this online?’” says Kenneth C. Green, who directs the Campus Computing Project. “This is truly going to tax the instructional-support infrastructure in a very short amount of time.”
For now, the clearest and most-common theme is uncertainty.
Dennis F. Taylor, a senior lecturer who coordinates the first-year general-chemistry courses at Clemson University, has many concerns. He worries that students aren’t going to be able to engage as fully as they should. He worries that academically weaker students will fall even farther behind. Should the campus closure stretch through the semester, he worries about how to conduct a major exam remotely. With 250 students in his class, alternative assessments are not an option: There’s simply not enough time to grade papers or other projects.
“What happens if something comes up and a student says the software doesn’t work, or says they got kicked out of the system?” he asks. “Do I trust the student? Do I trust all of them? Aye yi yi.”
Taylor hopes Clemson faculty members have a bit of a head start; the university offered e-learning days, in August and February, to allow them to practice teaching online in case of an emergency. Most of them prepared an online lecture and used the learning-management system to deliver it.
Emily Fisher, an associate teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies for the biology department at the Johns Hopkins University, is encouraging her colleagues to rethink assumptions. Her department has 550 students, large classes, and lots of labs. Lab instructors told her they wanted to replicate the labs they would normally do, but with a twist. They proposed doing the experiments themselves and sending the results to students to analyze.
Fisher, who draws inspiration from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance, is encouraging the lab instructors to shift their focus to other forms of instruction. “If you’re trying to introduce students to an authentic research environment, then the chaos of real research is part of that,” she says. Instead of crunching data from a lab experiment, students could research and write up a proposal for one. That, too, she notes, is part of the life of a scientist. “Researchers don’t just pipette all day. They do a lot of thinking.”
Zein Murib, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University, has just started teaching remotely but has already encountered stumbling blocks. Murib, who uses the pronoun “they,” teaches two small courses.
On March 12, they held their first remote class, and it went OK. One student had trouble downloading the conferencing app. Others couldn’t quite get the hang of the function that is the equivalent of raising your hand. And the students were much quieter than normal, which Murib attributes to the oddity of the new environment.
“It felt really weird,” Murib admits. “I didn’t realize how much I rely on walking around the room and making eye contact with students to keep them engaged, assessing if they’re getting the information or not.”
Murib ended the class, which they taught in real time, a bit early because they felt they might be losing students’ attention. But Murib asked the students to decide how the students wanted to move forward on their research projects. The students agreed that they would read one another’s drafts before class, then meet later in small groups, through a tool like Zoom, to talk further.
“I kind of just have to trust them,” says Murib. “It’s great if it works out the way we said it would. But I’m also not going to penalize them if they can’t do this. If they get sick, or their family members get sick, or if they have to work, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Across the country, teaching experts are trying to get instructors up to speed with learning technologies, help them replicate coursework and class time virtually, and figure out what to do about final exams and major projects should campuses remain closed for the rest of the academic year.
Angela Gunder, vice president for learning at the Online Learning Consortium, says the hardest thing members of her team have had to deal with is that people are coming to them out of fear and panic. “We’re just devastated that so many organizations have to think this way,” she says. “Basically, they’re building the plane as they’re flying it.”
Like many online-education experts, Gunder worries that such rushed efforts will leave faculty members with a bad feeling about this form of teaching. “We’re going to have a lot of people entering this space for the first time and are going to think this watered-down version is what online is,” she says. “And worse, students are going to see that too.”
Her plan is to provide people with the basics of remote learning and encourage them to build onto it slowly, week by week. “My hope is that if all of us, collectively, do our jobs, they’ll know they’re not alone,” she says.
Publishers and ed-tech companies such as VitalSource, Coursera, and Top Hat are making their courseware and online tools freely available. National organizations like Educause and the POD Network are running webinars or sharing members’ advice on discipline-specific teaching challenges.
Campuses, too, have gone into overdrive over the past couple of weeks to provide training and support services.
Miami University in Ohio has identified e-learning ambassadors, people who are experienced in developing online content, to help colleagues transition online, says Dana Cox, a mathematics professor and chair of the University Senate’s executive committee. The experts in her department recently led a three-hour session to help their colleagues with the move.
They recognize that their decisions will have long-term consequences. For prerequisite courses in particular, she says, “there’s a real need to ensure that online is just as rigorous as face to face. If they don’t fully understand Calculus 1, they’re going to struggle in Calculus 2. That creates a legacy problem.”
Before in-person classes were suspended, Indiana University at Bloomington ran workshops for faculty members “every hour on the hour,” as well as live and recorded webinars, says Anastasia Morrone, associate vice provost for learning technologies. The training covered the basics of their learning-management system, Canvas, as well as key tools that will be especially helpful, like discussion forums. There’s also an overview of Zoom and Kaltura, for live and recorded meetings and lectures. “This is very targeted,” she says. “What do you need to know in order to do this?”
The university is also making itself into a hub for learning, while respecting health experts’ social-distancing guidelines. It’s developing drive-up internet, says Daniel Calarco, Indiana’s chief of staff for the chief information officer, in which campus spaces redirect their Wi-Fi outward, broadcasting it into parking lots so that people can sit in their cars and work on laptops.
Some courses will be trickier to move online than others, such as the performing arts, Morrone and Calarco acknowledge. And professors have been asked to think about alternative forms of evaluation, such as papers or open-book exams, to reduce the need for secure testing and online proctoring. “We’re going to have to rely on our faculty to get creative and imaginative with instruction and assessment,” says Calarco.
Institutions with well-established online units have resources and expertise to draw on. Pennsylvania State University, for example, has about 140 instructional designers on its staff, along with a cadre of distance-learning experts through its online-education arm, World Campus, to provide guidance to professors unfamiliar with teaching remotely.
But Penn State, too, has challenges: Many of its students, spread across more than 20 campuses, live in rural areas where broadband access is poor. Many students might not have laptops either. So the university is providing loaner computers when it can, and keeping its computer labs open for those who need a place to do their work, says Yvonne Gaudelius, associate vice president and senior associate dean for undergraduate education. Meanwhile, librarians are helping instructors find online materials, particularly open-education resources, to continue their courses remotely.
As professors transition their courses online, they need to be aware of — and convey to administrators — the learning conditions their students are facing.
After surveying the 160 students in her biology-and-society course, Nicole Nelson, director of the health and humanities program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, found that 40 percent of them did not have reliable-enough internet service for streaming. She was concerned because the university had been encouraging professors to use a real-time videoconferencing tool within Blackboard that requires a lot of bandwidth. She sent her findings to the director of undergraduate studies, noting that she was moving to lower-tech, asynchronous learning. “The next message to the campus was: Actually let’s try and keep it simple,” she says.
Sometimes it’s not technology but time that’s forcing professors to modify their ambitions.
Jessica Logan, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State University, was planning to run a live, three-hour class through Zoom to substitute for her in-person graduate seminar, which has nine students. Then public schools began closing.
As everyone scrambled to manage child-care duties, Logan realized that neither she nor her students could cordon off that block of time. She switched to a combination of recorded, 15-minute lectures with readings and threaded, written discussions, and online office hours via Zoom. While she worries that the intimacy established in her class will suffer, she is optimistic that some good will surface. For one, she is asking each student to create a 15-minute recorded lecture and then run an online discussion, a skill that could benefit everyone.
Even universities with sophisticated online operations are telling instructors to keep it simple. At the University of Central Florida, professors normally would take a weeks-long intensive workshop if they wanted to teach online. But now the focus is on quick-and-dirty operations — such as creating discussion boards, posting assignments, or using conference platforms for live or prerecorded lectures.
If their regular training program is the equivalent of the Culinary Institute of America, says Tom Cavanagh, Central Florida’s vice provost for digital learning, who oversees a 150-person division, “this is much more like, How do we train people to feed any army quickly?”
Meanwhile, liberal-arts colleges are wrestling with how to preserve their special ingredient: close contact between professors and students.
At Wheaton College in Massachusetts, which has as many professors as Cavanagh’s division has staff, most faculty members have never taught an online course. M. Gabriela Torres, an anthropology professor and co-director of the Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning, says there’s a deep sense of loss among students and professors that senior capstone projects, student-faculty research projects, and theater and studio-art programs might have to be altered significantly.
“We get less anger, more ‘I have no idea where to begin,’” she says of the mood among professors.
Her plan has been to focus on pedagogy, helping professors think about managing expectations and students’ needs. Where possible, she is encouraging them to take advantage of the moment. Her global-health course, for example, is discussing the pandemic. And a colleague in sociology is turning a course on disability studies toward accessibility issues as teaching moves online.
The challenge of accommodating students with learning disabilities is something professors must face. Many of those students have not requested accommodations or may need different ones now that they’re learning remotely. They aren’t likely to have access to special equipment provided on campus, such as machines that enlarge print or transcribe text to speech.
Teaching-center experts are encouraging professors to develop multiple ways to deliver content — providing taped lectures, for example, and a transcription. Some accommodations can also be helpful for students with limited resources, experts note. A student who relies on a phone and a limited data plan, for example, isn’t well served by streaming videos. A transcript is a lower-tech alternative.
Technical modifications and workarounds can remove obstacles for students. But what might be even more important right now, teaching experts say, is for professors to rethink traditional notions of rigor and strive for higher levels of care.
“We have to be really, really generous with students and each other,” says Luke Waltzer, director of the City University of New York Graduate Center’s Teaching and Learning Center. “None of the courses are going to run as we envisioned just two weeks ago.”
Because so many of CUNY’s students have limited access to Wi-Fi and data, he’s come up with what he calls a minimum-viable-course plan that can benefit both underresourced students and overwhelmed instructors. It includes communicating by email, setting times when students can call or otherwise connect with a faculty member, and suggesting benchmarks without requiring that students meet them. Professors can also create less data-intensive assignments, like texting information to students and putting videos on YouTube, instead of requiring students to access the work through the course-management system.
He also suggests that instructors not get too hung up on final exams, or on grading in general. Some institutions, including Vanderbilt University
, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Grinnell College, have made all of their spring undergraduate courses eligible for pass/fail status.“If students do the work you tell them to do, give them an A, and let’s move on,” says Waltzer. “We’ve got to get through this.”
Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of California at Santa Cruz, encourages professors to see students as partners in their learning. “Ask students how they would like to demonstrate their learning to you. You might be blown away by the ideas they have,” she says. “Make a video in a language class. Do a digital project.” There’s a version of that in most every field, she says.
Such an approach might also help professors with one of the greatest challenges they are likely to face: maintaining a connection with students who are now hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away, and perhaps separated by many time zones. Whether it’s a 200-student lecture or a nine-member seminar, those bonds are what will keep students engaged and motivated, learning experts say. Make sure to reach out regularly to students to see how they’re doing, and make yourself available to talk. Ask them to reflect on how the course is going. Pair them up with other students, and have them check in on one another.
“Our students are going to learn better, and our faculty are going to teach better, when they feel connected and emotionally safe,” says Michael Reder, director of the teaching and learning center at Connecticut College. “It’s important to establish that online before you even start the other parts of the course.”
Barrett-Fox, the Arkansas State professor, is trying to manage two online courses this semester while at home with three children. Her students are juggling, too. She teaches in an online social-science degree program, catering to teachers, nursing aides, EMTs, prison guards, and others who work long shifts and unusual hours.
Since she posted her essay about sticking to the basics, and giving students a lot of leeway, she has heard from many professors, thanking her for reassuring them that lowering the technology bar doesn’t mean that they are bad teachers.
“The technology isn’t going to save us,” she says. “It’s really the pedagogy.”
Beth McMurtrie writes about technology’s influence on teaching and the future of learning. Follow her on Twitter @bethmcmurtrie, or email her at [email protected].
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