In January, as she has always done at the start of the each semester, University of New Orleans planning and urban studies professor Michelle Thompson gave students her standard course preamble.
“I told them, you know good things are going to happen during this semester and bad things are going to happen,” Thompson said. “It’s not necessarily that the good or bad things can sideline you, but it’s how we respond to it that will make the difference.”
Indeed, no one could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced colleges and universities
across the U.S. to cancel all in-person classes and transition nearly overnight to online teaching in an effort to slow the number and rate of viral infections.
“When given lemons, one can always try making lemonade,” UNO biological sciences professor Jerry Howard said of the transition. “We're all trying to make lemonade right now.”
Howard, a 28-year teaching veteran, is using a combination of Moodle, the University’s online learning management system, and the video conferencing application Zoom to deliver course content in his senior-level animal behavior course.
“My goals are for the students to feel that they received the same quality of instruction and have the same mastery of these complex ideas that they would have gotten from our face-to-face meetings,” Howard said. “I am trying anything I can think of that will advance those goals.”
Howard said he’s recording and posting videos of his PowerPoint presentations on Moodle so that students can access the content whenever they need it.
“The more complex topics are cut into shorter videos so that students can focus on problem areas more easily,” he said. “I then hold Moodle chat sessions during regular office hours and Zoom meetings during regular class meeting times.”
Elizabeth Blankenship, the director of the University’s Center for Teaching Innovation, applauded the way faculty members have not only risen to the challenge of pivoting to online instruction, but are readily helping each other to navigate that shift by sharing tips and information.
“What I'm observing now is that our faculty are responding much like our peers in academe all over the country,” Blankenship said. “The main challenge from our perspective is helping faculty adjust to managing their expectations.
“This pivot is not equivalent to taking their courses online in a prepared, designed, holistic way. They have had to sit down and evaluate the key outcomes for each course, look at what they do in the classroom, and make adjustments to meet those outcomes while accommodating the real limits that they and their students face in a time of trauma and crisis,” Blankenship said.
At UNO, the move to remote teaching and learning came just after midterms and students were understandably anxious about their academic paths forward, Thompson said.
As she adapted her neighborhood planning course to Moodle, Thompson said she responded to her students’ anxiety with a “letter of calm.” For some it would be their first online course, she said.
In her “missive,” Thompson said she let students know that she understood their uncertainties and acknowledged the new distractions they faced with the spread of the coronavirus.
“So we have to massage what we’re doing,” Thompson said. “We have to maybe change the timeframes … whether it’s a meeting at 10 o’clock in the morning or 8 o’clock at night to fit more into the students’ lives. This is what I’ve tried to do.”
Engineering professor Gianna Cothren moved her classes, which include introduction to hydrology, and programming and graphics, online using Zoom.
“Zoom is terrific because it offers video, audio, screen share, document share, a whiteboard, and recording all linked to our current Moodle system,” Cothren said.
Cothren has set up a “Virtual Hydrology Class” hyperlinked in Moodle that students click on prior to the 10 a.m. class. Students type their names for attendance, Zoom automatically records, and makes available a chat file of everyone who participates, Cothren said.
“Students join in with desktops, tablets, and smartphones of all types, with some having audio and video and some not,” Cothren said. “There are 47 students in the class, so I originally have them come muted but allow them to turn their mics on and off as needed. Those without audio have to use the type chat window.”
Cothren begins her lecture by sharing her screen with a PowerPoint presentation just as they would see in the classroom.
“I have the added benefit of being able to write (and solve problems) on screen since I use a Surface Book with a pen and I think this helps to keep them engaged,” Cothren said.
For his chemistry students, instructor Henry Hauck Jr. has embedded audio files into PowerPoint presentations posted to Moodle, and has created an online forum for students to share and ask questions, among other things.
“Preparing the PowerPoint slides with audio does take quite a bit of time, but I have received some e-mails from students who send their thanks and say that they appreciate the effort I put in to get these audio embedded slides to the class,” Hauck said. “So it is worth the effort.”
Hauck also uses timed tests to maintain exam integrity, he said.
“The timed tests on the computer seem to be very concerning to them. They say it makes them nervous,” Hauck said. “I think they are adjusting. They are smart, and most are very computer savvy.
“I am confident we can make it work. And, as we learn from our mistakes, we will improve our online courses.”
“You can’t truly replicate the classroom experience, but you can, in terms of the education you provide, in terms of the experience you want them to have, I think we can find different substitutes,” she said. “So that’s the challenge, to be as creative as possible and to be flexible.”