Principia College shifts to remote learning today, and the community – now spread across the globe waiting to Zoom, Google Meet and Canvas connect – is filled with concern about how it will work. But the short two weeks for preparation also allowed for a spirit of collaboration, creativity, and supportiveness to grow.
The college conducted workshops several times a day last week “to give faculty space to reorganize their courses for students to access them remotely,” says Colleen Vucinovich, faculty senate President and professor of economics and business administration. Workshops covered everything from using various video conferencing platforms to concerns expressed in the recent Student Survey on Technology Plans, according to a schedule shared by Edith List, interim assistant dean.
“While there’s been an expert in the room that’s been taking us through what each of the platforms is able to do and how we can best use them,” says Vucinovich, “we’ve also had faculty that have been using various platforms share their learning…. So it’s been instruction and also collaboration, which is really cool.”
Remote learning is not online learning, says Vucinovich. “Online classes are designed to be only online, they are built in a very specific way, they require extensive expertise in instructional design… So we aren’t pretending to be offering an online program.”
“Online classes are designed to be only online, they are built in a very specific way, they require extensive expertise in instructional design… So we aren’t pretending to be offering an online program.“– Colleen Vucinovich, faculty senate president on not confusing online learning with remote teaching
Rather, Principia is looking at the existing residential program which requires in-person attendance and moving it to a platform that enables students to access what they need to do remotely, as well as offering remote support, explains Vucinovich.
Every professor faces technology issues, but some face greater challenges when transitioning their course material online. The biggest challenge Vucinovich expects is bandwidth issues and the variability of student access to technology. The virtual world wasn’t designed for millions of people to be online all day, live streaming simultaneously, says Vucinovich.
In anticipation of these issues, Vucinovich is creating office hours during which her students can drop in virtually. “I’m trying to some degree to be asynchronous rather than having everyone be in the chat at the same time,” she says.
Students left campus not knowing if they would return, so most art students left their supplies on campus, says Duncan Martin, chair of the art and art history department. The art department was able to buy and ship essential supplies to students with funds from its own budget and additional funding support from Meggan Madden, dean of academics, and Joy Turnbaugh, chief operations officer.
As to course content, says Martin, many assignments will change, and professors have reduced what students are expected to complete. “I’m just looking upon it as an experiment. It’s a time to come up with solutions to a problem, and have some fun doing it, really trying to introduce to students that it’s something we’re all in together.”
“Strip your course down to the core, and build around those core components.”-Meggan Madden, dean of academics in a memo to faculty
In a memo to faculty this weekend, Madden advised how to revise classes: “Strip your course down to the core, and build around those core components.”
When she first heard that all classes would be moved online, Marie Farson, assistant professor of earth science and director of the engineering department, didn’t think she would need much time to figure it out. She would just meet with students on Zoom and make all submissions electronic, right? But, she adds, “the more I got into it, I realized that there are much more effective ways of delivering online education than that.”
The more she dug into available resources, the more Farson found what will be of use in her classes: “I’m actually really excited. There are some resources out there that I never knew about that are really fantastic.”
Farson says she has even discovered things that she is considering integrating into her future classes. One online textbook requires that the reader answer questions before moving on from a topic and employs an algorithm that tailors questions. She is considering it as a replacement to a traditional textbook that she has used for several semesters.
“I’m actually really excited. There are some resources out there that I never knew about that are really fantastic.”– Marie Farson, assistant professor of earth science and director of the engineering department
In his research methods class, Brian Roberts, chair of the political science department, now has students located from Alaska to France, and he is considering the challenges that time differences and distance pose when adapting the group project.
“I’m trying to really think carefully about what is absolutely essential to a course and how we can maintain quality but simplify to the extent that we can, and be considerate of everybody’s needs,” says Roberts.
The shift to online isn’t hampering Duncan Charters’ classes. “I’m giving [my students] more opportunities to have the practice that they need,” says the chair of the languages and cultures department.
Not only will students continue to have weekly, small group discussions with a native Spanish speaker, but Charters will add one-on-one sessions with a native speaker. He will also have an open phone from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (CDT) daily, and he aims to check in at least every other week with individual testing.
“We’re trying to do our best for everyone, just so no one’s disadvantaged by having to go online,” he says.
Faculty are collaborating within their divisions to explore new ways of delivering content, and many faculty members have been generous with sharing their own expertise and experience with various platforms, as well as teaching techniques, said Roberts.
Many faculty are also finding resources through colleagues at other institutions and through professional associations. “We are trying, as far as possible, not to act in a vacuum and not to act in isolation – that we are needing to collaborate with the education industry as a whole, nationally,” says Vucinovich.
“The whole field of teaching art, and the community of professors and art teachers in the country have just poured out different blogs and gatherings of ideas for how to do that,” says Martin.
“I’m taking ideas wherever I can find them,” says Rose Whitmore, associate professor of music, who is finding resources everywhere from Facebook groups for teaching avenues to Principia College’s Center for Teaching and Learning.
The Creative Arts and Communications Unit is exploring ideas for online collaboration between music, dance, theatre, and the visual arts. “In a way, having to go through this experience might encourage us to do more of that,” says Martin.
Charters has had several opportunities to take workshops on online teaching in the past. In one, he says, the results of a study were presented that generated a list of qualities that make for a successful learner. He plans to share that list with his students.
In another workshop, Charters learned that when a professor is preparing to transition to online teaching, they are typically given a year to develop the materials, learn the skills, and be fully prepared.
Typically, a professor is given a year to develop materials for an online course; right now professors nationwide have had two weeks to develop materials and skills.
“Of course the difference here is we’ve had a couple of weeks to get started on this,” says Charters.
Faculty has been advised not to be too ambitious, he says. “Just look at the content first and put the content before the technology.” With that, academic support has been available to instructors around the clock to help with technological issues, says Charters.
Charters says he has felt for some time that Principia should be looking to expand to online courses. “I think that we have a really good opportunity here to explore, is this something that we should do in the future?”
In the meantime, multiple faculty members echoed the need for empathy moving forward. “We’re just all going to need to be patient and understanding,” says Roberts, “and continue to make adjustments as they seem warranted.”
Featured illustration at top by Eunice de Faria @pixabay