As UCCS shifted to remote learning for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester, faculty members have worked long hours and employed creative solutions to move in-person classroom experiences into digital and virtual formats.
Below, we asked faculty members to share in their own words how they have managed the transition, what’s working (and what’s not) for their students, and how faculty members can balance being available to students while also setting healthy boundaries.
Tom Wahl, senior instructor teaching in the technical communication and information design (TCID) department, Mary Claire Wahl, assistant professor of nursing and Jackie Crouch, instructional technologist in the Faculty Resource Center, offered their answers to these questions and more.
TW: I’m doing a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous learning. The first week, we had virtual class during the regular class hours, and we went over the assignments. This last week we did asynchronous learning. I recorded a lecture with a PowerPoint that I would normally give in class, and I had Q&A meetups on Teams in case the students had any questions.
MCW: I have really changed the expectations in my syllabus. You can’t just move your in-class syllabus into an online format. I’ve had to change the teaching strategies, the methods of assessment, the assignments. I like to keep some kind of routine going, so we do meet virtually during our normal class times, but I understand many students have financial limitations where they’ve had to work or have had other conflicts, so I try to have compassion.
JC: An excellent online course takes months to develop. To imagine that we’re all trying to achieve that when we’ve been thrust into remote learning with whatever tools we have, with whatever internet connection we have – it’s been a real adventure. I would remind faculty that if they are facing challenges adjusting their courses to remote learning, to reach out to us in the Faculty Resource Center however you need to. We will help you find a solution as quickly as possible.
TW: I just sent out an email to my students today asking how the assignment is going and how they’re doing with online learning, and I’ve gotten a few responses back so far.
Some students have complained about the fact that some of their remote classes are just a PowerPoint with notes. One student said she had to hire a tutor because there’s no lecture to explain things. So, which format works better? I think it depends on the material. If your course requires deep explanations, it’s probably best to hold synchronous virtual meetings or at least be quick to respond to questions your students may send you over email.
MCW: I’m trying to do it in small groups. I have reached out to students and asked them to let me know if they’re having any challenges or can’t meet the deadlines. When I go into their small groups or email them directly, I’m trying to do a lot more outreach to students I haven’t heard from.
Normally, in class, I can see their mood – how fatigued or stressed they look. But in this remote learning environment, it’s important to be proactive about the outreach because you can’t always see the students or sense who may be struggling.
TW: I’m constantly emailing and constantly in touch with my students. I’m reaching out even more than I would in a classroom setting, and reminding them that I’m available for questions, whether they want to email me or set up a Teams meeting. It’s part of our jobs, and it’s necessary.
We have to really empathize with the situation our students are in. For some of them, it’s no problem to go home to their nice MacBook and their great WiFi connection and their established sense of initiative, and get their work done. But there are other students for whom this situation has stumped them, or who have barriers that may impede their ability to be successful in online classes – such as poor technology, needing to work extra hours or even having to take care of younger siblings as parents work. We need to remember to reach out to those who might be having problems but aren’t saying anything.
JC: Faculty who routinely teach online know that students think you’re only a mouse-click away. They think you’re there 24/7. So a lot of this is also about setting boundaries to protect yourself. You can put it out there that on weekends, you’re not looking at email. You can let your students know that you’ll respond on Monday. Because I come from a nursing background, I like to say, “This isn’t life or death – it’s education.”
That being said, I am so impressed with how this faculty body is so committed to their students that they are willing to twist themselves into pretzels to make this work. They will do whatever is necessary, within reason. They are online far more. They are responding to their students far more. They are being flexible in loosening deadlines for online tests and assignments and giving students a longer time to complete them. I give them so much credit for that.
TW: That’s really a good question. We have such a nontraditional student body, and I take that into account even in my normal classes. Most of my students are normally working 30 or more hours a week anyway, and I’m very aware of that, so I try to give a lot of in-class time to complete assignments. I’m trying to prioritize that in our online classes, too. I have students who have had to take up additional jobs, some who have limited access to technology, and some even might be at home and having to take care of younger siblings. So I try to be understanding if a student is late. I’m not looking for ways to penalize them. I’m trying to show a little compassion and flexibility and assume the best.
JC: It’s extremely important to be flexible and acknowledge that your students do not have the kinds of things that you ideally would like them to have. Holding a live web meeting with your students is not always a reasonable goal. To me, this whole situation is about managing expectations and being realistic about what that means. There are ideals to aspire to, but you’re going to need to try a few different things to adapt your syllabus and your lessons to take advantage of being remote, but still get students through this semester.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in transitioning to remote learning, and how have you overcome them?
MCW: The biggest challenge is that nursing students have to have so many clinical hours, which is a requirement from the Board of Nursing. It’s not just a matter of moving our courses online. About a month ago, all the hospitals in Colorado Springs eliminated all student rotations due to the shortage of personal protective equipment, so our students couldn’t finish their clinical rotations. Then our challenge was that we couldn’t have access to the simulation center at the campus, either.
We’re now doing virtual simulations instead. We have been trying to create as realistic scenarios as possible, where our nursing students go in and do some assessments of patients. They do some teaching, they make decisions on cases and treatment and they prioritize their interventions. It’s ultimately very valuable. The one thing they’re missing in those virtual simulations is actually putting their hands on the patients. But ultimately – whether it’s in their clinical rotations or after graduation – they will learn the hands-on skills with patients very quickly. What they might not have the opportunity for in their hospital rotations is the critical thinking piece, which is so valuable.
TW: My Introduction to Business Writing class lends itself to a pretty seamless transition into the online classroom. I do my lectures and explain the assignments, and the students go and write. We have virtual meetings. They’ve shared their work and we’ve gone over it. In some ways, I’m probably getting to some of my students more than I normally would in the classroom.
MCW: I teach a maternity course, so I’ve gathered the UCCS community of faculty, staff, students and alumni who are pregnant or have just recently given birth. They are actually volunteering to be our simulated patients via Teams. They join in our Teams meetings, and our students take their histories and do teaching with them just like they would with new mothers in hospitals.
We also have paid actors who we called standardized patients. They work for the simulation center in the College of Nursing, and soon our students will work with one of those actors to practice therapeutic communication with patients. They’ll practice talking the patient through communication challenges, whether it’s dealing with a patient who’s under some kind of stress or there’s a situation where the nurse has to go up the chain of command of their nursing unit to solve a conflict. These are very valuable experiences, because students don’t always get the opportunity to practice these kinds of skills in their hospital rotations.
MCW: I’ve put all of my quizzes on Canvas. I have been using the Respondus LockDown Browser and Respondus Monitor, which are ways of proctoring students.
In the nursing courses, students are also evaluated based on their clinical performance. That has been a big change, because we’re not observing them directly take care of real-live patients. Instead of focusing on the hands-on skills, we’re focusing more on how they’re thinking about things. Instead of assessing whether or not they can insert an IV or pass medication safely, we’re seeing how they’re delegating, how they’re acting as nursing leaders.
MCW: Presentations are tricky. We normally do those in class. But the students are very tech-savvy, so we’re just going to do our presentations in Teams. I also do a lot of small group activities in my class, so I’ve learned how to create small groups in Teams. The students go out into their breakout ‘rooms’ and I give them an activity to work on together. Then I pop into each group’s meeting to see if there are any questions I can answer.
TW: I would just say that the tools that we have at our hands for being able to teach online are tremendous. We have all the resources provided by Dave Anderson and Jackie Crouch from the Faculty Resource Center, and all we have to do to get access to these tools is ask them. For example, I have 80 students, but a simple tip from Jackie showed me how easy it is to email all of my students individually through Canvas. Using that feature, I can check in with each one of them personally and see how their assignments are going.
JC: There isn’t a lot that’s unrealistic. I’ve worked with visual art faculty to help offer a solution for grading sketchbook and visual art projects. The students take a photo of their artwork, put it in a document and upload it to Canvas. The faculty member can make comments within the document and enter a grade for it. We have biology classes that are used to doing lab components. We recently plugged a tool called Labster into Canvas so those students can do artificial intelligence assignments that put them into a lab setting. It’s animated, and they can go through the steps of choosing the right tool and sequence to recreate the lab experience.
A lot of classes do group presentations for a summative evaluation at the end of the semester. Many of them are used to doing that in class, but we have other options. They can do group presentations live. Students can work together to create their PowerPoint presentation, pull up the presentation and take their turns narrating their section to the class on Teams. There really isn’t much that’s impossible anymore, provided you have an internet connection.
JC: I think it’s really important to acknowledge there are always silver linings. The big thing that I’ve witnessed is how faculty are leaning on each other and reaching out to each other. I have seen more faculty tap into friends and family to be able to accomplish the educational outcomes – and it works, because friends and family are always happy to help. I’m always pleased to see that kind of interaction. I actually think that when this all over and we’re free to go back to class, we’re going to have new solutions and different teaching methodologies and strategies because of what we came up with during this time.
MCW: I’m trying to find a silver lining every day – and I’ve already seen many of them. When we’re back in the classroom, I’m planning to continue some of the things that I’ve been forced to put into a virtual mode because I think they are enhancing our students’ learning. For example: make-up clinical time. Nursing students are normally under a lot of pressure to complete each hospital hour. But what I’ve learned is that if we can’t always get a make-up day in the hospital, substituting some of these virtual simulations are not catastrophic for the students’ learning. We can take some of the pressure off of them.
TW: It’s so important for faculty to make an effort to reach out to students. Make sure they’re understanding the assignment and the lessons, and ask how the transition to online learning is going. Some students might be having problems that they won’t share.
MCW: Try to be compassionate with everyone who’s going through this situation. It is all about finding a balance. That being said, I am really looking forward to getting back to the classroom, and I think our students are, too.
JC: Be like a duck – smooth on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath. And have the Faculty Resource Center on speed dial.
The mission of the Faculty Resource Center is to provide faculty with the instructional resources and support to explore and implement innovative teaching practices. The Center provides consultation, programs, training, and support. It is a faculty-focused, collaborative endeavor to promote effective teaching, with special emphasis on technology-enhanced, hybrid and online courses. Learn more online.