Anita Warfford is the instructional technology consultant for UNC Greensboro’s College of Arts & Sciences, the largest academic unit at the university, accounting for more than half of its fundable credit hours.
So when the news came that UNCG would be shifting nearly all classes online to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she tried not to panic.
“The college is really big, and I’m one person,” Warfford, who trains instructors in all matters technology-related, said. “When something like this happens, it could very quickly have become something totally unmanageable.”
Instead, what happened was a great demonstration of teamwork.
“I’ve had people say, ‘How on earth did you do this in the college?’ And I say, ‘I did not do this by myself. It never would have happened if the departments had not stepped up and helped each other out. That 100 percent made the difference in us being able to do this.”
The result? Within ten days, 98 percent of courses in the College of Arts & Sciences had been moved online.
A call for camaraderie
Most professors are hired for their subject-matter expertise, not their technical prowess. Before the quick switch to remote teaching, Warfford estimates that about ten percent of faculty across the university had not used much technology beyond email.
That’s where the creation of informal “faculty buddy” systems came in—that is, pairing instructors who are more comfortable with Canvas, Zoom and other online teaching resources with those who are less comfortable.
Departments also quickly organized their own training sessions to supplement Warfford’s workshops. In the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, for example, three faculty members conducted training sessions for the rest of the department.
“They proved to be our heroes in the transition to online teaching,” said Dr. Sat Gupta, the department’s head. “We as a department would have been a mess without them.”
Not without its challenges
Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to transitioning online was what to do with labs and studio courses. In these active-learning classes, the hands-on experience is a crucial element of the course.
Dr. Elizabeth Tomlin teaches the Biology 112 lab, which includes 12 sections, as well as the Human Physiology lab, with 260 students and 11 sections.
“Trying to replicate the team-learning environment has been really challenging,” said Tomlin.
In one experiment, students were supposed to choose two sites in UNCG’s Peabody Park to collect leaf litter and then compare the soil arthropods. Fortunately, she was able to replicate this experiment by sharing a virtual tour of Peabody Park and using data collected from a previous semester.
The Department of Interior Architecture also relies heavily on in-person studio sessions. In their absence, instructors have had to get inventive. Dr. Maruja Torres-Antonini is teaching a first-year design course. To compensate for their lack of face-to-face time in the studio, she has been holding design critiques via Zoom during which students show off their projects on architectural form-making. She uses a digital drawing tool to provide feedback.
“Students have been great partners in this process,” Torres said. “As they are learning, so are we.”
Yet, overall, the process for students has not been easy.
“The biggest challenge this situation is presenting is not so much for the instructor, but for the students,” said Dr. Mark Hens of the Biology department. “Many of them don’t have tablets; they don’t have PCs; they don’t have WiFi … so a lot are just using the data on their phone.”
Many efforts have been made to mitigate these concerns, including securing equipment for students when needed, providing the option to withdraw from classes and letting students choose to make their courses pass-fail. Many internet providers are even offering free service to students for 60 days or more.
Still, Hens and others across the country worry that some students will get left behind.
“If someone is trying to take a quiz on their phone and Zoom on their phone at the same time—and they’ve got a spotty connection—that’s going to be a problem.”
Is the future of higher education online?
Despite these very real problems, the relative success of moving higher education online has led some to predict that digital learning will soon be the new normal.
While Warfford thinks online learning will continue to grow, even she doesn’t see it replacing the in-person experience.
“I love the idea of online courses—this is my job—and it works really well for particular audiences: people who live in rural areas without access to a brick-and-mortar institution, people whose family situations make going to traditional classes difficult, people in the military, and people with disabilities,” she said. “Online courses are a wonderful thing because they can reach so many more people. But I don’t think that online should ever be a replacement for the face-to-face experience.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by even the most technologically adept faculty, like Tomlin.
“We’ve done our best, but we’re not replicating the active-learning environment in an effective way online,” Tomlin said. “This is especially true in Human Physiology, where they’re supposed to be doing the experiments on themselves. And when students get an unexpected result in lab, we usually can talk about that and why it might have happened. They’re missing out on the hands-on ability to explore things in a physical way.”
Story by Elizabeth Keri, College of Arts & Sciences