Campus News

UB units offer assistance as distance learning and working from home begins

The staff members of Career Services have a video conference.

Career Services staff meet via videoconferencing. Photo: Kristy Strough

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published March 25, 2020

“Recently, I was asked by someone from outside the UB community what I had learned since taking the position of provost. Without hesitation, I replied that I had been humbled and deeply gratified by the tremendous spirit of cooperation that you, as faculty and staff, have demonstrated in achieving our common purpose of transitioning to remote learning within 10 days.”
A. Scott Weber, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs

In this unprecedented university-wide shift to working from home, distance learning and online classes, students and faculty should remember something almost guaranteed to help unscramble the inevitable challenges: There is relief, advice and assistance everywhere. All you need to do is look around and ask. Being non-essential does not mean you don’t matter.

An impressive and resourceful support system coming in time for the first week of working at home and online classes has taken off. And the significance of it goes beyond helping faculty, staff and students continue their work.

Anyone looking for evidence of a university-wide community during the COVID-19 pandemic is in luck. This shopping mall of services created by UB administrators, faculty and staff reaching out to those facing the abrupt transition from office to home and classroom to Webex is a bright spot in an otherwise uncertain time.

It also helps explain how UB has transitioned more than 4,000 classes, including labs, into online courses in a matter of weeks.

“Recently, I was asked by someone from outside the UB community what I had learned since taking the position of provost,” wrote A. Scott Weber, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, in an email to UB employees sent March 23.

“Without hesitation, I replied that I had been humbled and deeply gratified by the tremendous spirit of cooperation that you, as faculty and staff, have demonstrated in achieving our common purpose of transitioning to remote learning within 10 days. Together we will ensure that we are continuing to deliver the very best education possible to our students in these extraordinary times.”

CEI: Your guide to online teaching

In some cases, the feast of virtual conferencing and online help sites has been overwhelming, making them hard to sort through. In any event, it’s being done with flair and intelligence, and sometimes even a wry humor.

Up first, in no special order, UB’s Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), which partnered with UB Information Technology and University Libraries to run back-to-back emergency courses to help teachers make the transition to distance learning.

The two-hour sessions were open to faculty, adjunct lecturers, graduate teaching assistants and others seeking guidance on how to use technology to build effective online classes – as documented in a UBNow story.

Online teaching resources and a link to register for an emergency online course-building session are available on CEI’s website.

UBIT springs into action with new online tools

Quickly following the announcement to distance learning, the offices of J. Brice Bible, Graham Hammill and Robert Granfield sent out a detailed memo to faculty sharing important dates, guidelines and information on campus resources.

They also sent faculty to a site offering emergency course-building sessions and resources for students preparing for distance learning.

“The university is fully committed to providing resources to support faculty, students and staff during the transition to distance learning,” said Bible, vice president and chief information officer. “UB Information Technology is pleased to have fast-tracked a rollout of Zoom to better assist our community members with remote collaboration. UBIT will facilitate online trainings on Zoom beginning the week of March 23rd.”

Bible said UBIT recently provided in-depth sessions on Panopto and Webex collaboration tools, and partnered with the CEI and University Libraries on the emergency course-building training sessions for faculty.

Tips for working from home

Alex Reid, director of writing across the curriculum in the Department of English, offers this advice to ease the transition for those working remotely:
•    Try to create a dedicated workspace.

•    Create a structure for your day. For example, set specific hours for working and accomplishing tasks.

•    Have a technology backup plan, especially for synchronous activities. Hopefully, Webex and Zoom will work well for everyone, but it’s more likely there will be glitches.

•    Keep things simple and be as explicit and straightforward as possible. Now isn’t the time to ask students or colleagues to take on any more technical challenges than are necessary. “We may be surprised how much we rely on nonverbal cues and informal conversation to communicate and get things done,” Reid says. “We’re going to have to do without a lot of that, so it’s important to be as clear as possible.”

•    Be easy on yourself — and others. “I’m guessing we’ll find everyone working at a distance is very challenging, not only in technical terms but generally as a means for communicating, coordinating and collaborating,” Reid says. “Even when the technology works as expected, there will still be plenty of opportunities for frustration.

PSS to help with your ‘now different work life’

Then there was the Professional Staff Senate (PSS). PSS Chair Tim Tryjankowski sent an email to professional staff acknowledging “another wave of newness” as students get back to studies post spring break.

“I’m sure we will all have another learning curve of our own to conquer then,” he wrote. “Please take care of yourselves while also taking care of your work responsibilities!”

Tryjankowski said he had asked PSS senators and committee chairs to think about ways to communicate and plan for their changing role in the days ahead, “after we acclimate to students being in session.”

“If you have any needs, issues, concerns or helpful tips regarding your now different work life,” he wrote, “please share them with your area senators, who will share things up through our representative body.”

Individual departments have joined the mission. Alex Reid, director of writing across the curriculum in the Department of English, sent an email out to faculty on March 16.

“Our goal is not to give you one more thing to do or check, but hopefully to make the task we have a little easier,” Reid wrote.

He announced a special content area on teaching online, as well as plans to run live Webex sessions, recording them and making them widely available.

“We created a UBLearns space where we are sharing support materials and links to existing resources,” he wrote. “We’ll also be running live workshops and support sessions in Webex or Zoom in the coming weeks.”

Responding to concerns with a personal touch

Through this, Reid maintained a personal touch, responding to individual faculty requests and offering to do one-on-one video talks with faculty on Webex and other online teaching methods.

“This is the unfortunate future I never knew I was preparing for,” he wrote. “I am here as a resource if you need me.”

Reid also has written blog posts on the subject: One offers advice to online instructors, while another contains guidance for students, with a foolproof opening to get them to read.

“First of all, I understand how much this probably sucks,” Reid wrote in his “advice to students who unexpectedly enrolled in an online university.”

“I’ve been a professor for 20+ years, but right now my son is a college freshman and my daughter was looking forward to enjoying a victory lap in her final semester as a college senior before heading off to a PhD program. Of course, there are more pressing concerns, but we can take a moment to recognize that this sucks, too.

“My personal recourse is to the philosophy of the Stoics,” he wrote in conclusion. “Depending on your faith, you might recognize this as a precursor to the Serenity Prayer. Happiness always lies in aligning our desires with objectives that are within our power to achieve. You can apply that advice generally, but here I’d say you might apply that advice to the next few weeks of your online education.

“The only thing I know for sure,” Reid wrote to conclude a blog entry, “is that we are in this together.”

Tech problem? UBIT is here to help

Visit the UBIT website to find software tools, collaboration tools, computer access options and broadband services for students across New York State.

Anyone experiencing a technical problem with Zoom, Webex or Panopto should contact the UBIT Help Center.

For problems with a departmentally supported computer, contact the departmental IT support team.

READER COMMENT

The UBlearns course UB Teaching Community of Practice, to which all faculty should be enrolled, is a one-stop-shop for online teaching, offering tutorials on the basics and links to resources from CEI and UBIT in one place.

As the title suggests, it is meant to be an interactive site that encourages faculty to share best practices and stories.

As such, it is constantly being updated with new information. Check it out!

Valerie Nesset