UB faculty sprint to prep course content for distance learning

Geology professor Jason Briner gives prospective graduate student Leah Marshall a tour of his Hochstetter Hall lab via videoconferencing. Marshall was in northern Vermont. Photo: Douglas Levere

By Barbara Branning, David J. Hill, Charlotte Hsu and Cory Nealon

Published March 23, 2020

In the past week, all segments of American society have been scrambling to adjust to widespread upheavals caused by the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Moving to an all-online format is challenging, but it can be done. You just need to think about things differently and find different ways to engage students on the material you’re presenting.”
Sabrina Casucci, assistant professor of teaching
Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

Since March 11, when UB’s leadership made the decision to transition to distance learning after the end of spring break, faculty members have been mobilizing to completely alter their usual way of doing business.

In addition to learning the ropes of new software, professors also are thinking about how to make the shift to distance learning easier for students to manage.

“I’m working to create a transition that is student-centered,” says Jessica Kruger, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, School of Public Health and Health Professions. “I have heard from students, mostly students who are concerned about meeting deadlines due to other obligations.”

In addition, Kruger says she’s concerned with students feeling overwhelmed with the dramatic shift in modalities.

“Many have never taken a course online, let alone all of their courses online. Although many of our students are ‘tech savvy,’ some are not, and we need to think about designing a course that fits all of our learners and any other challenges they may be facing while everything is essentially shut down,” she says. “They may need to work or take care of children. Or they could just be feeling overwhelmed and find it challenging to concentrate.”

For some units, the transition poses a significant departure from the norm. For others, like the Graduate School of Education, it’s really nothing new. GSE has been delivering online coursework for more than 10 years.

“The COVID-19 situation is both a crisis and an opportunity,” says Nathan Daun-Barnett, associate professor of higher education administration in the GSE. “The crisis is evident. We need to move all courses online in a very short time. The opportunity is that those who have resisted teaching online will now have a fuller understanding of what that looks like and how to translate their courses for a virtual audience,” he says.

Because faculty members who were not familiar with distance-learning modalities had to be brought up to speed in a very short period of time, UB experts quickly put together a variety of trainings to familiarize faculty with how to use unfamiliar software packages that will allow them to make course content available online.

“I admire my colleagues for embracing change and investing themselves fully in a mode of instruction that would not have even been an option two months ago,” Daun-Barnett says. 

Faculty members in the School of Public Health and Health Professions took advantage of a one-hour tutorial on WebEx and Panopto, which Kruger led. Kruger also set aside time for individual instruction, according to R. Lorraine Collins, associate dean for research.

“This training was a useful adjunct to the training being offered by the Center for Educational Innovation, and was much appreciated by the participants and the school,” Collins says.

In the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a committee of engineering professors has been developing best practices for teaching distance learning, according to Sabrina Casucci, assistant professor of teaching in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, who serves on the panel.

The committee, which is led by Jeffrey Errington, the school’s associate dean for undergraduate education, hosted an online forum on March 17 to help answer professors’ questions about the process of transitioning to distance learning.

Flexibility is key

While she anticipates holding portions of her classes at the same time as they were previously scheduled, Casucci is also planning on making some courses available to students to complete on their own time — as a nod to the need for flexibility, given students’ different situations.

“Moving to an all-online format is challenging, but it can be done. You just need to think about things differently and find different ways to engage students on the material you’re presenting,” Casucci explains.

“Flexibility is key during this transition, and supporting students by providing clear and detailed instructions is essential,” Kruger adds.

Kruger is also making sure to be available to her students when they need to contact her. “I use an app call Remind, which is free and typically used in K-12 education, so students can text me questions without having my phone number,” she said. She also set up a Google voice line that rings to her cell phone.

Monica Stephens, assistant professor of geography in the College of Art and Sciences, has recorded her lectures for the past two years, but she’s still making changes to adapt to online-only teaching.

To cut down on email, she used the Slack instant messaging platform to create a Slack channel where students can ask questions. It acts as a replacement for office hours.

Stephens also added a second Slack channel where colleagues can share information about teaching online during the pandemic.

Looking beyond UB, she built a website titled “GIS Pedagogy in a Panic” on which she’s sharing distance-learning materials such as worksheets and video content that she and others have created. She is also swapping ideas with educators she met last year in a national fellowship program aimed at cultivating women leaders in geographic information science (GIS).

Coping with other stressors

Meanwhile, Stephens is grappling with another huge challenge facing UB faculty members and workers across the U.S.: What to do when your child’s school district suddenly closes.

Stephens’ 3-year-old son’s school is temporarily shuttered due to the pandemic, and he is now home with her during the day.

“When I spend all day with my kid, I don’t always have the mental energy to finish my research at night. I’m sleeping four hours a night so I can work,” she says.

“It’s a challenge that a lot of pre-tenured faculty around the country are having,” she adds.

While it may be a bit chaotic now, GSE’s Daun-Barnett sees the silver lining.

“I can tell already that for those of us new to the online teaching environment, we will see the possibilities and opportunities for the future as a result of the work we are doing today.”