Campus News

Faculty find creative ways to teach amid distance learning

Online learning and education concept.


Published April 6, 2020

“The new term is academic preparedness. The tools and skills that faculty are learning now will help them meet the needs of a generation of students that are far more electronic. ”
Jeanne Myers, learning designer
School of Management

As educators and students across the nation rapidly adjust to distance learning, UB faculty members have developed innovative tools and turned to non-conventional methods to continue teaching their students.

From crafting homemade document cameras to arranging cross-country tutoring, faculty are adapting quickly to the digital learning landscape caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The new term is academic preparedness,” says Jeanne Myers, a learning designer in the School of Management who has played a critical role in helping faculty transition to online courses.

“The tools and skills that faculty are learning now will help them meet the needs of a generation of students that are far more electronic. This type of environment has forced us all to collaborate and take a hard look at our preparedness for education in the future,” adds Myers, also a member of the UB Educational Design Collaborative and an Open SUNY fellow.

Some of the faculty innovations implemented this semester include:

Transforming household junk into teaching tools

Igor Jankovic and Todd Snyder channeled their inner-MacGyver to build a document reader that faculty can use from home.

For some faculty members teaching from their homes, the document camera is a missed technology from the classroom. Many faculty use handwritten notes to guide students through problem-solving steps. Without the equipment, students lose a critical piece of their learning.

So when Igor Jankovic, associate professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, found an old web camera in a box of junk at his home, he decided to put the forgotten lens to use.

Working with Todd Snyder, instructional support specialist in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the pair channeled their inner MacGyver to fashion a stand for the camera using scraps of 80/20 aluminum framing.

After quickly constructing a prototype, they formed an improved working model for less than $30 that functioned seamlessly with Panopto, a software for streaming and recording lectures.

“The beauty of these webcams, in addition to having a high-quality lens and microphone, is that they are old enough so that the drivers come installed on Windows 10,” says Snyder. “We tested it on my desktop PC, and the camera worked immediately and appeared instantly as an input for Panopto.”

Jankovic bought more cameras online and the pair manufactured five additional camera stands to distribute among other faculty. Snyder is also creating a guide for faculty to build their own homemade document cameras out of a range of materials, including wood, joints and screws.

Igor Jankovic and Todd Snyder fashioned a stand for an old web camera from scraps of 80/20 aluminum framing.

Transferring tech for teens to the college campus

“War and American Memory,” an upper-level course in the Department of History, does not have a final exam.

Instead, students are tasked with learning historical figures, passionately debating that character’s ideologies and swaying their classmates toward their political faction in a role-playing game.

While the discussion-based project worked well in the classroom, Sarah Handley-Cousins, clinical assistant professor of history and course instructor, had to quickly find a way to move the assignment online while maintaining engagement.

Handley-Cousins found her solution in Flipgrid, a video-sharing app primarily aimed at young students. Similar to the photo-sharing app Instagram, Flipgrid allows students to share short videos and comment on their classmates’ posts. Class communication also takes place on the messaging platform Slack.

“I hesitated to hold live discussions because I didn’t know what each student’s living situation was like. This method preserves the face-to-face component and gameplay of the project,” Handley-Cousins says.

She is also using the software for her course “Historical Writing,” where students are required to present oral presentations on class materials. To accommodate the limits of the app, presentations will be shortened from 10 to five minutes.

“The last few weeks have shown me that flexibility is okay,” she says. “It has shaken my way of digging my claws into the way things have to be. Some things from the course can get cut. Some things can get changed. The students are still going to learn.”

No classroom, no problem

Many students enrolled in pre-K–12 schools across the nation lack the access to technology that enables consistent online communication with their instructors.

For teacher candidates enrolled in the Graduate School of Education’s Teacher Education Programs, classroom experience is essential to their certification and preparation for the field. With most learning transitioned online, the Graduate School of Education encouraged candidates to become inventive in how they connected with their students.

Christina Turowski, a former lawyer pursuing a teaching certification in social studies, created a website on U.S. history for her seventh-grade class in one weekend. The website includes lesson plans for parents to use to supplement their children’s education, virtual tours of museums and national landmarks, games and a podcast.

Every weekday, Turowski adds content to the site, which is accessed by hundreds of people.

“I made this website because there are parents out there who may not have the resources to teach their children moving forward. This is the whole reason I wanted to be back in the classroom, to help students,” she says.

Another group of candidates enrolled in the Early Childhood/Childhood teacher certification program is privately tutoring students online across the nation, connecting with families in New York, Massachusetts and Nevada.

“Everyone in the cohort wants to work with the kids. We came to the master’s program to make an impact in childhood education,” says Kaleigh Kenefick, who is tutoring a pair of young children in Massachusetts on telling time, writing and social interaction.

“There are so many kids not in school that could use our help. We felt an internal drive to help them get a better education, no matter where they were.”

Program clinical supervisor Grace Maylin reached out on social media to mothers who needed tutoring for their children. After being matched, the educators performed meet and greets with the families to learn areas of need and formed lesson plans.

“We normally have little say in the classrooms on the curriculum. This is a unique opportunity to use everything we learned to keep these kids engaged in what we know and love,” says Emma Janicki-Gechoff, who is tutoring science and planning backyard learning activities for elementary school children in New York.

Libraries race to go digital

When the university announced that it would transition to distance learning, the University Libraries toiled around the clock to move course materials online for dozens of faculty and digitize hundreds of books.

With only the week of spring break available, Libraries Education Services worked with more than 50 instructors in the Department of English and English Language Institute who were teaching “Writing and Rhetoric” – a course delivered to 60% of the undergraduate population – to move remaining information literacy lectures, assignments and quizzes online.

Libraries Education Services also partnered with the Center for Educational Innovation to provide faculty with virtual assistance on using online video or instruction software, such as Blackboard, Webex, Panopto and Respondus.

Other university librarians worked to place research guides, textbooks and course materials online before access to physical materials became limited. University librarians remain available through virtual chat services.

“The libraries had the grand task of putting everything online in just a week,” says Cynthia Tysick, director of education services in the UB Libraries. “One hundred sixty people became one driving force, working at all different hours.”