Recently, when Gregory Foran researched online course creation, he encountered a bit of sage advice.
“You’re going to do your best, but you can’t expect to master this technology in short order,” says Foran, head of Nazareth College’s English department.
Foran and other local college and university professors had to switch to online instruction after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his New York State on PAUSE executive order on March 20. Aimed to slow COVID-19’s advance, the order directed all nonessential businesses to cease in-person activities as of March 22. Higher education institutions faced a choice: retool courses in the middle of the spring semester or cancel them.
“This is something we were all thrown into as a result of the pandemic,” says Clair Smith, chair of St. John Fisher College’s Department of Economics.
If some local academics found the new instructional landscape alien, they weren’t alone. Before U.S. universities responded to COVID-19, 70 percent of their faculties had never taught courses online.
The PAUSE order fell during or close to most local schools’ spring breaks, so many of them extended their vacations by a week to gain time to train their faculties. The assistance gave local professors and instructors, some of whom had very little experience with online instruction, the opportunity to learn the basic skills they needed to adapt their courses and instructional techniques to the new mode.
Since then, local faculty have learned to use digital communication tools and other software to present their subjects, collect students’ work, conduct tests, and maintain contact with their classes. The spring semester recently ended for most schools here and nationwide.
Some schools were more prepared than others to help instructors convert their courses, which could be taught synchronously in real time or asynchronously with fewer or no face-to-face discussions.
“Resources are posted, whether that’s reading and questions, or prepared video, or voiceover slides, or web links to outside resources,” Smith says. “They’re all posted with a schedule. Sometimes there are discussion boards and assignments too, but everyone can do them at their own time.”
Those teaching in either mode can make use of Zoom, Blackboard or other platforms to interact with students, post content and perform other instructional tasks.
University of Rochester students have long been able to take courses online, and the university’s Warner School of Education offers a master of science degree in online instruction.
“Online courses that are well-designed can be highly effective,” says Eric Fredericksen, associate vice president for online learning at the University of Rochester. “Educational resources that are always available permit a student to access them, and benefit from them, as much as needed.”
Nazareth College has made asynchronous courses available over the internet for a number of years.
“Most of our courses that include some online have been more appropriately a hybrid format,” says Andrea Talentino, the vice president for academic affairs at Nazareth. “There’s a chunk online and there’s some occasional face-to-face.”
Thérèse Hannigan, director of RIT Online, says Rochester Institute of Technology has long been “successfully offering massive, open online courses for millions of learners across the globe.” RIT Online designs, develops and provides support services for the university’s online programs and courses.
The PAUSE order, however, pushed educational institutions to go fully online—no person-to-person contact, period. In addition, they had to very quickly train at least some on their faculty in the tools they could use to convert their courses and teach them.
“There was a very practical effort to help faculty map things that they generally want to do in their traditional face-to-face classes, and help them with exploring what those options might be in order to continue to teach their courses,” Fredericksen explains. “We were going all day, every day.”
In addition to providing intensive training in online instruction, Nazareth had knowledgeable faculty members help colleagues less experienced in the new mode of teaching.
“We created a cadre of digital first responders who were faculty and staff who had some facility with this, and were basically on-call for other colleagues,” Talentino says. “We even had people who were on after-hours.”
RIT’s designers and academic technologists offered consultations and workshops to faculty members who were interested in teaching online before COVID-19 hit. As the crisis developed, the university took additional steps.
“RIT also ramped up consultation services for the faculty, connecting with them virtually during the sudden pivot, and throughout the semester, to provide support,” Hannigan says.
Many colleges and universities created websites where faculty could turn for information and assistance.
“It has a lot of resources that we collected and collated from external sources,” Talentino says of the website that Nazareth created. “It also provides a way that we can get information out to faculty daily.”
RIT’s faculty also could make use of such aids.
“RIT developed comprehensive online guides to help faculty make the transition quickly to online and distance learning methods,” Hannigan says.
Despite all these efforts, the switch to online-only instruction brought many challenges. Foran was used to teaching in person.
“I’ll come to class with some talking points and a lot in my head, and sort of pitch some questions to students,” he says. “We go from there in a kind of organic way. That’s not as easy to do online.”
Smith found putting his economics courses into asynchronous, online form on relatively short notice a bit trying.
“The biggest challenge, for me, in getting these ready was just getting all three of them converted and ready to go online at the same time, and never really feeling like you’re caught up and prepared,” he said.
Mark Chang, an assistant professor in the College at Brockport’s Department of Kinesiology, Sport Studies and Physical Education, began giving lectures in synchronous mode, then was forced to change his approach.
“Many students were struggling for reaching out to the website,” Chang says. “Some students were kicked out, and some complained they cannot watch and hear my lecture.”
In addition, those in his two classes sometimes couldn’t access the internet at the right time. Chang ended up recording his lectures, and putting them out on the web for students to view on their own schedule.
“I developed a full script for each session and put some discussion questions so that students can focus on class materials,” he says.
Chang also used Blackboard to create a virtual room in which he can meet with his students interactively.
Jason Rich, a lecturer in Chang’s department, chose to teach his four classes asynchronously at the outset.
“I recognize this is an uncertain time for my students, and having the freedom to learn and participate at their own pace and time will (be) helpful in their transition,” Rich says. “Video conferencing office hours are offered by request.”
Mike Strobert, a lecturer in RIT’s College of Art and Design School of Design, has found interacting with students in the ways that they desire to be challenging. Students look for the same type of check-ins, conversations and feedback they used to receive.
In order to meet his students’ needs, Strobert exchanged materials with them asynchronously, had weekly synchronous check-ins and held regular office hours via Skype, a program that offers video, voice and text communications. In addition to his instructional duties, Strobert is helping RIT plan its approach to online engagement.
Though instructors can develop good relationships with their students over the internet or by phone, those kinds of interactions can’t completely replace in-person teaching.
“You have to create the kind of openness and trust between the instructor and the students, and the kind of personal interaction that is meaningful for students’ successful learning,” Talentino says. “That’s really hard to do online, and it takes much more intentional effort, and careful planning.”
Even the best-planned course can’t engage all students. Those in Smith’s classes who are disciplined self-starters are more likely to doing well online.
“I have other people who are just sort of getting stuff in,” he said. “I don’t know if they have watched the videos and worked their way through all of the material in preparation, or just took a crack at the assignment.”
Rich releases his material a week at a time, in order to maintain his students’ attention, and monitors their progress.
“I check in with the class several times a week with gentle reminders, and best practices for completing online assignments,” he says.
Online instruction also has forced some instructors to adopt new ways to assess their students’ progress.
“Instead of scheduling a final exam, I inserted a quiz for each chapter,” Chang says.
As they would in a traditional class, Rich’s students have to complete written assignments and presentations, but the presentations are given online.
“Students would record themselves giving a shared-screen presentation,” Rich says. “Students would then submit those videos to me.”
He also assigned texts and articles for students to read, asking them to respond to multi-question prompts on the material in online discussion forums.
“Their response will not only contain theoretical content, but application of the learnings to their own lives and future pursuits,” he explains.
Such measures can work, but there are types of assignments that are better completed in hard copy. Smith’s assignments and examinations sometimes ask students to create paper-and-pencil graphs, which must then be digitally photographed and transmitted to him for grading.
“I could see the image on the screen, but then had to click on it and add a typed note,” Smith says. “It took me three times as long to grade the graph questions as it did if I had a hard exam I could write on.”
Clinical courses, such as those taught in nursing schools, can much harder to teach online.
“If you have a clinical lab, that’s harder to do online because there’s hands-on things that are required,” Talentino says. “There’s no way to completely substitute a virtual approach to a clinical setting for the entirety of the requirements in health and human services programs.”
The switch to online education also caused other technical problems. Though educators say the vast majority of those in their classes have access to the internet and computers, not all of local students’ devices have been up to online work.
Mackenzie Culhane, a Brockport senior who is taking some of Chang’s classes, found that the statistical program she needed to use for a group assignment wouldn’t work on her laptop.
“The data is so big on that program it doesn’t really work on a MacBook, because it takes up so much space,” she says.
Luckily, Culhane and her group were able to use the computers in Brockport’s library to finish the assignment before the college shut down. Other students sent their data to Chang, who crunched it on his own computer.
“He’s very helpful, always there to help out,” Culhane says.
Other college or university students might run into more serious roadblocks.
“If you live deep in the Adirondacks, you may not have internet service,” Talentino said. “In those cases, we’ve had to shift to old-fashioned correspondence mode.”
In other words, communicate by phone and mail.
Navigating a new normal
Professors in the Rochester area have had to solve such problems—and teach their classes— while at home with their families.
“The biggest feedback I have heard from my peers is the difficulty transitioning online with the added responsibility of kids being home or other familial issues,” Rich says.
While Foran teaches college courses from home, his wife is right there, teaching her public-school students online.
“We have full-time jobs, but we also find ourselves full-time caretakers for our two kids,” he says.
Smith and his wife jointly take care of their 9- and 13-year-olds.
“We sort of hand off some of the responsibility for making sure they have meals, and that they’re on track, and no one is beating on another,” he says.
Most academics appear to be willing to take on such tasks in order to teach their courses.
“We have a really can-do faculty,” Talentino observes.
Those taking classes at the Warner School seem to be responding well to online instruction—at least so far.
“From what I have heard directly from some students and indirectly from other faculty, the student response has been positive,” Fredericksen says.
Nazareth’s students also seem to have accepted the new instructional mode, though with some reservations.
“We’ve generally heard … from the students cautious optimism or cautious positivity about the experience—so far,” Talentino says. “Some are obviously worried about their ability to do well.”
In addition, students seem to miss aspects of the old way of instruction.
“They want some of the face-to-face,” Talentino says. “They want to be with their faculty and with their fellow students.”
So does Culhane.
“A lot of my classes this semester are research classes, and require group projects,” she says. “It’s a little difficult to have that lack of in-person connection.”
As uncertainty looms over returning to classrooms, some in higher education have suggested that future higher education institutions might have digital learning labs instead of lecture halls.
As for Foran, he’s preparing to reach out to future students.
“We are conducting fall registration advisement as normal—that’s something I will be doing using Zoom or the phone,” he says. “We’re treating it as though we’re going to be doing fall classes. There’s a strong desire to meet in person but we don’t know if this will be possible.”
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.