How do you teach when everything changes world-wide at once? EAPS professors share how they managed teaching during a pandemic
Writer(s): Cheryl Pierce
February 2020 on campus was much like any other year. Students were looking forward to spring break. Professors were in front of lecture halls and in research labs. Boilermaker basketball was going strong. The world was just learning of this new virus that at the time was being called coronavirus. Within the span of about three weeks, suddenly public places were going into a remote working situation, students were heading home, and professors were forced to figure out how to turn an in-person learning environment into a remote learning, online learning environment. It was an especially tough challenge, but in order to protect Purdue, professors changed everything. Within three short weeks, Boilermaker professors changed the entire system.
Professor Alexandria Johnson had a sense that the learning climate was about to change. So about a week before the change to e-learning, she made a point to speak with her students in the classroom about ask how they were feeling about the changes ahead.
“About a week before we found out we'd be staying at home, when other institutions were announcing their plans, I had an open and honest chat with my class about staying safe and the possible transitions to come,” said Johnson. “At that point I laid out a rough plan for online continuation if it were to happen and opened the floor for feedback. They didn't have much to say but a week later, when we knew in-person instruction was coming to an end, we had another discussion. They were scared, they had a lot of questions, many of which I couldn't answer, but I took the time to reassure them that we would make it work and I would do everything I could to support them through classes and personal issues should they need it. I feel the time I took that day made a world of difference.”
A sense of community was important even though students were now working on laptops from their living rooms. Her students were encouraged to work together even after the online move and had set up a group chat to keep in contact. Students across the world were beginning to use programs like Zoom or WebEx in order to be able to still see each other face to face.
Professor Matthew Huber saw the upcoming pandemic as a teaching moment. He was teaching on FAIR Climate Data Practices and Principles for EAPS majors in the Data Mine Learning community. The FAIR Climate Data Practices refers to findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable.
“We started off with normal lectures and exercises about how climate data can be made freely available and the importance of having accessible and findable data for science in general,” says Huber. “Within a couple of weeks of class starting, I began covering covid-19 as a teachable example of data science in action. We discussed the various kinds of data and modeling being brought to bear. Very early on I showed them a simple freely available model and we calibrated it to data in Italy and the students were able to see for themselves that millions in the US would be infected and on the order of 200,000 people would die. We also explored the importance of data for understanding case versus death rates, so the students were well prepared ahead of time for the fact that classes might need to be moved online, since we tracked the progress of the disease from January on.”
Huber said it took about a week to get everyone accustomed to using WebEx for communications. Teaching is not all about the data and test scores. Huber recognized that these students were going through an unprecedented change both with learning and with social interactions. Suddenly, new problems existed like isolation, connectivity, and fear of the unknown.
“We spent time every class session asking everyone how they were doing and just chatting before diving into the lecture and discussion,” says Huber. “I felt it was important to have even more interpersonal interactions than usual given the isolation. About half the online WebEx time was spent with me talking and showing a presentation and about half having each of them talk and present on the work they were doing. I think the course was a success overall, but that was helped a lot by the course being small (7 students) and the focus was on online distribution of data, so they were all pretty technically savvy and the material itself was easy to teach/interact with in an online format. Everyone worked hard and did a great job.”
Teaching remotely had consequences that were unexpected. While on campus, students have access to computers, study groups, Internet access, and a host of other perks from life at Purdue. When they needed to quickly return home, it was vital to make sure they were properly set up for success in their remote classes. Professors also had unforeseen challenges like Internet connectivity, converting an in-person lab situation to a Blackboard class, and the occasional pet or child disrupting a WebEx or Zoom meeting. There was a great deal of confusion about whether this would be a two week issue or a full semester issue. Some students wouldn’t be able to return home because they live abroad. Some students were in completely different time zones so a 9am EST lecture may be especially difficult for someone on the other side of the country. The answers weren’t always immediate. It took an atmosphere of working together and great communication to make everything work well.
Some professors would teach in an empty lecture hall and film while others worked at home. Working from home presents its own set off issues like having a defined workspace. Setting up boundaries is key to keeping a balance between work and family time. Professor Robin Tanamachi notes in her blog that she needed to define a workspace and compartmentalize her home life from her work life.
“Since becoming a ‘professor mommy,’ I’ve worked hard to compartmentalize my life, i.e., I keep my work and domestic responsibilities separated in time and space,” wrote Tanamachi about how she was accustomed to working pre-COVID. “I was raised by compartmentalizer parents, and I believe I am a better person for it. When 5 p.m. rolls around, I switch from work mode into domestic mode. I sign out of my workstation, pick up my kids, and from that point on, I’m 100% focused on my family and my home. I strive to make these boundaries clear to everyone I interact with regularly, including my colleagues, my students, my friends, and my family. (It’s even in my syllabi.)”
But then COVID-19 forced everyone, students and professors alike, to juggle their calendar and make the appropriate changes. Remote working, according to Tanamachi, forced her to relax the boundaries and that can be a difficult and stressful adjustment. Because she was setting up her own work space, she was tuned in to what students might also be going through. They were all facing workspace issues as well and trying to figure out how to make e-learning fit into their newly upturned schedules.
“The COVID-19 crisis scattered my students across multiple states, and forced me to adopt technological solutions wholesale, all at once,” she says. “I began by cultivating my institution’s online resources, leaning more heavily on our textbook, and recording video lectures using tools my institution provided.”
Purdue University wanted to make sure both students and faculty had the tools they needed to make this major change. Resources were made available to help professors record lectures or convert their in-person classes into Blackboard. Systems and procedures were put in place to help address issues as they arose. Heading into the fall semester, faculty will have some classes that are online, some that are in person, and others that are hybrids of both. COVID-19 is still spreading throughout the world so undoubtedly everyone is on high alert for how this will work for an open campus in the fall of 2020. Purdue University plans to keep students and faculty safe by instituting the Protect Purdue initiative. To learn more and see ongoing updates about how Protect Purdue will work, a website was created to arm both students and faculty with the tools they will need to maintain safety in this uncertain and unprecedented time.