Figuring Out How to Teach Through Disruption

March 24, 2020
By: Kristen O'Reilly

For Professor Emily Soltano, Ph.D., her first reaction was disbelief.

On March 3, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread worldwide, Soltano, the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), was posed a question: If students were unable to attend in-person classes, how could the CTL support faculty as they transitioned to remotely teaching the more than 1,500 courses being offered this semester?

Given the faculty’s varying levels of comfort with technology and online teaching, the fact that the semester was already halfway completed, and the urgency (potentially a matter of weeks), Soltano knew immediately that she needed help to accomplish this formidable task.

As the initial hypothetical query became more and more real, Soltano, Professor Eihab Jaber, Ph.D, Assistant Director of Multimedia Services Dave Needham, Training Specialist Rosemary Ahmadi, and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Henry Theriault, Ph.D., began meeting to figure out what knowledge needed to be shared, who was qualified to do so, and how that could happen.

“I reached out to many faculty, some of whom have taught in the CTL’s summer and winter institutes, and they really stepped up,” says Soltano. “Some even went out of their comfort zone to help out, including giving a session on Zoom when they hadn’t even used it themselves.”

CTL began to schedule seminars to explore topics around using Blackboard, the existing digital academic platform. Seminars such as “Run Your Class Live Through Blackboard Collaborate Ultra” and “Pre-Record Your Lectures Video: Presenting PowerPoint in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra” were well attended by both full-time and adjunct faculty.

Other faculty were asked to offer their own expertise, initially in person, and then online when non-essential personnel were told to work from home on March 17. Those included Assistant Professor Nicole Rosa, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Jaime Vallejos, M.P.H., M.D., and English Chair Don Vescio, Ph.D., who gave Blackboard Basics sessions; as well as Chemistry Chair Margaret Kerr, Ph.D., who taught a class on online quizzes, discussions, and exams; Biology Chair Steven Oliver, Ph.D., who offered Gradebook tricks; Associate Professor Tona Hangen, Ph.D., who led a general conversation about transitioning classes; Associate Professor Syamak Moattari, Ph.D., who provided information on advising from a distance; and Assistant Vice President for Assessment and Planning Sarah Strout, Ph.D., who taught about low tech options.

“The wealth of teaching ideas and abilities across our faculty has become really clear in this process.  So many faculty members have come forward with so many great ideas, techniques, and solutions that it’s hard to keep up,” says Theriault.

Soltano worked with Strout and Jonathan Tegg, assistant director of marketing for web and digital communications, to create a webpage that became a clearinghouse of information, called “Teaching in Times of Disruption”  https://www.worcester.edu/CTL-Teaching-in-Times-of-Disruption/. Other members of the community, like Center for Business and Industry Director Jeremiah Riordan, an expert in delivering content through CBI’s many online offerings, also reached out with offers to help.

By the time Worcester State officially announced on March 16 that remote learning would begin on March 30, seminars were in full swing. A few more are scheduled this week, including one in which Associate Professor Tom Conroy, Ph.D., will share his experience with Google Classroom; and a daily question and answer session, from 1 to 2 p.m. will be hosted by CTL and IT using Zoom.

“For now the big basics are covered,” says Soltano. “This week, in preparation for online classes beginning, some faculty are testing out what works best for them.”

Blackboard sessions were recorded and will be available on the CTL website for faculty who were not able to attend in real time, or who want to go back for a refresher as they continue with the new mode of delivering their courses this spring.

Needham and Ahmadi also hosted daily question and answer sessions for faculty to bring up any concerns and challenges they were having.

While individual faculty members have been checking with their students to see what their technical capabilities are, a recent general survey sent to all students revealed most had some form of computer access, although some indicated their internet connectivity was less solid. Keeping those limitations in mind is essential, especially for students who might have other accessibility issues.

“I keep saying this is triage. We need to be flexible,” says Soltano. “We also understand that this is going to be difficult for students, so flexibility and kindness will go a long way. There will be a steep learning curve for faculty and students alike. I do feel they are up for the challenge.”

Other resources: https://www.worcester.edu/CTL-Teaching-in-Times-of-Disruption/#resources-to-learn-more

https://groups.google.com/a/worcester.edu/forum/#!forum/wsu-teaching-during-disruptions-group-wsugroup

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