Colleges, Universities Embrace New Virtual Learning Reality
Students move forward during pandemic by shifting to online course delivery
Developments concerning the COVID-19 pandemic are occurring hourly. Interviews for this article were conducted between March 27 and April 6 and should be taken in context.
With COVID-19 making large gatherings a threat to public health, staying home and social distancing is a necessity for nonessential workers. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order through April 30 to help “flatten the curve” and keep Michiganders safe.
For colleges in the Lansing area and beyond this means learning technology and creatively delivering course material. Faculty and students are rapidly figuring out ways to teach and absorb material online in new methods as they work from home.
New technologies and methods of interaction
“Professors are using various techniques and platforms for delivering content — some are recording lectures and making the content available to students to consume on their own time, and others are conducting lectures during their normally scheduled course time,” said Michigan State University deputy spokesperson Dan Olsen.
Many classes are being taught with Zoom. Lectures are synchronous communication, meaning the instructor and students can see each other and students can ask questions in real time. Other instructors are using asynchronous teaching methods, including recording videos using Kaltura and posting them online for students to view on their own.
The difference between asynchronous and synchronous teaching methods are that asynchronous methods students allow students to ask questions in real time and instructors can’t read body language to know if students are absorbing the material. However, asynchronous teaching methods provide more flexibility for students to learn at their own pace.
Olsen said MSU faculty are using Zoom, BlackBoard Skype, D2L,WebEx, Google Docs, Open Learning Lab, open educational resources, Kaltura recording lectures, YouTube, third-party tools and phone calls to facilitate learning in spite of the pandemic.
“Faculty are using every tool they can find,” said Sally Welch, Lansing Community College provost and senior vice president of academic affairs.
Some courses translate better than others. Faculty can use technology to stream lecture videos and can use learning platforms to facilitate small discussion groups like in class. Hands-on learning, such as science labs and hands-on health care experiences, is tricky. But professors are doing their best.
“A physics faculty member did live physics demonstrations in his home so that students could collect data and work in teams to complete lab reports,” said Welch.
The sudden move to online teaching has been a challenge, but college and university administrators are confident faculty, students and staff are stepping up.
“As a residential college that prides itself in individualized, relationship-based education, moving most students away from campus and into a remote learning environment has been challenging,” said Olivet College Provost Maria G. Davis.
“I am very proud of our faculty and our students,” said Davis. “The faculty and students are taking our admonition to be patient, be kind and be flexible — both with oneself and with others — to heart, and it seems to be helping.”
“We have been impressed by how our Spartans have risen to the occasion in such unprecedented times,” said Olsen. “In the face of adversity, they have found many ways to press forward.”
Returning to an improved normal
Most colleges are anxious to return to face-to-face instruction and value in-person interaction. However, the coronavirus pandemic has forced colleges to embrace technology and learn things they wouldn’t have otherwise.
While face-to-face education will resume after the curve has flattened, education officials agree that the difficult circumstances have provided an opportunity to explore creative ways to help students learn, which could augment in-person teaching in the future.
“Once we get through this, I know our college will not operate as we did before,” said Welch. “I think we have proven to ourselves as a college that we can effectively teach online and be able offer more services to more students remotely. However, we have to be very cognizant that online learning isn’t always the best environment for students. I think we will take what we have learned about ourselves in this process and develop college that is ready for all types of learners.”
“There’s always something to learn from these extraordinary times. When we are in a better shape as a country — in terms of this pandemic — MSU will be able to return to in-person courses and hybrid courses,” said Olsen.
“We will go back to face to face, but I believe we will use our learnings to become better,” said KayDee Perry, Olivet College assistant professor in health and human performance and faculty senate president.
“Watching our community grow and learn together through this time is refreshing. I am eager to see how we use this experience to enhance our traditional, relationship-centered learning programs when we return to campus,” she said.
“Given some time, we will probably be thankful to have had the impetus to become more technologically savvy,” said Davis.