As online classes finished their second week, students are getting used to using online platforms like Desire2Learn (D2L), Moodle, Zoom and email to do their work and keep in touch with professors.
Students had a few weeks to prepare before they had to dive into online platforms, but professors had less time to come up with a changed syllabus and figure out how to structure their classes.
For science professors, especially those who teach both lectures and labs, it took a little creativity and thought to restructure their courses.
“It’s still the beginning, and we are still getting used to the transition and its functionality,” said Dr. Eric Morschhauser, human anatomy assistant professor. “I structured my courses so that nothing was tied to a set schedule because everyone has their own set schedule with various home life situations occurring, and I wanted to build that into my classes so my students weren’t tied to certain times of the day for most things like exams or assignments.
“Labs are structured the same way, meaning students are continuing to review weekly material. My human anatomy labs are a little bit different than some of the other science labs because we don’t have a particular procedure for anything, and it’s a lot of memorization.”
Some of the lab work is transitioning OK to online work, but not surprisingly, most isn’t.
“The hard part of the human anatomy labs is that it’s cut into half anatomical models and half cadavers,” Morschhauser said. “I’ve uploaded labeled 2-D pictures so students can work on the lab books with it and go through the lab exercises. The only change is that cadavers can’t transition to online work due to privacy and HIPPA regulations.
“I had nothing to develop with and ended up developing it completely from scratch in the course of seven days. That’s why I think it’s the first run until classes are over. I’m still building things, but I’m trying to be as flexible with students’ schedules, too.”
Other professors continue to keep a schedule and meet during their normal class hours via Zoom.
“It was important to me that I maintain my goals and learning objectives for my students, and one of my priorities was to establish organization to try to limit confusion but to build in a level of flexibility so that my students felt more comfortable with the transition to online classes,” said Dr. Robert Major, developmental biology associate professor. “I have been using a combination of Zoom lectures for my cell biology and human genetics courses.
“I have also been using Camtasia-based video recordings on my pre-lab lectures for my genetics and cell biology labs and D2L and email to distribute files, grades and to communicate with my students. I hold my Zoom lectures during normal scheduled class times that allows for a more dynamic experience where students can ask and answer questions, and I’ve received excellent feedback from this.”
Many professors are using multiple online platforms to communicate with their students like putting up videos and using other things like Kahoot and Top Hat. Major has even incorporated some student suggestions into his teaching.
“No online exercise will ever fill in the need for hands on laboratory learning, but in lieu of the situation, I have used a combination of videos, recorded pre-lab lectures and assignments to be completed and submitted by my students,” Major said. “I continue to learn from my students and have incorporated new online ways of reviewing material like interactive learning tools.
“I look forward to finding new and creative ways of engaging my students. I feel that instructors are forced to learn new online approaches and technologies, and we will begin to see more new course proposals that are geared toward online learning. I have tried to see this stressful time in a positive way, and I’m happy to be learning new tools and using new approaches. I’m excited to see where my teaching takes me next. I have enjoyed the process of learning new forms of teaching, and I enjoy exercising new aspects of my creativity that I do not use often.”
Most professors agree that students are missing out on valuable hands-on learning experience and skill development with courses being online.
“My focus is ecology and environmental science, so teaching field research skills is a central goal in my courses,” said Dr. David Janetski. “Shifting courses online means that students miss out on valuable hands-on experiences and skill development. This is simply unavoidable. There are certain experiences that cannot be replicated in an online format.
“My goal in transitioning courses online was to fulfill as many of the course outcomes as possible without holding outdoor labs. I wanted students to get what they are paying for: a deeper understanding of ecological science, training in data analysis and interpretation and the ability to solve environmental problems.”
But many professors are surprised at how well their students are transitioning and coping with online courses.
“So far, the online teaching experience has been smoother than I anticipated,” Janetski said. “Answering student questions as they analyze data is challenging but doable. I decided to continue to meet with my class live during normally scheduled lecture times using Zoom, and it has been surprisingly straightforward.
“I'm also happy that attendance and participation have been comparable to face-to-face meetings. For labs, I provide students with problem sets that they work through while I answer questions from individual students.”
Janetski said his students have made their own discussion groups to collaborate and work through problems together.
“Teaching ecology classes online isn't ideal, but we're making it work, and the process has been smoother than I anticipated. Students are participating at a high level and showing signs of adapting to maintain social connections important to learning,” he said. “We miss outdoor experiences greatly, but holding live lectures continues to provide meaningful teaching and discussion opportunities.”