Faculty get creative to deliver their courses virtually.
By Cathy Mentzer
During spring break and, presciently, two days before Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf’s order to close all non-essential businesses, on Tuesday, March 17, President Fugate announced that the College would move to remote instruction for the remainder of the semester. He then extended spring break by a week to March 30 to give students and faculty additional time to prepare and adapt.
Although teaching remotely had been discussed as the COVID-19 virus spread, faculty now had less than two weeks to redesign their courses. They did not let their students down. With remarkable speed and agility, they transformed a college of brick and mortar into a virtual institution of learning. It was a monumental achievement and a testament to their dedication and hard work.
“I never would have anticipated a semester like this in my wildest dreams,” said Mary Beth Wert ’10, a veterinary medical technology (VMT) instructor and veterinary education center facilities manager.
“We were all kind of caught off-guard,” said Sable Bettencourt, an instructor of equestrian studies and equestrian center coordinator. Faculty members like Wert, Bettencourt and others teaching labs and clinicals−courses with extensive hands-on components−faced the particularly tricky challenge of translating experiential courses to a virtual format. Some had no experience at all teaching online; some had extensive experience; others were somewhere in the middle. Despite the challenges and the overall agreement that face-to-face classroom interaction is preferable in most cases, faculty interviewed for this story all agree that the experience was not only valuable but say they were able to find some advantages to teaching in this new modality.
“I’m actually pleased with the way things turned out,” said Assistant Professor of Biology Abby Maley. “I made some lemonade with the lemons that were handed to me.” Faculty had a variety of tools for remote instruction available. Most used Canvas, the College’s course management system that allows faculty to upload assignments, host discussion boards, post videos, etc. Others availed themselves of Panopto, a video platform that records and shares lectures for students to watch at their convenience.
Many used the videoconferencing platform Zoom to emulate a classroom experience. Some chose to deliver classes synchronously—at the same time for all students—and some chose to hold them asynchronously to allow students to take the class when it worked with their schedules.
Nearly everyone−teachers and students alike−had to negotiate a learning curve that made the move to remote instruction and learning stressful, especially against the backdrop of a pandemic.
“It’s not that any one thing was hard to learn; it was learning to use everything all at once,” Professor of English Lisa Woolley said. “Things like Zoom, Panopto and some of the features in Canvas.” Woolley, who had never taught a remote course before, found aspects of online teaching didn’t work as well as in person, but she did like how Canvas allowed her to write a focused response for each student.
“I think the hardest thing about it is not having the classroom as a space that brings us together,” she said. “One thing that’s odd about Zoom is you’re in your private space and also in a public space, but you’re not really in either.”
Adapting to new technology wasn’t the only challenge. A class designed to be taught in person is very different from one designed to be taught online. “It usually takes six months to a year to design online classes,” said Theresa Hoover, associate professor of education. Hoover, who is also assistant director of graduate education programs, was better positioned than many to move to virtual teaching having taught online courses for 10 years. But even for Hoover, teaching classes students had chosen to take in a traditional format posed challenges.
“Initially, it’s definitely more difficult to teach online because you want to make sure you’re providing student interactions that are meaningful,” she said. “It’s harder because you don’t have the option of reading body language, facial cues and those kinds of things. And for my students, going to the online format has been a challenge because they thrive on that interaction.”
Simulations Prepare Nursing Students for Success
For many nursing courses, students are required to schedule and complete 80 hours of clinicals−practical, hands-on learning experiences−during a semester. When the College moved to remote instruction, Lecturer of Nursing Melissa Fannon was teaching pre-licensure students (those pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing, or BSN, as well as those working as licensed practical nurses and pursuing BSNs, or LPN-to- BSN). As part of these courses, students are typically assigned to work alongside a practicing nurse in a local healthcare facility. Fannon had to scramble to get students the equivalent experience.
“It’s been a journey, that’s for sure,” said Fannon, who had not taught fully remote courses before. The two courses she was most concerned about were for her BSN students’ senior practicum and Complex Care Across the Lifespan for the LPN-to-BSN group.
When the pandemic began to unfold this spring, Fannon and fellow nursing instructors and administrators were already thinking about how it would affect their students. “Initially, we weren’t sure what kind of impact it would have because we weren’t sure whether facilities would allow us to come in,” she said. “I had students [getting their required clinical practice] in long-term care facilities, mental health facilities and hospitals across the region.”
Their hands were forced when the virus swept across the country and nursing homes and other medical facilities stopped allowing students on-premises to prevent them from accidentally bringing the virus with them. “They couldn’t work anymore,” said Fannon. Wilson nursing faculty had to develop alternatives to replace the hands-on experience students would have been getting in a healthcare facility, such as assessing patients, dispensing medications, taking blood pressures and much more. “I don’t want to say it was difficult, but it required a lot of creativity,” she said. “It also added a lot more work for some of the students because they had to get up to 80 hours.”
Fannon adapted nursing simulation software the College had previously purchased to fill the experience shortfall. “We’re very fortunate to have access to ATI, which is an NCLEX prep program,” she said. NCLEX, the National Council Licensure Examination, is the test students must pass to become an RN. Students would first research specific clinical topics. Then Fannon and they would meet using Zoom video conferencing and work through “real-life” simulations of encounters nurses could have with patients (created by the ATI software). Afterward, on their own time, students would listen to Fannon’s recorded lectures on the subjects. “They have pre-work that is due before we meet in Zoom, and then after we do the scenario as a class, they complete a nursing care plan and then a reflection,” Fannon said. “So it’s a lot of work for them to research three or four topics before class, go through them in class for two hours, then do a care plan and reflection.”
In the end, the students got the instruction and experiences they needed to graduate or to move on without any delays in their education. While the courses were not what students initially expected, many of them gave Fannon positive feedback. “A lot of people have expressed that even though it added a great deal of work for them, they felt like it was more meaningful because it helped them understand the concepts better,” she said.
Fannon, who plans to use the same techniques in courses she’s teaching over the summer, said although she wishes things were different, she is confident that nursing students will be well-prepared for the NCLEX and, ultimately, the workplace. “These alternative assignments are hopefully helping them be better prepared for their licensure exam,” she said. “A lot of the skills and hands-on stuff come with time and on-the-job training. But if you don’t have the theoretical training, it makes the skill not quite as valuable.”
The nursing program’s practice of exposing students to clinical experience from their first year also was a big help in ensuring Wilson students have significant experience. “That’s huge for them,” said Fannon. “Reinforcing the theoretical knowledge at this point is just as important to help them be successful.”
Labs & Surgeries go Online
In some of the labs and clinical courses where hands-on activities are required, instructors had to come up with innovative solutions. In at least one case, the timing was everything. For the VMT capstone course, Clinical Experience, quick thinking by faculty members saved the day for about six seniors who had not yet completed hands-on tasks required for graduation.
Wert and fellow instructor Tammy Ege acted immediately when they realized students may not return after spring break. They invited students who hadn’t completed the requirements to attend a workshop the Friday before spring break began.
“That was probably the best decision we made,” Wert said. “If we hadn’t, it would have been a headache to bring those students back in to get those tasks done.” She also credits the students, who all made the effort to attend. “They stepped up, and they came in for their education. They were willing to do that.”
No matter the challenges, Wilson faculty overcame them. They tapped the available technology, as well as their own creativity, to make remote teaching as engaging and effective as possible. Here are some examples:
• In VMT courses, instructors recorded surgeries performed on shelter animals by Dr. George Bates−surgeries students would normally participate in−using several cameras. Students viewed the surgeries from multiple angles and learned what would be required of them in real life.
• Using an adapter that essentially turns a smartphone camera into a microscope, Wert performed and recorded lab work such as blood smears. Students could see what they would have seen had they done the work themselves. Wert also had students videotape themselves doing patient conferences as they would in a veterinarian’s office, only using their family members as subjects, and then submit the results.
• In equitation courses where students usually ride horses, the College purchased access to equestriancoach.com, a resource that provides hundreds of high-quality riding videos from industry professionals. Bettencourt said for the final exam in one of her courses, another instructor videotaped her performing exercises. Then students watched and pointed out mistakes or improper form.
• In the lab and research components of Maley’s courses, students participated in simulations that allowed them to conduct research virtually using a program that can adjust variables. One simulation, for example, involved studying sex selection in guppies. Females prefer colorful males, but that color puts the males in danger because it makes them obvious to predators. “You could change variables like how much col- or mattered,” said Maley. “So students could make predictions about what they expected to see and then apply it to what they observed in the simulation.”
Understanding & Empathy is a Wilson Hallmark
Nearly all faculty said that they taught with extra sensitivity and kindness. “We’re all trying to uphold high standards but at the same time, understand that students are getting called into extra shifts at their workplace, that their family may be struggling,” said Woolley. Hoover checked in with her students every week to see how they were doing. They greatly appreciated it. “Students have told me ‘we can’t tell you enough how much it means’ that their professors understand that this is harder,” she said.
Although it was difficult and took a lot more effort on their part, Wilson faculty delivered high-quality instruction throughout this crisis. And despite the geographic separation of teacher and student, the faculty maintained the close, personal relationships with their students that the College is renowned for and which makes this school so special. Ultimately, this is a story of success and triumph over a virus that has changed our world but hasn’t stopped Wilson from delivering on its mission.
TikTok & Dating Apps in Spanish
Having eight years of experience teaching via the web, Lecturer of Spanish Kathleen Cunniffe-Pena made the most of the College’s move to remote instruction. “Instead of seeing the online format as an obstacle, I tried to see it as a medium,” she said.
Cunniffe-Pena had previously designed courses for a Kansas online consortium of colleges and Temple University, as well as Wilson. She came up with some creative ways for students to complete assignments and fulfill course requirements.
Students were originally going to read and perform a play−Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba−in Cunniffe-Pena’s Hispanic Literature class. “I realized we weren’t going to be able to do that,” she said. “The challenge was thinking of something that would be equally engaging to them and something that would allow them to interact with the text in a creative way.”
She asked students to imagine how the characters in the 1920s Spanish play would interact through social media if they were alive today. She gave them several options, including creating an Instagram account for a character or using the dating app Hinge to create profiles for characters in the play. Other students created TikTok videos for characters.
In Spanish 102, “students have a choice of doing research on a topic related to Spanish-speaking cultures or doing six hours of community service,” said Cunniffe-Pena. One student wanted to read bilingual books to her son. “When we went online, I suggested she do a virtual reading.” The student, part of Wilson’s Single Parent Scholars Program, organized a virtual, bilingual storytime for her child’s kindergarten class as her final project.
After getting approval from her son’s teacher at Benjamin Chambers Elementary School, the student used Panopto to record herself reading a story in both English and Spanish, and also included a craft activity associated with the story. The teacher shared a link to the video with parents who were able to watch with their children. “I thought it was very brave of her,” Cunniffe-Pena said.
Several students in her Intermediate Conversation took part in a United Way initiative to send letters to senior citizens living in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the stress of moving from in-person classes to remote learning, Cunniffe-Pena is pleased with the results. “This modality is good for some and not for others, like anything else,” she said. “Students might not have wanted to do this, but they’re all getting experience in it now and probably all getting to know themselves better as learners.”