Virginia Tech released its plan in early June revealing that most classes would be held in an online or hybrid format. This meant professors had to drastically adapt their classrooms and teachings to these models.
Traditionally, ECE Collegiate Faculty member Dr. Kristie Cooper’s Fundamentals of Digital Systems class is project-based. The class has sophomore engineers complete 15 hands-on activities using integrated circuit boards and case studies. The projects give the engineers experience working with coding, developing relationships with their peers and act as groundwork for their success in the major.
“(Hands-on experience) is a key part of them being able to learn,” Cooper said. “Someone explains to you how to do something and it seems simple, and you go to do it and you realize, ‘Oh, I didn’t quite have all the pieces there.’ Actively trying out the new skills is critical for this class.”
Hands-on experience is also a crucial component in several of multimedia journalism professor Jared Woolly’s classes: Advanced Multimedia Reporting, Digital Newsroom and Video Production Studio. These classes require students to frequently engage with each other and the equipment, giving Woolly a challenge on how to lessen contact and enforce social distances guidelines. In Woolly’s Video Production Studio class, the equipment is such a focus point of the class that it had to be canceled.
“I decided to cancel (Video Production Studio) for a couple of reasons, one was just the uncertainty,” Woolly said. “Studio production class is 100% about hands-on experience. I didn't want to take a chance because if we were to lose the semester half-way through that class would be effectively over.”
For Woolly’s other classes, the level of difficulty of adapting the classes has varied. His Visual Media class — a class he picked up once his video production class was canceled — was easiest because of his experience with teaching an online version of the class during the summer. Even though his Advanced Multimedia Reporting class is much more hands-on than Visual Media, he was still able to use his online Visual Media class as a model for Advanced Multimedia Reporting. Digital Newsroom is his hardest class to adapt, as it is very hands-on and uses the same studio space Video Production used.
“It’s not quite as bad off as studio class because there are a lot of parts to Digital Newsroom that’s not just in the studio,” Woolly said.” Keeping in mind social distancing, it’s been a bit of a challenge to try to figure out how to still execute these news broadcasts, but I think I have a pretty good sense of it.”
All of Virginia Tech’s colleges and departments align their guidelines with the Executive Provost office recommended guidelines. Professors had to structure their classrooms around basic guidelines like holding online office hours, having all assignments on one platform, providing lecture notes to students in advance if possible and more. Virginia Tech also hosted course design clinics which were offered by the Center of Teaching Excellence and Technology Enhance Learning to help teachers.
Some colleges and departments, like the Arabic major, made adapting classes into an online format a collaborative process. Dr. Nadine Sinno, associate professor of Arabic and director of the Arabic program, and her colleagues collaborated by practicing their teaching through Zoom to each other and brainstorming solutions to problems they encountered.
“There was a lot of sharing going because we wanted to be on the same page, '' Sinno said. “If I go through something and it works, I think it’s my ethical responsibility to let my colleagues know. ”
For a lot of the professors, last spring’s surprise merger to online class acted as sort of a practice session for this fall semester. Throughout last semester, challenges like the lack of student engagement or figuring out the best way to give feedback were elements of the class that professors had to tackle before this semester.
“For Arabic, one of our issues is when you’re teaching elementary Arabic, you’re teaching people how to draw,” Sinno said. “The Zoom whiteboard … it doesn’t think of Arabic in mind. One of the things we had to think about was, ‘Okay, let's get a graphic designer’s drawing pad, so we’re able to use a stylus to write.’”
Cooper had to figure out how to develop a virtual lab and how to give students the help they need. Last semester, her students struggled with trying to get help with teaching assistants through Zoom.
“Students were having to hop back and forth between Zoom waiting rooms, it was a problem,” Cooper said. “There were some other issues in the spring that made it frustrating for the students to get help, so they just stopped trying to get help.”
Cooper is using Discourse this fall semester, which allows students to use a text queue and voice channels to ask for specific teaching assistants, share their screen and more.
The transition to online class also means that aspects of a traditional in-person class, like community building, will be missed.
“Normally, this is the first class that (sophomores) are in our department,” Cooper said. “There’s a lot of community building that happens. Of course, we’re losing that, so it’s going to be more of a challenge to build that community.”
However, a new format also means an opportunity to develop new skills that can’t be learned in the classroom.
“A lot of jobs now, your first interview is going to be a video conference, Skype or Zoom,” Sinno said. “You are expected to be able to use that technology effectively, so when you’re able to do it in a second language imagine how good you're going to be able to do it in your first language.”
Even though this semester is going to look a bit different, professors hope students look to them as an example of resilience and adaptability.
“I’m a child of the Lebanese Civil War … growing up my parents had to do a lot of homeschooling. We didn't even have the internet — that was not an option,” Sinno said. “That, for me, reminded me, ‘Listen, I know we’re all anxious. I'm scared, you're scared, but I'm here to tell you we’re going to get through this. You’re going to be the COVID generation in the sense that you’ve seen some really disturbing things, but it will help build character, resilience, flexibility, even if we don't see it.’”