Faculty members prepare for challenges of teaching from a distance

by Chuck Gordon

The spread of COVID-19 has forced Wingate University to send students home and move to a digital learning environment. In the stiff-upper-lip spirit of One Dog, professors are gamely taking their classes online, starting Monday.

Wingate does not offer many online courses normally, so few professors can easily turn around and offer instruction online. The University gave students a “second spring break” last week so faculty members would have time to convert their lessons to a digital environment. Wingate’s IT department has provided a spreadsheet filled with resources, tips and live training opportunities to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Professors are making use of a variety of platforms as they get ready to enter the remote-learning world: the online-meeting platform Zoom; a software program called Canvas that is already widely used among educators; prerecorded lectures; and good, old-fashioned email.

One helpful fact: Having grown up with multiple screens available to them, the students are undoubtedly more prepared for this than their professors are. So at least this isn’t a brave new world for all involved.

“We’re talking about a generation of students that are in their early to mid-twenties,” says Dr. Tyler Shultz, assistant professor of physical therapy. “Learning online to them is second nature. Teaching online to us is not. If they’re patient with us, I think we can provide a really good course for them, because they’ll consume that information just fine.”

Dr. Barry Cuffe, Donald B. Haskins professor of analytics, is skeptical of online education, but knowing that the move was inevitable, if temporary, he took the plunge last week. Not wanting his students to get behind, he went ahead and began conducting his statistics classes via the “conference” function in Canvas.

“I’m diving in face first,” says Cuffe, who doesn’t even own a cellphone. “If I break my nose, I break my nose. I’m going after this.”

There were a few hiccups, including one time when Cuffe couldn’t figure out why no one had shown up for his class. It turns out that he was inadvertently trying to teach the group of students who had just left his previous class. The second class was patient with him, even though class started 15 minutes late. “To their credit, almost all of them stayed,” he says.

The transition won’t necessarily be seamless, Cuffe says. “But I think we can make it,” he says. “I think we can make a go of this, with the faculty we have.”

Unique obstacles

The challenges faculty members will face as they start teaching remotely are varied, and many are specific to the subject matter.

Dr. Jordan Wilson, assistant professor of music, teaches primarily one-on-one voice classes. He anticipates finding it difficult to adequately judge students’ voices through tinny speakers and to gauge their posture via video feed. And, because of the lag time inherent in internet transmission, he won’t be able to accompany his students on the piano.

“The advice that a lot of professionals give is that students should have a second device on which they can play accompaniment tracks,” he says. “But many of my students do not have a second device. Figuring out a way for them to actually be able to practice with the piano part of their songs, which is of course really integral to things, that’s going to be an interesting challenge.”

Physical therapy is another field where distance learning is far from optimal. Shultz has spent the past few days reconfiguring a course, Physical Therapy and Prosthetics, that he spent eight weeks organizing.

“There’s a lot of scheduling and moving parts that started back in January, and now that this has moved entirely online, I’ve had to completely pivot over the course of four or five days,” he says. “If I knew that this course was going to be online, I would have planned completely differently.”

Shultz had planned a field trip to a prosthetics manufacturing plant. He’d also scheduled visits from experts in the field, including one from a designer of prosthetics who would bring in prosthetic limbs that able-bodied students could wear.

“That learning is so rich to be able to put one on and feel what it’s like to be an amputee, even if it’s just for a few steps, and be able to pick one up and realize how light it is or how heavy it is, how strong or how weak it is,” Shultz says. “You know, those types of tactile things all go out the window. You can watch the videos on YouTube, but it’s not the same.”

Shultz has used Zoom before to record lectures, so he naturally gravitated to that platform. He spent considerable time last week helping other physical-therapy professors get the hang of using Zoom.

“One of the nice things about Zoom is you can do breakout rooms,” Shultz says. “I can split them into equal groups online and then give them a case to work through, and then I can drop into each group and answer any questions or clarify anything.”

If there’s one field where hands-on lab work is important it’s chemistry. For safety and resource reasons, obviously students can’t do experiments on their own at home. But Dr. Chris Dahm, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Physics, says they’re figuring it out over in the Smith Science Building.

“The lab portion is going to be challenging,” he says. “At some level, we won’t replicate that experience. But I think we are going to try and video someone doing some of the labs and then send the students the data. That way they can do the calculations.”

In these uncertain times, Wingate faculty members understand that online instruction is better than no instruction.

“It’s never as good as it is in person,” Wilson says, “but you know, right now ‘suboptimal’ is the world we’re living in.”

Cuffe should serve as proof that distance learning can work, in a pinch. “I’m a poster child for old people can learn new tricks, I guess,” he says. “But I can’t wait for the day when I can go back to being in a classroom. I like to look into their eyes and talk with them one-on-one.”

March 22, 2020