The Shift to Online

May 06, 2020

On March 13, 2020, the university closed due to COVID-19. Starting March 14, the faculty were given two weeks, an extended spring break, to take an unprecedented action in shifting all their classes online to finish the rest of the semester.

With determination to navigate the unique circumstances, the students and faculty quickly learned Zoom, enabling students to complete their semester credit hours. We talked with a UT PGE senior and a faculty member, who is the head of the online learning committee, about the changes that were made, the challenges they faced, and the unexpected benefits.

UT PGE Student Darian Kane-Stolz

1/ What have you found are the best ways to learn online?
I have found that setting aside a specific time block for school each day has been the most helpful to learning online. When looking at the whole day, it is easy for me to push work to later. However, by blocking out two hours in the morning and in the afternoon for school, I give myself the structure I need to be productive.

2/ What have been the challenges in moving classes online?
The biggest challenge in moving online is that I must keep myself accountable. When attending class and spending time in the CPE lounge, I am surrounded by peers who are completing homework assignments or studying for exams. Now, with the lack of a physical space to associate with schoolwork, I find it easier to become distracted. The shift to online classes is continually teaching me how to self-motivate and keep on top of my assignments.

3/ With all the changes going on around you, what helps you to stay positive?
Spending time outside has been the most helpful in staying positive. I am so lucky to be in Austin right now, where the weather is beautiful. I try to work outside on my balcony as much as possible. I also have a weekly group call with my friends who live across the country, which is something that keeps me excited! Connecting with friends has been a huge help in staying positive during this time.

4/ When classes eventually resume on campus, is there anything from the virtual classroom that we should continue using?
I think the implementation of the “flipped classroom,” where students complete modules before attending class and use class time to work on assignments and ask questions, can be considered for more courses.

UT PGE Associate Professor John Foster

1/ As the head of the online learning committee, what was your vision for the transition to online classes?
I have been teaching “flipped” or reverse-classroom style courses for several years now. These types of courses require a lot of the same preparation and technology as a purely online course, so I have quite a bit of experience to share. I do not know that I had a specific vision for the transition, I just wanted to assist other faculty in getting up to speed with the tools that I have experience using. Several other faculty and I quickly put together a Wiki page to share tips and technology instructions. It includes several recorded tutorial videos on using Zoom. I certainly think that effective online instruction takes a lot more than just conducting your normal lectures over Zoom. There has been quite a lot of pedagogy developed for online instruction over the last decade from sources like edX, Coursera, Khan Academy, and others. These pedagogies take some effort to implement, so it was unreasonable to believe we could do something similar with only a week or two of preparation. However, my hope is that with all the new faculty being forced to teach online, it will inspire even more creative pedagogies that we can test out to find the most effective experience for student learning.

2/ What specific changes have you made to your classes?
Since my classes are already “flipped classrooms,” in-class time is spent working example problems, assignments, and answering questions. With that being the case, the transition was fairly straightforward for my classes. The pre-recorded lectures are still assigned as homework and we now conduct the in-class sessions via Zoom. The platform has some great technology features that makes it pretty effective for the types of courses I teach. For example, I assign a lot of programming/coding assignments. In Zoom, I can ask the student to share their screen with me and then I can request remote control, which allows me to edit their code from afar. This can be done in the main session where everyone can see, which usually generates useful teaching moments that others can learn from, or I can take that student into a private “breakout room” and answer the question one-on-one. I recently did this with a student who has returned home to South Korea, and it worked amazingly well!

3/ What unexpected benefits have you seen in the shift to online?
One new thing I did was create a dedicated Slack workspace for each of my classes. As a powerful chat application that I constantly monitor throughout the day, the students can reach me quickly and informally for questions. Additionally, I create individual Slack channels for each assignment where the students can ask (and respond to) general questions about the assignments. This has been pretty effective, and I believe I will continue this practice even once we return to campus.

4/ What has been your strategy for continuing to engage students virtually?
For one, I ask them to keep their cameras on in the Zoom session. At least this way I can see some non-verbal feedback as I discuss topics. In some sessions, I have experimented with using “polling” to perform knowledge assessments, gauge the pace, etc. and it seems useful. I think more frequent (but shorter) communications and assignments are also useful to gain feedback on the effectiveness of instruction. Finally, I take a few minutes in each session to speak informally with the students to let them know I care about their personal well-being and mental health, in addition to their learning.

5/ What excites you most about going back to campus?
Everything except the commute.