Zoomin’ into Online Classes: How U Professors Are Handling the Transition
April 15, 2020
With the University of Utah’s switch to online classes just beginning on Mar. 18, 2020, some students and professors are still figuring out how this all works.
U professors were told about the official switch during spring break, and a few have said that they felt they were given ample time to prepare. There were also training sessions offered by Teaching & Learning Technologies to help professors transition their classes online.
There were only training sessions for Canvas though, so professors who already had experience with Canvas and needed help with Zoom did not find the training helpful.
“The trainings were kind of spotty, and they didn’t work for me. They didn’t have training on Zoom, which is what I decided to use. I had also already used Canvas so I didn’t need training on that, although I’m going to have to go back and get up to speed on a couple of these functions, like how you can do a test or quiz on Canvas,” said communications professor Julia Corbett.
While some professors did not find the actual training sessions to be helpful, many professors have expressed gratitude for the help offered by TLT.
“The transition went pretty smoothly for us and now we are just trying to keep it running! The people at TLT were very helpful and we were already pretty integrated with Canvas. It was all surprisingly easy; I seriously doubt that we’ll ever fully go back,” said biochemistry professor Tim Formosa in an email interview.
However, professors were not able to get adequate access to Canvas resources before the official announcement was made.
One professor heard about the switch to online classes from a colleague in the biology department, prior to the official announcement.
“There was a lot of confusion and pandemonium for students and also faculty. And they [biology professor] went to the Canvas people on campus and said ‘Can we get a jump on this and get started?’, and they said ‘No we are not allowed to release any training for any of these materials until it’s been officially announced.’ I can’t imagine what it would be like if you were in a class that had no Canvas component at all,” said philosophy professor Stephen Downes.
Even if a professor has used Canvas to supplement their in-person classes, it is different than actually conducting learning through Canvas.
“I use Canvas for my courses, but to post notes, assignments, exams, questions, etc. But this is a different ballgame to figure out how to use Canvas for online teaching. There were a bunch of utilities that I had never used before so it is a learning experience,” said economics professor Cihan Bilginsoy.
In addition to professors who have not used Canvas frequently, there are a few who have had to learn how to use Zoom in order to continue the discussion or lecture components of their class.
“I really wanted to use Zoom because it’s a good teleconferencing feature where everyone can be seen on the screen and everybody can talk. There were no trainings except there’s a couple online on the Zoom website. What I did, which was much more effective, I just called and had a practice Zoom session with my sister in Minnesota. And then the students figured out some features,” Corbett said.
While Zoom enables professors to meet virtually with their students, it is not the same as in-class discussions.
“It’s not the same. I miss these guys. The atmosphere that they had created in the class was so wonderful and powerful. I am really glad we could do that before we went online. It’s awkward, you step on somebody else’s sentence. It’s not the same, but given the circumstances, I’ll take it,” Corbett said.
English professor Craig Dworkin stated that this transition is difficult because his teaching style is not just about delivering content.
“For an analogy: you could teach someone the rules of basketball on-line, and have them learn from watching videos of games, and show them what drills to do and email their workout schedule. But you can’t hold a scrimmage,” Dworkin said in an email to the Chronicle.
Other professors opt to use Canvas over Zoom because they are not able to conduct lectures as they normally would through Zoom. Zoom requires students to log on at a specific time, and due to the changing circumstances, some professors have decided that is not feasible anymore.
“Many of our students have part-time or sometimes full-time jobs, or they have to take care of kids, and now that schools are closed, they have kids to be taking care of at home. Consequently, they have many other responsibilities, in addition to doing their coursework. That is why I can not expect all of my students to be available on Mondays and Wednesdays at 1:25 when my regular course starts. Therefore I can not give my lecture on Zoom. What I was recommended to do was to have ten-minute lectures, and post them so students can watch them whenever they can,” Bilginsoy said.
Professors have actually been encouraged by the U to stop all synchronous lectures, lectures where students are required to complete work or attend a video conference during the regular time of their class.
“The main thing that I’m doing which has been strongly encouraged by the university, and I was going to do anyway, I stopped all synchronous class meetings, so students aren’t required to show up at a certain time. It’s just too much of a demand on folks whose lives have changed drastically. One of my students went from restaurant work, which ended, to warehouse work; that means they are not free any time of the day,” Downes said.
In addition to the U’s recent announcement that students can change any letter grade class to a credit/no-credit class, many professors have acknowledged these tumultuous circumstances and have changed their own policies to lessen some of the stress and pressure placed on students at this confusing time.
“So my idea is that if work is coming in that would make the person do better in a normal semester, they’re going to be doing better. But if they crash and burn, I’m going to make it the case that their grade before this happened is sustained,” said a professor who would like to remain anonymous.
Along with changing grading policies, some professors have changed specific assignments to accommodate this stressful situation.
“There was supposed to be a class project in one of my courses and I canceled that. That required group work and I can not expect students to work together. I am going to remove some chapters and lighten the course load. I realize what a quandary all the students are in, and therefore the expectations are going to change, and they should change. It is not a good idea to put pressure on students when all their lives have been turned upside down,” Bilginsoy said.
In addition to supporting students, a few professors noted the strong support system between professors and the entire U community.
“One thing I’ve been really impressed with on all sides of this — the university, the students and my fellow professors — everyone is doing their best to make this work. I have seen a lot of people being supportive and giving other people grace. I’m really proud to be part of this community where people are supporting each other and not trying to make things harder than they already are,” said communications professor Robin Jensen.
Along with the optional training sessions offered by TLT, there were some opportunities for professors to communicate as a way to share ideas and help one another during this transition.
“We’ve had a bunch of Zoom meetings and Slack meetings to kind of helping each other out with the changeover because some of us have a lot of experience with the online stuff. Others have less experience using Canvas. In our department, I think most people wanted to not burden the TLT folks and make use of resources in the department,” Downes said.
When asked about the potential benefits of the online format, few professors noticed any. However, some did acknowledge the new skills they have developed due to this transition process.
“I’ve never done a lecture and posted it like this, so now I have that experience, and if I needed to, I know I could —getting a sense of putting an exam online so that people can take it and seeing that can work. Certainly, I feel like I have more experience teaching at a distance than I did — I don’t think I would employ those things unless I was to teach an online class in the future. I can put the lectures up as quickly as I can get them out there, and then the students have more leeway in terms of when they watch them and how they engage with them,” Jensen said.
Some professors have recognized the usefulness of different video techniques.
“I am definitely going to get trained up properly in how to produce youtube-style videos where the people can talk over the content. I teach a lot of math-type classes and these would be super handy supplemental things for these classes. I’m much more conscious of looking for YouTube content that does a good job with one of the concepts we are dealing with,” Downes said.
For the most part, professors are trying to remain calm and hopeful so they can make this transition easy on themselves and their students.
“So just trying to really meet people where they’re at and help all of us get through this in a way that is still fostering some kind of learning, that’s my goal. There is always good. There is good in this situation. I hope that students know that professors and everyone at the university is really wanting them to succeed and make it through,” Jensen said.