The COVID-19 lockdowns came so swiftly that university instructors and students had little time to prepare for dramatic changes in the way they teach and learn. As campuses worldwide switched to virtual instruction in March 2020, many professors focused on presenting course materials remotely while accommodating the wide variety of technological capabilities available to students in their places of quarantine.
Now with Fall semester classes possibly remaining virtual at many colleges – and online learning gaining steam overall – professors are taking a long view of the changes that have hit academia and viewing them as an opportunity to innovate. They are investigating technologies and techniques that will enable them to present nearly any course online and reach all their students equally.
Golden Software reached out to several professors and asked how they were dealing with the current COVID-19 situation. We offer their insights in this blog and others to come.
"[From the outset of the lockdown,] we had two options – teach through live synchronous communication or with recorded asynchronous classes," said Kris Voss, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Regis University in Denver.
Many professors opted for recorded lectures and assignments early on because so many of their students were in flux, literally clearing out their dorm rooms and traveling long distances back home, in many instances. For them, Voss explained, tuning into a Zoom lecture at a specific time wasn't possible.
The other variable that instructors had to take into account was their class format. Straight lectures can easily be recorded and watched at the student's leisure. But for discussion-based classes like the ones Voss teaches, a live interactive platform such as Zoom is the better alternative right now. But even with Zoom, not all students have a consistent experience at home.
"We can't assume that everyone has equal access to high speed internet," said Jonathan Fowler, Associate Professor of Archaeology at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, adding that instructors also need to be aware of students' laptop capacities – or whether they have computers at all.
When the quarantine occurred, Fowler was in the midst of planning a new field course for the spring semester called Archaeological Remote Sensing. The curriculum called for his students to perform geophysical surveys of a centuries-old cemetery in Halifax with ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electromagnetic induction. Then he planned to teach them to map and visualize the results in Golden Software's Surfer package, which he has used in many archaeological projects.
Whether Fall classes resume virtually or not, Fowler still hopes to teach the course. He is investigating how students can install Surfer onto their personal computers and whether they will be able to receive and load large geophysical data files he sends to them. For sciences to be taught remotely, software developers may have to modify their licensing agreements and the software packages themselves to run on student computers.
"We need to find ways to make software available to support teaching and learning until we regain access to campus," he noted.
Having observed how some students thrive in field courses but perform less well in traditional classroom settings, and vice versa, Fowler predicts online learning will see the same across-the-spectrum reactions among students. Some will do well; others will not. And professors need to be ready to deal with this.
"It won't be everyone's cup of tea," he said. "There is something important about human interaction. We have to give thought to how we can humanize the online space."