In our first blog discussing the challenges facing university professors as they switched on short notice to online learning, we examined experiences of instructors who had little or no background in virtual teaching. Today, we change gears and describe how two college professors already active in remote instruction handled the COVID-19 situation and the tweaks they are making as the fall semester approaches.
One professor who routinely instructs his students in the use of Golden's Grapher software is Professor Gerald Bourne, the Assistant Head of the George S. Ansell Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Prof. Bourne's experience with the COVID-19 transition during the spring semester was relatively easy because he began preparing some lectures and instructions on video for his students five years ago.
"I was giving the same lab lecture and answering the same questions five days a week…so I created some how-to videos, and the student just gobbled them up," said Bourne.
By the time COVID-19 struck, he had made several videos and uploaded them to the Canvas learning management platform for students to review on their own before coming to class or the lab. The results have been great, he said. For a coming summer session, which will be entirely online, Bourne plans to have students watch a Grapher tutorial video created by Golden Software in preparation for their analysis work.
Bourne explained, however, that his metallurgy lab students got lucky with the timing of the spring lockdown. He had already given them the hands-on demonstrations of the equipment in the lab by the time the virus hit. With the in-person training under their belts, he sent them data sets to analyze on their home computers, confident they understood the entire materials analysis process.
But he fears fall semester could be a different story if no in-person classes are allowed. Lab classes like his will be extremely difficult to conduct only online.
"At some point, the students need to come into the lab to get hands-on experience [with the machinery]," said Bourne.
But in case campus is closed for the entire semester and all courses are online, he is working on a contingency plan to make sure his students gain the critical skills that only come from working on the laboratory equipment and materials with their own hands. Bourne – along with lab professors everywhere – are working out the details to make this possible.
For Dr. Gary Robbins at the University of Connecticut, the COVID-19 challenge has been similar, except he has been faced with trying to teach his students hands-on field methods like drilling wells, collecting water samples, and doing hydrologic testing – without going into the field. His students traditionally use Surfer to create ground water contour maps.
Robbins, a professor of Geosciences and Natural Resources, began developing highly detailed videos showing water resources professionals how to perform a variety of critical tasks in the field, especially related to the proper collection of ground water samples and conducting hydrologic tests. Having become so proficient at creating videos, he routinely provided his students with YouTube links to view in preparation for class assignments even before COVID-19.
Rather than rely solely on video, Robbins preferred to conduct his spring online quarantine classes live using a platform called Blackboard. Videos were still offered to students, along with reading links, to review before the live lectures. One thing he found difficult was to determine if the online students were staying engaged through an hour lecture, so he peppers them with questions during the class and then usually gives quizzes at the end of each one to make sure students were paying attention. These scores figure into their final grades.
For a graduate-level field methods class during the lockdown, he showed the students videos of how to collect water samples and make water level measurements from test wells. Then he emailed the students data sets of hypothetical measurements to analyze and create contour maps of ground water levels in the well field.
But he has a clever change in mind for the fall semester – in the event all classes are online or some students prefer not to travel into the field. Robbins is shooting new interactive videos of himself collecting water samples and conducting well testing. To make the videos interactive, students will be recording measurements as they watch Robbins makes them in the field new videos. The students will also have to answer questions he will pose in the videos regarding measurement errors and interpreting results.
"I also plan to make videos of myself using the Surfer software to show students how the mapping is done." said Robbins.