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University Professors Looking Ahead to Future Challenges of Online Learning


Today we continue our blog series examining the unexpected transition to remote learning that many university professors have made in the wake of COVID-19. In this blog, we focus on how professors must adapt their online instruction styles to the needs of their students.

For Evan Larson, an Associate Professor of Geography at University of Wisconsin, Platteville, the challenge of accommodating the varying needs of students from different socio-economic backgrounds involved being sensitive not just to limited resources but also to personal time constraints.

"When students returned home to the farm, they had less time to work on their courses than they would have had in the dorm," said Larson. "I had to structure my online classes so that students could work on projects with the time they had rather than on my schedule."

Larson explained the Platteville campus serves students coming from rural areas of Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. During the lockdown at home, those who came from farms were expected to resume their normal chores, many of which vary from day to day given local weather conditions. This often meant they had to carve out time for the online school projects whenever they could.

Aside from realizing he had to build flexibility into project schedules, Larson found the next biggest challenge was the availability of computers and high-speed Internet for some students at home. His classes rely on Golden Software's Grapher software to plot data collected in the field for the study of tree growth and its relationship to temperatures. Historically, the Grapher application had been loaded on four computers in the on-campus lab for use by the students.

"The department paid for Grapher student licenses for them to load the software onto their own computers," said Larson, but not all students had Windows personal computers. He arranged for students to work in teams on Zoom chats making sure there was at least one computer with Grapher for each team.

Speaking about software licensing in general, Larson suggested developers price their products with rural students in mind, perhaps even offering tiered pricing structures based on the size of their hometown.

Offering a final insight into lessons learned during the COVID-19 lockdown, Larson noted there was a collective spirit of collaboration during the spring semester because everyone realized the situation was not anticipated. But come fall, if campuses are still closed, students will be less forgiving of glitches in online learning, Larson predicted. Professors and administrators must invest significant time to ensure students have easy access to university computer resources.

For Dr. Mohamed Ahmed in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, the new instruction strategy can be summed up in two words: Record everything. Fortunately, the Corpus Christi campus is facilitating this strategy by making video equipment readily available to all professors.

Compared to many other universities, Texas A&M Corpus Christi was already ahead of the curve when it came to online teaching. When Dr. Ahmed first set foot on campus, he was offered training from the school to learn how to prepare online courses. The university even requires instructors to submit their recorded classes for review before they can be presented to students.

Ahmed gained experience offering his Geophysics classes online in both live and recorded formats. Once the COVID-19 lockdown hit, he made it a habit of recording the live classes for those students who couldn't watch them as he presented them but could view the replay later. As has been true for many instructors, field courses proved the most challenging because the students weren't on campus to learn how to use the geophysical equipment.

"I went into the field with a grad student (Teaching Assistant) and made detailed [video] recordings of the geophysical data acquisition process," said Ahmed, explaining how he quickly adapted to the COVID-19 situation.

Normally, his students would have ventured into the field themselves and returned from with geophysical data sets. They then would have logged onto the university computer system to map, plot and visualize their geophysical measurements in Surfer.

However, Ahmed found that during the lockdown it was preferable for the students to download Surfer to their laptop computers and run the software there rather than compete for time on the university system. This was made possible through a special student licensing deal Golden Software made available during the quarantine.

Ahmed sees COVID-19 might change other aspects of his graduate students' activities into the near future. With field work limited, graduate students might start to focus on polishing other skills such as writing, computer modeling, and literature review studies – which can be performed without field work. Ahmed and other professors see this phenomenon and are shifting their lessons to take this trend into account.


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Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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