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COVID-19: Chemistry, computer science faculty join Osher Institute’s pivot to online classes

  • Osher Institute instructor Bill Riffer teaches his course  in an empty classroom
    Lifelong learning goes on:  Osher Institute instructor Bill Riffer teaches his course titled The Great Patriotic War: 1941-1945 to more than 170 students from a classroom that’s empty. William & Mary’s Osher Institute is pivoting to online courses in the time of social distancing.  Photo by Scherry Barra
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The staff at William & Mary’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute found themselves in a bit of a quandary as guidelines for social isolation were announced during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Scherry Barra, director of the Osher Institute at W&M, realized that there was significant overlap in the demographics of her student body and the most vulnerable population during the outbreak.

The Osher Institute at William & Mary each year offers a slate of hundreds of courses, one-time lectures and a Town and Gown Noon series to some 1,500 Williamsburg-area residents, largely retirees. It started in Jan 1991 as the Christopher Wren Association. Barra noted that the Christopher Wren Association was the brainchild of the late Wayne and Ruth Kernodle, faculty at William & Mary and Christopher Newport University, respectively.

In July 2018, the Christopher Wren Association changed its name, as it was accepted by the Bernard Osher Foundation; the Osher Institute also became an official unit of William & Mary under Auxiliary Services. Barra noted that the university provides office and class room space, but otherwise the Osher Institute remains self-supporting, just as the Christopher Wren Association was.

Lifelong learning courses in past years have been held in a variety of classrooms across the William & Mary campus. Barra saw that the standard operating procedure of getting large groups of senior citizens together would not be wise during times of closings and recommendations about social isolation.

“When the university announced the William & Mary students would be taking their courses online, I reached out to one of our excellent longtime volunteer Osher instructors, Bill Riffer, to see if he would be willing to be a ‘guinea pig’ to try a Zoom course,” she said.

Riffer was game to give it a try. Osher staff also became guinea pigs, Zooming in to the institute’s classroom at William & Mary’s Discovery campus. “It all seemed to work rather well,” Barra said.

The Osher staff notified their students that Riffer’s course, The Great Patriotic War: 1941-1945, would be offered online, beginning March 23. They were able to accept 300 registrants.

“Within a few days, there were 217 members enrolled,” Barra said. She added that 173 students were actually logged in during the first hour of Riffer’s Zoom course.

A number of William & Mary faculty teach Osher courses and at least two of them, Dana Lashley and Dana Willner, told Barra they also were game to teach their planned classes remotely as well.

“So,” Barra said. “We are finding ourselves in the Zoom business!”

Willner and Lashley bring online teaching experience to the Osher Zoom initiative. Willner is a lecturer in William & Mary’s Department of Computer Science. She will be teaching What Do These Results Mean? Understanding Clinical Diagnostic Tests. It’s the second part of a course that started in the fall. She taught the first part in a classroom in Small Hall on the William & Mary campus. Part II will be offered from Willner’s kitchen, through Zoom. She doesn’t expect the content or the presentation to suffer.

“I'm hoping it can be interactive,” Willner said. “That's been my experience with online teaching. If you can do things synchronously, and people can chime in and ask questions, it's a much more rewarding experience for everybody.”

Lashley is a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry. She is teaching a COLL 400 capstone course, Scientific and Social Aspects of Drug Discovery and Drug Development to a group of William & Mary seniors. Her Ph.D. concentration was antiviral drug development.

“My virus of expertise is the Ebola virus, so I usually hold a lecture all about Ebola,” she said. “I will adapt that lecture to the virus of our present interest. But the COVID-19 virus and the Ebola virus do have a lot in common as far as how they replicate. A drug aimed initially at Ebola is currently being tested in clinical trials for this coronavirus.”

She incorporated her W&M students into her Osher course — also titled Scientific and Social Aspects of Drug Discovery and Drug Development — and she intends to do likewise for the spring Zoom version.

“We did this last year and it went really well,” Lashley said. “I presented half the class and the students presented half the class. They taught various topics in medicine and drug development and the Osher audience really enjoyed those; those are topics that are really important to them.”

Both Lashley and Willner say they will make their presentations topical by including discussions related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Willner said she will pick up on some of the fall session’s discussion of influenza testing.

“I want to talk about discovery,” she said, “how DNA sequencing enables discovery. How did they know that this was a novel coronavirus? A lot of that knowledge comes out of sequencing.”

Willner added that she will incorporate discussion about the variability in diagnostic tests. “What’s the test really testing for?” she asked. “There is always some probability that the test result can be wrong. Depending on the type of test, that probability can be a lot larger or a lot smaller.”

Lashley said she will begin her course with a segment on medicines used by the ancients. She said the content will move along from crushed plants found to be therapeutic to the scientific understanding necessary to extract the active ingredient from the plants.

“So there'll be a lecture where I talk about what is a virus? What are some of the different types of viruses, how do we treat them? Why can't we treat them with antibiotics? ,” Lashley said. “And I want to talk about what is being done right now to treat the coronavirus — and why there is no vaccine for coronaviruses yet. There's a good reason.”

Willner and Lashley both say they’ve enjoyed teaching the Osher classes and both instructors cited the high quality and quantity of questions that come from the lifelong learning students.

“They ask great questions,” Lashley said. “And they like to ask their questions right away. So they ask me questions, and I don’t mind if they interrupt me — that’s fine. With Zoom, I am slightly anxious to see how it will work.”

“I’m very fortunate because one of the classes I teach in person at William & Mary, I have taught online twice,” Willner said. “I went through the whole process that the Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation offers to transition your course online.”

She said she also will draw on the reactions from her first Osher section, during which she noticed that a number of her students liked her PowerPoint slides. She has taught undergraduate courses at William & Mary with content ranging from introductory computer science to bioinformatics.

Like Lashley, Willner said she enjoys the questions from Osher students and compares them to those she gets from the undergrads in her classes.

“In Osher, everyone is there because they’re interested,” she said. “I’m asked questions that I had to go back and look up the answer and come back next time.”