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W&M approaches online learning with positivity and ingenuity

  • Quick shift:
    Quick shift:  The transition to remote learning at William & Mary has been challenging for everyone involved, but faculty and students are practicing patience and using the many resources available to them to help make the pivot easier.  by Stephen Salpukas
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With all in-person classes suspended for the rest of the semester due to COVID-19, William & Mary faculty and students have shifted quickly to online learning. 

The early returns are encouraging.  

Speaking during a virtual community conversation March 27, W&M President Katherine Rowe commended everyone for tackling the university’s new reality with such positivity and ingenuity. 

“We’ve shifted to remote learning for the remainder of the semester, and it’s a testament to the resilience of our students and our faculty and the support of our new Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation that this is going well,” Rowe said. 

The transition to remote learning has been challenging for everyone involved, but faculty and students are practicing patience and using the many resources available to them to help make this pivot easier. 

“It's definitely difficult, finding both a routine and a sense of normalcy in these weird times,” said Will Curtis ’20. “I've been encouraged by professors both acting and treating us like people, as they acknowledge how much this hits them and how they can try to help us. It'll be a weird semester, but we'll get through it together.” 

That attitude of understanding and collaboration has already paid dividends, as professors examine best practices for online instruction and students consider new habits for learning, all the while considering the unique challenges that everybody is facing. 

All of this is being done while working around distractions at home and dealing with fears surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“The professors have been absolutely amazing with accommodating the students,” said Jonah Finkel ’20. “All of my professors have expressed that the No. 1 priority to them is our health and well-being.” 

The Studio for Teaching & Learning, W&M Libraries and Information Technology have worked in concert to help ease the transition for faculty and students in a very small window of time. 

“The amount of innovation going on in such a short period of time is amazing,” said John Swaddle, chair of the biology department. “Hats off to the Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation and to IT for taking a whole bunch of faculty who weren’t necessarily using as much technology to being able to teach remotely and online. And then the faculty themselves have really been reimagining all of their classes, which is truly amazing.” 

Video conferencing eases transition

The rise in use of online video conferencing interface Zoom has helped facilitate better communication. 

Jeremy Pope, associate professor of history and faculty affiliate in classical studies, uses Zoom for his seminar course, and for his lecture course he has alternated between Zoom for short discussions and another program, Panopto, that makes it easier for him to share PowerPoint presentations. 

“It was a surprise to me to discover that it was easier to transition my seminar course online than it was for my lecture course,” Pope said. “Small-group discussions work reasonably well in Zoom.” 

Charlie Foster, W&M’s director of student veteran engagement, is using Zoom to conduct twice-weekly office hours. He also is using Zoom to schedule one-on-one sessions with students. 

Faculty members like Pope and Foster are finding ways to be flexible while also periodically connecting with students via Zoom or other video platforms.  

“I’ve been really lucky to have very understanding professors who know that this transition is difficult and who are adaptive with the ways that we learn online,” said Student Assembly President Kelsey Vita ’20. “I’m in a class where we have both synchronous class on Zoom, and we have the lessons we sort of do on our own, and we come back together as a class, and that’s really been wonderful to have that space and also that togetherness.” 

Adaptability has been the key to this transition for William & Mary faculty and students.  

“Faculty and instructors have been amazingly responsive and focused on creating the best learning experience possible for their students,” said Mark Hofer, director of the Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation. “They are considering options, weighing students’ potential challenges and limitations in learning remotely and trying to find approaches that fit the content and goals for their courses.”  

Studio helps faculty adapt

The Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation has offered an assortment of resources to help faculty members throughout the transition to remote teaching and learning, from daily webinars, drop-in sessions and new tutorials. Faculty members are able to ask questions in real time while facilitators walk through software, and STLI team members and library representatives are available for individual support. 

Since classes resumed March 23, the STLI has provided daily updates and resources, such as new tutorials and guides to help instructors. The STLI also has a group called the “Keep Teaching Team” dedicated to fielding questions and responding to issues faculty may be experiencing. 

“The grace and fortitude with which the faculty are approaching this transition is amazing,” said Katalin Wargo, instructional design manager at the STLI. “I speak to faculty daily who are striving to learn as much as they can about ways to adapt their instruction for remote learning. They are not backing away from this challenge.” 

The STLI is working with various W&M departments, including the libraries and Information Technology, that are dedicated to exploring innovative ideas that support faculty during this remote learning initiative. 

By working together, the university has become more aware of the needs for both faculty and students alike.  

“The best part of this transition is seeing our faculty and staff work together in support of this new reality,” said Dean of University Libraries Carrie L. Cooper. “I’m especially proud and honored to be working alongside talented colleagues in IT and the Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation. We’ve been preparing for this for several years, though we didn’t know it until recently.” 

William & Mary is also developing low-tech options and strategies for instruction and learning. 

“Hosting a real time Zoom lecture is a great way to keep students engaged, but the instructor needs to make that same content available to students with poor connectivity,” said Mike Blum, program manager at the STLI. “We can help with those things as well.” 

Libraries provide abundant resources

The libraries are unable to distribute hard copy materials during this time of social distancing, but they are able to remotely connect students and faculty with numerous online databases and resources. 

The online programs offered by the STLI include IT and the Library co-educators; these programs are evidence of the collaboration and preferred mode to work across organizational boundaries to support teaching and learning.  

Cooper said the libraries spend 90 percent of their budgets on electronic content, including online books and subscriptions to databases. Those resources have expanded exponentially during this time, as many textbook publishers have made their entire catalogs of online books available free on a trial basis. 

The libraries have also signed up for trial subscriptions to 10 new databases, such as the Harvard Business Review’s Press Collection and Academic Video Online, which has more than 60,000 titles of videos in all disciplines.  

“The whole world is rallying to help,” Cooper said. “Our job has shifted to making sure that all those resources that are now unleashed are visible to our patrons and to our community.” 

Not only are the libraries remotely filling requests by the W&M community, they’re also loaning materials to others in higher education throughout the country. 

“Librarians have always been skilled at matching people with the information they need,” Cooper said. “The goal is the same, but the work looks different. COVID-19 has pushed our local collections to center stage, and librarians are using their super searching skills to find open educational resources and new subscription content to meet the needs of our community. Library staff are key partners in this new mode of working and supporting teaching and learning.”